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."
In Sweden, religious language rarely plays much role in political debate. And perhaps because of the low-key nature of the issue, most gay men and lesbians seem to shrug off the legal fine points and refer to unions under the registration law as marriages. About 1,500 same-sex couples have registered their unions.
Among them are Rotberg and Jerkovics, 31, an occupational therapist. They met while working summer jobs as hospital aides, began dating in 1994 and moved in together in 1996.
Like most young, urban Swedes, they saw marriage as a bit old-fashioned. Among their friends, they count two straight couples with children - but none who are married. Rotberg's cousin has two children, ages 3 and 5, but hasn't married her partner.
But Rotberg and Jerkovics decided to buck the trend. They were urged on by friends who saw heterosexual marriage as outmoded but thought a gay ceremony would be a novelty.
"We had been together so long," Rotberg says. "Our friends said, 'We all want to go to a gay wedding. Aren't you going to get married soon?'"
"It felt like it had more depth to be married," Jerkovics says. So they trooped with the maximum 15 friends to City Hall for the registration before adjourning to their apartment in the suburb of Arsta, where they live with their cat, Frasse, for a larger gathering and a religious blessing ceremony.
Like most urban clerics asked to participate in gay union celebrations, the priest who presided was happy to do so. "They'd been together for a long time and were very much in love," says the Rev. Camilla Lif. "I was very sure they would stay together, and for me, that was the main thing."
Lif, 36, is parish priest in a central Stockholm district where 18,000 people are officially members of the Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, the official state church until 2000. But only about 500 adults and children attend any kind of religious service or class each week, she says.
"The Stockholm area is considered one of the most secularized places in the world," Lif says. She sees herself as part of a younger generation of Swedes who are returning to religion, but she admits that that trend has not brought many people to the altar. She estimates that just 10 percent of the cohabiting couples she knows are married.
Official statistics illustrate the weakening hold of marriage in Sweden. About 20 percent of long-term couples are unmarried, compared with 8 percent in the United States.
But that number hides the larger proportion of young couples who delay marriage until their children are born. In 1995, 53 percent of births were to unwed mothers - but 90 percent were born to two biological parents living together.
Such statistics reflect a striking contrast of cultures. Cohabitation in Sweden has a legal and social status it lacks in the United States, and it is captured in a word: sambo, short for samboende, or "living together." The word conveys a stronger, longer-term relationship than the Swedish words for girlfriend and boyfriend, and it is not unusual to meet couples who have been sambo for two decades or longer.
Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson has nothing against weddings - he just had his third last month, this time to the head of Sweden's alcoholic beverage monopoly. But the couple had very publicly moved in together six months earlier.
For many Swedes the high divorce rate in recent decades is a major reason people delay or avoid marriage. "It's a desire not to make promises you can't keep," says Lif, the priest.
Ironically, Rotberg says her thrice-married grandmother's painful experience with break-ups made it easy for the elderly woman to accept her granddaughter's decision to marry another woman. More than a decade ago, Rotberg recalls, she was hesitating before telling her grandmother she was gay, finally writing a letter to let her know. But three years ago, her grandmother was glad to hear Rotberg had decided to marry.
"She said, 'I'm so glad you have Anna,'" Rotberg says. "Because you can't trust men."