Gay Germans tap Oktoberfest to make push for marriage rights

Oktoberfest celebrations like 'Gay Sunday' this past weekend are helping gays and lesbians boost their visibility at a time when Germany is debating gay marriage.

Matthias Schrader/AP
Visitors enjoy a sunny day at the famous Bavarian 'Oktoberfest' beer festival in Munich, southern Germany, Tuesday, Sept. 25. The world's largest beer festival, to be held from Sept. 22 to Oct. 7, will see some million visitors.

By early afternoon on the first Sunday of Oktoberfest this past weekend, the Bräurosl beer tent in Munich was already filled with thousands of merry revelers in  lederhosen, singing and drinking.

At one table, Christian Schröder, an electrician from Stuttgart, sat with his partner of 10 years, Thomas Hartmann. “This is to the gays!” Mr. Schröder shouted. “The right to do this is what we fight for!”

There’s a simple rule at Munich’s world-famous Oktoberfest: It’s all about the fun. Politics isn’t supposed to play a role at all in the 16-day event, which annually attracts more than 5 million visitors and floods Munich with parties, parties, and more parties.

But at Oktoberfest celebrations like “Gay Sunday” – one of several events dedicated to gays and lesbians that now draw thousands of revelers – politics has inevitably seeped into the mix. At a time when gay Germans are fighting hard for the right to marry, activists quietly say that their increasingly high visibility at Oktoberfest – perhaps the most quintessentially German cultural event – is forcing others to take notice.

Currently, permanent partnerships are allowed under the law, though gay couples can only be in registered partnerships that don’t enjoy the same benefits, such as tax savings, as do marriages. As the matter winds through the courts, it has deeply split Germany’s pro-business and center-right ruling coalition.

The classically liberal Free Democratic Party – which has many prominent gay members, including Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle – has pushed hard for gays’ full equality. But the more socially conservative Christian Democratic Union and its sister party in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, haven’t been so enthusiastic.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Christian Democrat, has been particularly reticent, saying in August that “it would be good at this point to wait for the court's decision,” on the tax issue.

Some gay rights activists believe more visibility may be key to changing the political climate in their favor. While the issue isn’t as polarizing as in the United States, religious and social conservatives, particularly in Bavaria, have expressed alarm at German proposals to make gay marriage legal, as it already is in eight European countries.  

“No one would want to see Oktoberfest become officially political, but just the fact that gays and lesbians can go there in lederhosen, can hold hands and kiss, does have political meaning,” says Thomas Niederbühl, a longtime Munich city council member and a member of the local Pink List gay rights party. “We are playing more of a role in German society. By being at Oktoberfest, people recognize that we are no longer some small group on the fringes of everyday life.”

Though explicit talk of gay rights are scrupulously avoided during the so-called Pink Oktoberfest, politicians, including Munich’s powerful center-left mayor Christian Ude, make high-profile appearances there. For years Mr. Ude has been appearing briefly conducting the orchestra playing traditional Bavarian tunes. Mr. Niederbühl, well known in Bavarian political circles, is another figure who shows up.

Probably the most popular celebrations during Pink Oktoberfest, Gay Sunday has its roots in the 1970s with a gay organization known as the Munich Lions Club, which organized a meet-up during Oktoberfest’s first Sunday at the Bräurosl tent – supposedly named after the daughter of a beer firm founder.

As gay rights gained steam in the late 1980s and into the 1990s, their Sunday meeting became a destination in itself.

“These days you can barely find room in the tent,” said Lion’s Club board member Dieter Weissenborn, who helps run a smaller event on a tent balcony for only Lion’s Club supporters.

For Schröder, Gay Sunday means a break from the dreariness of daily work back home. But, he said, it also shows how gays are becoming more involved in some of Germany’s most famous traditions.

“This is just a great time, but in another way I’ve very proud to say that I can openly be here with him,” Schröder said pointing to his partner.

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