Gay and lesbian couples in Geneva are to enjoy virtually the same rights as married couples, thanks to a groundbreaking new cantonal law. Homosexuals elsewhere in Switzerland will be hoping it provides a model for national legislation.
Homosexual groups were quick to welcome the legislation, which also benefits co-habiting heterosexual couples. They said it was a further step towards the assimilation of homosexual couples.
"This provides official recognition for homosexual couples. It also sends a strong signal to Bern," says Salika Wenger, a deputy and leading member of the Dialogai homosexual support group, who helped to draw up the legislation.
The cantonal parliament decided that all cohabiting couples - whether homosexual or heterosexual - would be "treated in exactly the same way as married couples in their dealings with the authorities", except in the matter of taxation and social security benefits.
The law states that two people wishing to make their status as a couple known should make an official declaration to that effect. They will both be given a certificate proving their union.
Geneva's room for manoeuvre was limited by the fact that Swiss federal law takes precedence over cantonal legislation. This means, for example, a foreign partner will not automatically enjoy the same rights as a Swiss one, although Geneva can argue in their favour.
Its proponents acknowledge that the new law will not bring enormous changes in the everyday lives of gay and unmarried couples. They will see no difference, for example, in their taxes, health insurance premiums or rights to adopt children.
But the law does have an important symbolic value, and, in some key areas, it serves a practical purpose: "Now it will be much easier for them to rent an apartment, because the landlords will have to regard them as a couple," Wenger told swissinfo.
"There have been cases when a couple have been together for 30 years and, when one of them dies, the partner has no rights. They find themselves out on the streets with no claim to their shared belongings," she said.
The law - dubbed the Geneva PACS, after the French Civil Solidarity Pact approved in October 1999 - does not specifically mention same-sex partners, although it was originally conceived just for homosexuals.
Making the law apply to all couples makes it flexible and means it can be used by co-habiting elderly people who have found another partner after being widowed.
A draft law is currently being drawn up by the federal Justice Ministry, but activists like Wenger fear it will only refer to homosexual couples and will fall short of the benchmark set by Geneva: "With this vote, we have told Bern clearly that this law is a necessity," she says.
"We must treat all couples the same. There must not be a law devised specifically for homosexuals. That would force them back in the ghetto," Wenger explains.
This is not the first time that the Geneva parliament has led the rest of Switzerland in groundbreaking legislation. In December, it became the first canton to offer statutory maternity benefit.
Geneva's approach can only be partly explained by its greater openness to foreign ideas and the left-wing majority in the cantonal parliament.
"We are not being avant-garde. We are being realists. We are just legitimising a state of affairs," Wenger says.
by Roy Probert