More than 10,000 people have tied the partnership knot in Switzerland since a new law made civil partnerships possible for homosexual couples five years ago.
The trip to the register office has been a life-changing event for many, giving official recognition to their union and securing rights that married heterosexual couples take for granted.
The entitlements relate to important areas such as pensions, inheritance, residency for foreign partners and next-of-kin status, but when it comes to children, homosexual couples are treated differently. Adoption and assisted reproduction are still off the agenda for them.
However, since 2007 reality has overtaken the law somewhat. The desire to start a family remains central for many couples and those who go on to have children within a partnership end up in a less than ideal position.
A tale of two mothers
Maria von Känel Scheibling and her partner have been together for 14 years and had long wished to be able to marry “to make each other legally secure”.
“Because we also had the desire to be parents, we were disappointed when we heard that adoption would be ruled out [under the registered partnership law],” von Känel Scheibling told swissinfo.ch.
“But we still wanted to register our partnership. It’s an important sign to show that couples like us exist,” she added.
And so the two women had a simple ceremony in 2007 followed by a small party, and prepared to fill in forms differently – no longer single, not considered married, from then on they would tick the registered partnership box.
Then came the children. “Our children were born into a lesbian relationship – I gave birth to the first child, my partner gave birth to the second.”
Despite being legal partners, the two mothers legally have no parental rights or responsibilities towards each other’s children and are blocked from securing this through adoption.
Paradoxically a single gay man or lesbian woman can adopt in Switzerland. Homosexuals only lose the right to adopt when they enter into a registered partnership.
“When we really live as a family day to day, we see that the adoption ban is not just against the parents. What hurts us most is that the living reality is denied for the children,” von Känel Scheibling said.
As a co-founder of Rainbow Families campaign and support group, von Känel Scheibling has taken her fight for equal parent status, unsuccessfully, to the Federal Court. An appeal to the European Court of Human Rights is underway.
Uwe Splittdorf of the Swiss gay umbrella organization Pink Cross says up to 30,000 children in Switzerland are growing up in so-called rainbow families, with at least one homosexual or bisexual parent. Other estimates put the figure at 6,000.
Full marriage is the ultimate goal of the gay campaigners. “Yes it’s a wish, I think we can achieve this in five or six years,” Splittdorf told swissinfo.ch.
“Step-child adoption is the next thing we want to focus on,” he added.
The partnership law has done much to help increase acceptance for gay members of society, according to Splittdorf. “It is welcomed by family and friends, most of them think it is wonderful.”
“It has solved lots of practical problems like inheritance and residence for foreign partners but there are still some gay people leading a double life,” he said.
Sociology professor René Levy agrees. “I think there are many situations where homosexuals hide their sexuality. Coming out is not a trivial ritual, it’s still an issue that may be painful and difficult because of its consequences,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“Although there is now greater recognition for non-heterosexual identities, the change has been slow. It [the change] is more on the level of political correctness than a profound mega trend,” Levy added.
Levy views the registered partnership law as a bad compromise. “There is no law that makes homosexuality illegal but neither is there any law that declares it equal,” he said.
Switzerland is quite a conservative society, according to Levy. “The norms of equality, social openness and multiculturalism are shared by highly educated urbanised people but this is really just a minority, albeit a very vocal minority.”
When the partnership law was being debated, it had moderate support but was openly opposed by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party which represents more than a quarter of voters.
The party argued that the “unnecessary law” was part of a general trend towards devaluing marriage. “It undermines the basis of our society, the family,” a party statement said.
Noting that adoption and assisted reproduction were ruled out by the law, the People’s Party asked: “For how long? As soon as the law is in place, they will come looking for more,” it claimed.
Maria von Känel Scheibling says she is looking for more because she is passionate about her children having the same rights as other children.
Although von Känel Scheibling is not sure whether future legal action she and other parents pursue will be successful , she believes it is important for these families to be visible. “At least they know we are here.”
Tying and untying the knot
Based on the available Federal Statistics Office figures for 2011 (January to September), an average of 56 new partnerships were registered per month this year and the annual total for 2011 will be above 650, or 1,300 people.
That figure (56) is small when compared with 3,566 marriages taking place monthly.
More men than women are opting to get hitched. By the end of 2010, 70 per cent of those living in a partnership were male.
Just five years into the new living arrangement, there has not been much time for people to separate.
Only 312 people were listed as having ex-partnership status by the Federal Statistics Office at the end of 2010, out of a total of nearly 9,000 people. The conditions for dissolving a partnership are straightforward.
In June 2005 the Swiss voted in a national referendum by 58 per cent to allow registered same-sex partnerships. The registered partnership law came into force on January 1, 2007.
To register their partnership, couples have to be over the age of 18 and unattached. One of the two partners must be Swiss or have Swiss residence.
The union is recorded in front of a registrar.
The first registered partnership – a couple who had lived together for 30 years – was registered in canton Ticino on January 2, 2007.