Recent landmark decisions in the United States and Ireland in favour of gay rights have also made headlines in Switzerland. But what moves are afoot in this country to bolster the legal status of homosexual couples?
Equal rights campaigners have had reason to celebrate over the past few weeks. In June, the US Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriages, about a month after voters in Ireland approved a proposal to extend civil marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.
How long before Swiss citizens will have their say on a similar proposal in a country that champions direct democracy?
“Soon, I hope,” says Bastian Baumann.
The secretary general for the Pink Cross advocacy group says a nationwide ballot would give such a decision a high degree of public legitimacy.
The downside is that it could take a long time before voters have their say. The political procedure before a vote, involving the government, parliament and the general public, often lasts several years.
Decisions abroad, however, are unlikely to have a direct impact on Swiss politics. “Politicians don’t take orders. Nevertheless, a result or verdict can help raise public awareness and create public pressure,” says Baumann.
It might come as a surprise that there are no immediate plans to launch a people’s initiative to force a vote on same-sex marriage in Switzerland. But such a procedure is costly and requires considerable personnel resources.
Instead, interest groups are relying on a similar proposal made by the Liberal Greens. The small centrist party wants parliament to agree on a constitutional amendment to grant legal protection for all couples, independent of their sexual identity.
Civil solidarity pact (PACS)
The terms refers to a form of civil union between two adults under French law. The PACS brings rights and responsibilities but less than marriage notably on adoption. It offers some legal status for same sex couples, but an overwhelming majority of PACS is between opposite sex couples.
A form of civil union has been established in about 20 countries, mainly in Europe and North America, since the late 1990s. Switzerland does not recognise same-sex marriage. But it introduced the possibility to register same-sex partnerships – a form of ‘PACS light’ - in 2007 following a nationwide vote two years previously.
In a bid to support the move, interest groups launched a public petition – a non-binding request with symbolic value.
“We believe it is important that all people regardless of their sexual orientation or their gender identity can get married in Switzerland. We want marriage to be opened up and the associated rights to be granted unconditionally,” says Maria von Känel, director of the Rainbow Family umbrella organisation.
The petition will likely be handed over to senators in November, when their legal committee is expected to debate the issue. The House of Representatives’ sister committee came out in favour in February.
So far, about 10,000 signatures have been collected in support of the petition.
“We have achieved our minimum target,” says Baumann from Pink Cross. “I’m not sure there will be substantially more unless we make an extra effort.”
When compared with a minimum of 100,000 signatures needed for a people’s initiative or the number of signatures for a similar petition more than a decade ago, Baumann’s comment has a critical undertone.
He notes a feeling of saturation and a lack of political involvement on the part of the gay and lesbian community. Baumann says this is symptomatic of the situation in Switzerland, with a society that is open toward gay rights but offers no legal certainty.
He argues that other countries have made much more progress while “Switzerland has fallen behind and stagnated for the past ten years”.
In 2005, Swiss voters were pioneers in approving a parliamentary decision to grant same-sex couples the right to formally register their partnerships.
A film released last year traces the history of the gay movement in Switzerland from a repressive policy to a more open society emerging around the turn of the millennium.
Elections could set the stage
Both Baumann and von Känel are confident that the time is right to push ahead with their demands. They refer to a poll from May which found 71% of citizens in favour of opening up marriages to same-sex couples.
The campaign for the October parliamentary elections presents a welcome opportunity to gather support.
Von Känel points out that not only the political left but also some centrist parties include gay rights in their campaign platforms, hoping to tap into a potential voter segment.
And Baumann adds that it may be in the interest of gay rights campaigners to publicly support politicians trying to promote minority rights.
White paper offers suggestion
Additional input for a broad public discussion could come from a government white paper presented by Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga in March. The report raises the idea of adding the solidarity pact, commonly known as PACS, as a legal form of civil union between two adults.
The proposal is welcomed by the Rainbow Family association. “We need to open up marriage to us lesbians, gays and transgender people to finally be able to have equal rights,” says von Känel.
Voters will have the final say on any proposed change to the constitution, she says - provided that parliament agrees on the reform in the first place.