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In Netherlands, gay marriage becomes routine

AMSTERDAM -- Dolf Pasker and Gert Kasteel are like any other married couple two years on, settling into the mundane routine of daily life together. They finish each other's sentences. They laugh at each other's jokes. When one goes to make the coffee, the other playfully teases about whose job it is to work in the kitchen. The only thing that makes their marriage unusual is they are both men.

While the United States fiercely debates the issue of allowing same-sex marriage, marriage for gay men and lesbians in the Netherlands is so commonplace that today, two years after being legalized, it is hardly recognized as different.

As many as 8 percent of all marriages in the country are between people of the same sex, according to gay activists. Gay men and lesbians advertise their marriages and host lavish parties for friends. And some of those who got married are getting divorced and paying court-ordered alimony.

"I don't understand what people have against it," said Pasker, 44. In April 2001, he and Kasteel became one of the first four same-sex couples allowed to wed at Amsterdam's city hall. "People just don't understand what it is to be gay, and what it is to want a normal life."

Pasker, a social worker, and Kasteel, 42, a medical supplier, have what by their account would be considered a normal, loving home life. They share a comfortable townhouse. They have two dogs, friendly neighbors, and a host of relatives who now see their union as an ordinary one. They were touched recently after receiving a letter addressed to "Gert and Dolf Kasteel-Pasker."

"We are a couple, and neighbors and friends and family see us as a couple," Pasker said. "I think it's the same as for straight couples. When you are married, people see you as a couple more than before."

One of the other four couples among the first to marry, Helene Faasen and her wife, Anne-Marie Thus, also are perplexed by the resistance of Americans to same-sex weddings. Faasen and Thus walked down the aisle at city hall two years ago wearing wedding dresses and clutching bouquets.

Now that the media blitz that accompanied their wedding -- the first by lesbians in the Netherlands -- has died out, they have settled into a domestic routine. Faasen is a notary public, and Thus stays home to raise their children, Nathan, 3 1/2, and his sister Myrthle, 1 1/2.

Opponents of same-sex marriage in the United States often point to homosexual couples raising children as one of the most dangerous consequences of allowing gay men or lesbians to wed, saying it breaks down the traditional nuclear family. But Faasen sees her family life as just that -- traditional -- with herself as the breadwinner and Thus staying home with the children.

"I'm wondering what all the fuss is about because it's functioning very well in Holland," Faasen said in an interview in her book-lined office. "We have a pretty standard family -- two wives, two children in school."

Thus was the birth mother of the children, using sperm from an unknown donor to a sperm bank, and Faasen legally adopted them. She said the children make no distinction between their mothers, referring to them as "Momma Helene" and "Momma Anne-Marie."

Faasen scoffed at the notion that her union is a threat to families. Allowing same-sex couples to wed, she said, strengthens families because they are entering into lifetime partnerships. "It simply adds families -- it doesn't destroy families," Faasen said. "We are old-fashioned, my wife and I. It's very traditional."

Henk Krol, editor of Gay Krant magazine, and the leading advocate in the Netherlands of opening marriage to gay men and lesbians, said about 20,000 children are being raised by same-sex couples, most of them lesbian.

The only restriction that same-sex couples in the Netherlands face is they are prohibited from adopting foreign children. But that law is easily circumvented: One person adopts the foreign child and obtains registration for the child as a Dutch national; the spouse goes through the adoption process later on.

Krol said marriage registry records indicate 7 percent to 8 percent of marriages in the country are between gay men or lesbian partners. "It's going smoothly," he said. "Once people are used to it, there's no problem whatsoever. It's not an issue anymore. As long as you don't have it, it's an issue."

Same-sex weddings have become so routine in the country, said Krol and others, that gay men and lesbians now face some of the same social problems that have plagued heterosexuals for years when marriage goes sour.

The Netherlands has the distinction of having the world's first gay divorces, which must be obtained in court like any other divorce. Marital property must be split, and if one partner earns more money than the other, a court can require alimony payments.

Some gay couples, like their heterosexual counterparts, are opting for prenuptial agreements. "We've got a prenup," said Robert van der Sanden, 30, editor of a magazine for teenagers called "Girlz!" who is busy planning an October wedding to his partner of four years, Gerard van Eldik, 39. "It's for if we split up -- so we know `what's yours.' "

There is no talk of splitting now, just the hurried preparations a couple make on the eve of a wedding.

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