20 years ago today, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize marriage equality
via Partij van de Arbeid / Flickr

One of the biggest changes in the developed world over the past 20 years has been the expansion of gay rights and the acceptance of the LGBT community. In the U.S., a poll conducted in 2004 found that Americans opposed gay marriage by a margin of 60% to 31%. By 2019, those numbers had flipped with 61% being pro-gay marriage 31% against.

One of the landmark moments in the fight for gay rights happened twenty years ago to the day, April 1, 2001, when the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage.

It all began in the mid-'80s when a group of gay rights activists, headed by Henk Krol – then editor-in-chief of the "Gay Krant" – asked the government to allow same-sex couples to marry.

In 1995, the Dutch parliament created a commission to investigate the idea and in 1997, it decided that marriage rights should be extended to same-sex couples.

In September 2000, the final legislation draft was debated in the Dutch Parliament and it passed the House of Representatives by 109 votes to 33 and later, the Senate, by 49 votes to 26.

At the stroke of midnight on April 1, 2001, the mayor of Amsterdam Job Cohen married four gay couples in a joint ceremony.

"There are two reasons to rejoice,″ Cohen told the newlyweds before pink champagne and pink cake were served. ″You are celebrating your marriage, and you are also celebrating your right to be married.″

Gert Kasteel and Dolf Pasker were among the four couples to be married by the mayor that day. "It is very nice to look back to see how young we were," he said watching a video of the ceremony.

"I'm very proud that it's possible," Kasteel told Reuters. "that we could play a little part of it. We made history."

Since the Netherlands legalized gay marriage, it has been made legal in 28 countries worldwide as well as the self-governing island of Taiwan.

The Netherlands marked the anniversary by floating a massive inflatable pink cake with candles spouting rainbow flames through Amsterdam's canals and flying a large gay pride flag from the church next to the Anne Frank House.

"Nearly 30 countries followed the Netherlands so that's really very nice. Very good for the gay people and for society as a whole, I think because it's important that everyone in society feels at home," Pasker said.

Amsterdam's mayor celebrated the occasion by noting that the gay rights movement has only just begun. "At the same time it is a moment to recognize that the struggle is not yet over; not worldwide, not nationally, but also not in Amsterdam," Mayor Femke Halsema told The Associated Press.

Gay marriage is still illegal in over 70 countries across the globe. In eight of them, homosexuality is punishable by death.

"If you had told me 20 years ago that today same-sex marriage would be a reality in 29 countries, I would not have believed you," Jessica Stern, executive director of the global LGBTQ-rights group OutRight Action International.

"The progress has been great, no doubt. But we have a long road ahead," Stern said.

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