Pride (and prejudice): German same-sex marriage vote is bittersweet
Last Friday, the Brandenburg Gate turned rainbow coloured, as the Bundestag passed a long anticipated bill to legalise same-sex marriage in the Federal Republic, triggering celebrations in Germany and beyond. Yet, many of the festivities quickly became tinged with disappointment, as the knowledge emerged that the chancellor herself had actually voted against giving homosexual couples and their families the same legal rights as heterosexual couples. On paper, Angela Merkel seems to be an archetypal traditionalist. Her party, the Christian Democratic Union, is centre right, and, despite being reluctant to discuss her personal views on many things, Merkel is open about her strong faith as a member of the German Evangelical Church. We should perhaps not be surprised that she voted against something which appears to be so much at variance with both her political and religious leaning. Why, therefore, does Merkel’s decision to vote against same-sex marriage feel like a betrayal to so many liberals across Europe?
A friend of mine once remarked that, were Angela Merkel to be one’s aunt, she would be exactly the sort of aunt who, despite a long estrangement, would buy utterly appropriate Christmas gifts. This is a persona through which I have become accustomed to view the German chancellor: simultaneously compassionate and pragmatic; a woman who employs her reason and her conscience in equal measure.
And it seems that for many people, Merkel embodies a style of politics which is both rational and sensitive to those in need. As a former citizen of the German Democratic Republic, she perhaps represents the desire of unified Germany to break free from the shackles of its troubled past. Indeed, many commentators have observed that Merkel’s decision to make Germany a haven for asylum seekers fleeing conflict in the Middle East is a key stage in the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (Germany’s coming to terms with its role in the Second World War). It is arguably as profound as Willy Brandt’s historic gesture of kneeling before the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1970. Like Brandt, Merkel has recognised that it is actions, not words, which will truly convey the remorse of a population living in the shadow of the worst mass-genocide in human history.
What is more, Merkel’s key role in European politics perhaps makes her particularly popular among the youth of Great Britain, many of whom feel disillusioned in the wake of last year’s Brexit vote. Berlin appears as a bastion of European liberalism, with Merkel as its figurehead. With the British government in such a weak and unstable (no irony intended) position, Germany, with its pro-EU government and low levels of youth unemployment, seems to represent the nation state we would like ourselves to be.
Moreover, Berlin, now blooming into one of the most culturally exciting cities in Western Europe, seems to be, to parrot the youth of our age, ‘where it’s at’. Indeed, Berghain, a disused factory become nightclub in the capital city, whose entry is limited to those deemed cool enough by the venue’s bouncers, has become a byword for all things ‘hip and edgy’. And Merkel, to whom a pair of Doc Martens are as unfamiliar as Theresa May’s handshake, has somehow become inextricably connected with this image, so that she too embodies the freshness of a young and forward-looking society.
It is, therefore, completely justified for the youth of today to feel let down by Merkel. Despite her party affiliation, she is not a politician whom we expected to oppose the same-sex marriage bill as a matter of course. If anything, in the past she has demonstrated a propensity to conceal her personal views in favour of the good of the greater number of people. She showed immense compassion for refugees in the face of growing hostility in her own government and beyond, but unfortunately it seems that it was foolish of us to expect her to show the same compassion for members of the queer community…