It was 1998 in Amsterdam, and Helene Faasen’s friend kept insisting she had the perfect match for a blind date. But Faasen, then 32, was hesitant about her friend’s confidence in the match. “It was basically on the criteria that we were both lesbian and short,” Faasen remembers, speaking over Zoom from her home in Maastricht, a town in the southern Netherlands.
The “perfect match” was Anne Marie Thus, a 29-year-old nurse who worked with the friend’s neighbor. Faasen and Thus were both skeptical of the setup, but their mutual friends remained insistent. After a couple of months, the two women agreed to meet at a lesbian club in the city with their friends. “We met with all eyes on us. It was horrible for us,” Faasen recalls.
But after the initial meetup, Faasen spent the next month thinking about Thus. “I couldn’t forget her,” says Faasen, who’s now a 54-year-old teacher. She picked up the phone and asked Thus, now 51, out for a drink.
The rest became history: Three years later, and 20 years ago this week, Faasen and Thus would become the first female same-sex couple in the world to legally marry.
Everything started moving quickly after that first date. Ten months later, they had moved in together and entered into a registered partnership 一 the only way they could get some legal rights as a couple in the Netherlands at the time. Meanwhile, Thus was already two weeks pregnant with their first child.
The couple had a small ceremony with just a few close family members at a city hall office for their partnership. They dressed in dark evening gowns. (As Thus puts it: “It wasn’t a marriage, so no white dress.”) Not having the right to marry felt like “being second best,” she says.
But in 1999, most countries didn’t yet offer registered partnerships, which still fell short of full marital rights. Vermont became the first U.S. state to offer civil unions, in July of 2000, making it the third state to offer any form of legal recognition to same-sex couples, after Hawaii’s reciprocal beneficiary relationships in 1997 and California’s domestic partnerships earlier in 2000. Although momentum around legal partnerships for same-sex couples was building, nowhere was willing to allow the word “marriage” to be used.
“We didn’t have a clue if marriage would happen,” Thus says.
One key protection missing from the Dutch registered partnership 一 their version of a “skim milk marriage,” as the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg once called it 一 was parental rights. When Thus gave birth to their first child in 2000, Faasen had no legal claim to him because she lacked a biological connection or a marriage to the legal mother. Only a handful of provinces in the world allowed same-sex couples to adopt children together at the time, and no country yet permitted it nationally.
Then, in early 2001, Faasen caught wind that a marriage equality law was advancing in the Netherlands. She called Thus from work with the news. “We’re getting married,” she said, “I think in three weeks.”
In the coming days, they saw an editorial in a gay magazine calling for couples who wanted to get married on April 1, 2001, the day the new law would come into effect, making the Netherlands the first country in the world to enact one. They decided to answer the call, assuming they’d be among dozens of couples. But when they showed up to the magazine’s organizing meeting beforehand, they looked around, wondering where everybody was, before realizing only five couples had expressed interest. One ended up dropping out, leaving four, including Faasen and Thus.
On the night of March 31, Thus and Faasen showed up in their white wedding dresses, alongside three male couples, to wed in a ceremony performed by the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen. The pair says they were overwhelmed seeing the slew of media trucks around the building they were entering, acutely aware that they were now the stars of a major news event.
Cohen started his remarks around 11:30 p.m., according to the couple, and was ready a few minutes too early to start the official vows, which had to wait until the clock struck midnight. The crowd started clapping rhythmically to fill the anxious silence building up to a moment generations in the making.
At midnight, all at once, Cohen married the four couples who stood in a semicircle in front of him. They had chosen to hold the ceremonies together, Thus said.
“At the moment of the vows, I wasn’t aware of the cameras,” Faasen said. “It was just me and my future wife.” She and Thus aren’t sure whose paperwork Cohen signed first to make the four marriages official, but they know they were the first legally married couple consisting of two women in the world.
“There was a wall of photographers falling over one another to get pictures of us,” Thus recalls. Instead of a traditional reception with dancing, the women answered reporters’ questions. The couples then all cut a city-provided cake and toasted with pink champagne before walking through the streets of Amsterdam in their wedding attire. The eight newlyweds were exhausted, Thus remembers, but they went out anyway: As a group of eight history-makers, they were expected to make appearances at just about every gay bar in the city.
Faasen and Thus crashed around 5 a.m. at their hotel suite, they say, which had been decorated with rose petals by their hairdresser and his boyfriend. (The couple’s 9-month-old son, now legally both of theirs, slept at Faasen’s co-worker’s place.)
When they turned on the TV, they saw a video of themselves on CNN over a breaking news caption. “That was even stranger than the marriage itself,” Faasen said with a laugh.
Twenty years later, with a 20-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter, they each say they get surprised looks when they say they have a wife. But they’re aware of their privilege, when much of the world does not allow same-sex marriage. After the Netherlands passed its law in 2001, Belgium followed in 2003, and Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to legalize it in 2004. It wasn’t until June 26, 2015, however, that all U.S. states allowed same-sex marriage, as ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. By then, the United States was the 17th country to change its national laws.
Today, same-sex couples can marry in only 29 countries, while nearly triple that number criminalize consensual same-sex sexual behavior. Sodomy — which was only officially decriminalized in the United States in 2003 — carries the death penalty in some countries.
Still, many nations are moving forward with decriminalization of same-sex sex, including Gabon, Angola and Bhutan within the last year. Last year, Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to legalize same-sex marriage. And in late February, a Japanese court ruled that a ban of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.
Progress, though, has been uneven: Even in the Netherlands, the road to feeling fully accepted is taking “much more time than we had hoped,” Faasen said. The couple feels there is more aggression on the streets toward same-sex couples today than 20 years ago: They say they might not walk through Amsterdam in wedding dresses in the early-morning hours today like they did that night in 2001.
“We felt we could only go forward,” Faasen said, remembering what it felt like to make history 20 years ago. But “it’s not finished yet.”
Twenty years after their historic marriage, the couple hasn’t taken a proper honeymoon yet; Thus says Faasen works too much to have taken the time off. But they’re shooting for something big for their 25th anniversary.