Röbi Rapp and Ernst Ostertag have been a couple for almost 50 years. On June 5 they’ll find out if Swiss voters support partnerships like theirs.
The 75-year-olds, who were the first same-sex couple to register in canton Zurich, say that being together has helped them through tough times as well as their fight for more rights.
Rapp and Ostertag live in a well-appointed flat in Zurich’s Seefeld area. Full of treasures from India and Asia, it is a testament to the couple’s interest in Indian and Eastern philosophy and history. They have both been Buddhists for 40 years.
The pensioners, who will celebrate their "golden partnership" next year, met at Der Kreis (The Circle) a gay organisation and magazine that thrived in the post-war years.
"Röbi was in the theatre group and was usually playing ladies’ parts as in Shakespeare’s times, and he was so good that I didn’t know it was him. I made a bet of SFr100 ($83) because I was absolutely certain he was a woman," remembers Ostertag.
"When I saw it was Röbi, I immediately fell in love with him. But it took quite a while until we got together because he was a star at the Circle while I was not known because I was behind the scenes working in the editors’ group [of the magazine]," he told swissinfo.
30 years apart
Rapp, who used to work for a large insurer, adds that the couple spent 30 years living apart before finally moving in together in 1986.
"For my family it was not a problem," said Rapp. "Ernst could come over in the evening and my mother accepted him like a son. But for his family and for the outside world, and in the workplace, you had to be very low-key. That was the difference then."
In fact, the couple did not even "come out" officially to family and friends until their joint 70th birthday party by which time Ernst, a former teacher of disabled children, had retired. At the time, they were involved in organising an exhibition on gay history in Switzerland and so decided that it was better to tell everyone before it opened to the public.
They say that although many of their friends from their Kreis days have not made their relationships public, they felt it was important to show that gay couples are just normal people.
In 2003 they were the first pair to register their partnership in Zurich following a cantonal referendum on the matter.
Rapp said that – to his surprise - being registered has made a big difference to their lives.
"The neighbours and other people... accepted us. They could now say: 'Hello, how is your partner?’ Before, they were always shy and didn’t know what to say," he told swissinfo.
The couple says that being in a secure relationship has helped them through some difficult times. Although homosexuality was decriminalised in 1942 in Switzerland – one of the first countries to pass such a law – Ostertag says the subject remained a taboo.
The situation took a turn for the worse after 1957, when two middle-class homosexuals were murdered by rent boys in Zurich. A public and media outcry followed, and police started to clamp down on gays by making raids on homes and meeting places for homosexuals.
"Police started to make a list of registered homosexuals... The people they rounded up, even if they weren’t homosexuals, had their photographs taken, along with their personal details and fingerprints," said Ostertag, who is an expert on gay history in Switzerland.
Both Ostertag and Rapp were detained by police. Ostertag’s flat was raided at 4.30 in the morning by police acting on an anonymous tip-off. He was alone at home at the time but still had to accompany police to the station.
After the repression years put paid to Der Kreis in 1967, the two men joined its successor and became active in pushing for gay rights in the late 1960s and during the 70s.
Aids arrived in Switzerland in 1982, threatening the work of the gay movement. But by the 1990s the last limits on homosexuals, including a ban on joining the military, had been lifted.
In 2001, registered partnerships became legal in canton Geneva. Zurich followed and last year, Neuchâtel became the third canton to permit such unions.
The two men are pleased that registered partnerships are now being voted on at a national level – the culmination of a lifetime of fighting for gay rights and acceptance.
They don’t mind that, if the law does pass, they will have to re-register their partnership at a national level, and will see their income reduced. Under the new rules, they would be treated as married in terms of tax and pensions.
"We would get about SFr1,000 less in pensions per month and we will have to pay more tax," said Ostertag. "But it doesn’t matter to us. It’s much more important to get these rights and especially to get people’s minds changed and to be accepted."
swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson
Röbi Rapp and Ernst Ostertag celebrate their "golden partnership" next year.
They are both 75 years old and are retired.
They were the first same sex couple to register their partnership in canton Zurich in 2003.
They have lived together for almost 20 years, but came out officially only five years ago.
Under the proposed law, same-sex couples would be able to register their partnerships at a registry office.
They will receive the same pension, inheritance, and tax rights as married couples. Foreign partners will be entitled to residence permits. But the naturalisation process will not be made easier as with married couples.
Adoption and fertility treatment is forbidden and partnerships can only be dissolved by a court.