STOCKHOLM, Sweden - When Anna Jerkovics and Mia Rotberg got married in Stockholm's stone-towered city hall in 2001, it was a bit of a shock to their friends.
Not because they both are women. But because they chose to marry at all.
"None of our friends, gay couples or straight couples, with children or without children, was married," says Rotberg, 34, a preschool teacher. "We were the first. We feel very grown up."
Gay marriage, which has emerged as a volatile and divisive issue in the United States and its presidential politics, has evolved with far less heat and noise in Sweden. One reason is that religion plays a far smaller role in Swedish life. Another is the Swedes' dedication to consensus and aversion to conflict.
But a major reason is the status of marriage itself. Especially in Swedish cities, marriage long ago became optional for cohabiting heterosexual couples, even those who live together for decades and raise children.
A special law sanctions such relationships. Most Swedes say there is little stigma attached to out-of-wedlock births and none at all for what in America is sometimes still called "living in sin."
"How could you put marriage on a pedestal in this country?" says Hans Ytterberg, the official Swedish ombudsman for gay rights, whose six-person office is financed by the government but acts as an independent advocate. "Gays and lesbians want to join the club, not destroy the club. This will result in more people getting married, not fewer."
Despite Sweden's international reputation for staying on the cutting edge of social change, the country's embrace of marriage for gays has been a gradual process that is not yet technically complete.
In 1988, Sweden passed a law giving same-sex couples the same rights as unmarried opposite-sex couples. In 1995, trying to catch up with neighboring Denmark in a Scandinavian competition as to who is most progressive, Sweden passed the Registered Partnership Act, creating civil unions for gay couples similar to those now permitted in Vermont. Last year, that law was amended to give registered gay couples the same right to adopt or have legal custody of children as married heterosexuals.
Now there is almost no legal difference between registered partnership and marriage. But Ytterberg condemns the existence of separate laws as "separate but equal," a deliberate borrowing of language from U.S. civil rights history. He says he and his partner of 10 years, Lennart Johansson, will wait to tie the knot until there's a single, gender-neutral marriage statute.
"I've always said I take joy in the parties of others who register their partnerships," Ytterberg says. "But if I'm on a bus, I don't want to sit in the back."
Single marriage laws covering both hetero- and homosexual couples exist today in the Netherlands, Belgium and two Canadian provinces, Ontario and British Columbia. A Massachusetts court has ruled that gay people can't be denied the right to marry, but the legal and political fight there is not over.
Ytterberg says Sweden will inevitably adopt a single statute for gay and straight marriage, though its cautious, negotiate-everything approach may take a few more years. "To the vast majority of Swedes, gay marriage is just not a big deal," he says. In November, when his office formally called on the government to begin preparing legislation to create a single marriage statute, his news releases generated zero media coverage.
In the United States, by contrast, gay marriage has emerged as a deeply polarizing issue, most recently in the form of bills pending in both houses of Congress to amend the Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. President Bush has expressed support for such a move; his leading Democratic opponent, Howard Dean, is a hero in gay circles for presiding over the creation of civil unions in Vermont.
Advocates on both sides in the debate attribute the hot-button status of gay marriage in the United States to the importance of religion in American life and culture.
Gay marriage "is uniquely contentious here," says Lisa Bennett, director of the family project of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay and lesbian political group. "I think it relates to the mix of religion with civil rights. We have a hard time separating them despite our constitutional separation of church and state."
The Rev. Lou Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition and an avowed opponent of gay marriage, agrees with his opponents on this point. "Why is there such a gut-level reaction against gay marriage in America? Because this is a very religious country," he says. "Nine of the 13 original colonies had chosen to favor a Christian religion. You don't have that in the European countries."