The German parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage in a landmark vote on Friday, putting the country on track to start recognizing same-sex marriages by early fall.
The vote, which passed 393 to 226, was a sudden victory for LGBTQ activists in Germany, some of whom were caught by surprise when Chancellor Angela Merkel unexpectedly agreed to allow members of her conservative party to “vote their conscience” earlier this week.
Merkel’s party, the Christian Democrats, have long opposed same-sex marriage, and Merkel, who is the daughter of a Protestant pastor, voted against it.
But most of the other parties in the coalition that has allowed Merkel to stay in power, including the Social Democrats and other center- and far-left groups, have clamored to legalize same-sex marriage, and many legislators had announced that their support for Merkel in the fall would be contingent on her taking a new position.
Her sudden workaround—announcing that Christian Democrats would be allowed to vote however they chose on the measure—was a compromise that some greeted with hope and others with cynicism.
Axel Hochrein, a board member of the Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany, told The New York Times that he didn’t hold Merkel’s personal opinion against her.
“This is perhaps part of her religious education,” he told the paper. “I think it is more honest of her than to say yes. In the end, she fought for a long time against it and always argued it was in her feelings, and this was a feelings decision. It’s her decision.”
“Perhaps she wants to solve the problem before it appears after the election,” Hochrein added.
Earlier this week, German lawmaker Volker Beck noted that a huge majority of Germans supported the idea of same-sex marriage, and made it clear he thought Merkel had taken the only politically expedient option.
“This means she has nothing to win on the issue,” Beck told the Times. “Before getting trapped in this ‘lose lose’ situation, she has decided to step aside and say ‘O.K., let’s just decide in Parliament on the question of conscience, everyone is free to vote.”
Germany’s same-sex marriage bill still has to go to the upper house of Parliament for formal approval, and must be signed by President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. According to Reuters, that process is likely to happen sometime after July 7.
Germany’s long history of prosecution against LGBTQ people is one the country is still grappling with. Gay couples are not allowed to adopt children, and sex between men was illegal until 1994.
Earlier this month, the German parliament voted to void the convictions of the roughly 50,000 men who have been prosecuted for homosexual acts since the end of World War II. Those men who are still living will also receive some financial compensation, in part depending on how long they spent in prison, the Times reports.
Several thousand gay men were also forced into German concentration camps under the Nazi regime.
If same-sex marriages becomes legal in the fall, as expected, Germany will become the fourteenth country in Europe where full same-sex marriage is legal, joining France, Spain, most of the United Kingdom, and others.
A host of other European countries, including Italy, Switzerland, and Greece, allow for versions of civil partnerships that grant many of the rights of legal marriage.
And in vast majority of countries in Eastern Europe, including all of the countries associated with Europe’s former Soviet Bloc, same-sex marriage is still illegal—and persecution of LGBTQ people is rampant.