BERLIN — Ulli Köppe didn’t realize he would change history with a simple question this week to German Chancellor Angela Merkel: Why can’t he marry the man he loves?
Her answer at a public forum surprised everyone: He can.
Merkel’s about-face after years of opposing same-sex marriage freed members of her conservative Christian Democrats party to vote their “conscience” instead of toeing the party’s hard-line stance on the issue.
“It’s a personal matter,” she said.
As a result, the German parliament voted Friday to legalize gay marriage, joining many other western European nations and the United States, where same-sex couples enjoy marital recognition and rights.
The move could spur other European countries to follow suit.
“We’ve been together almost 12 years — I love him and we’ve often discussed the topic of marriage,” Köppe, 28, told USA TODAY. “I want to be able to go somewhere and say: ‘I’m Ulli and this is my husband.'”
The gay marriage bill, a last-minute addition in parliament’s last session before the summer break, was backed by almost every party in the lower house.
Germany currently recognizes civil partnerships for same-sex couples, which guarantees most of the benefits as married heterosexual couples.
While same-sex couples have the right to inherit and adopt their partners’ children, so far they have not been able to adopt outright, or have the tax benefits afforded married couples.
“This is really a decision about whether gays can adopt. Everything else is already settled,” said Jörg Borowsky, 51, a retiree from Berlin who was previously in a civil partnership.
“I still think that we should have the same standards,” he added. “Even though I was in a partnership and everything was virtually the same on paper, it still wasn’t considered marriage.”
Visitors from neighboring European countries also expressed hope that Germany’s action could ripple through other parts of the continent yet to legalize same-sex marriage.
“I’m extremely excited for the vote,” said Yves Wullichleger, 36, a caregiver from Switzerland visiting Berlin. He wants to be able to marry his partner of four years in his native Switzerland, where the rules on same-sex unions are almost identical to those currently in Germany.
“Sometimes I feel discriminated against purely based on my partnership status,” he said.
Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and their Bavarian allies, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have long opposed to gay marriage: Their platform centers on “family values,” and same-sex marriage was a red line for the party’s conservative wing. Resistance persists despite Merkel’s change of view.
“Germany has other problems,” Peter Ramsauer, a member of the CSU, told the German daily Rheinische Post. “The (party) leadership should be wary of destroying the last of the conservative values.”
Germany holds national elections in September, and legalizing same-sex marriage could benefit Merkel and those running for parliament. Two-thirds of Germans support marriage for all, according to a YouGov poll in May.
Skeptics say Merkel is trying to attract younger, more liberal voters to her party, which is dominated by older Germans and Catholics.
But Merkel said she was inspired by a lesbian couple who approached her some time ago in her home district. They encouraged her to visit them — and their eight foster children — so she could see how well they are doing.
Merkel said her resistance to same-sex unions had been focused on the adoption of children.
“I had a life-changing experience in my constituency,” Merkel told Monday’s forum, held by Brigitte, the largest women’s magazine in Germany. “When the state gives a same-sex couple children to look after, then I can no longer argue on the basis of child welfare.”
The couple, Gundula and Christine Zilm, said they were amazed they had influenced Merkel.
“We’re happy to know that this decision might be because of us. It’s great to know she remembered us,” Christine Zilm, told the Ostsee-Zeitung daily.
She said the couple will marry if it becomes legal, and “Angela Merkel will get an invitation to the wedding.”
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