The international media converged on City Hall in Copenhagen on 1 October 1989 with boom mikes, cameras and translators. Amidst a crowd of hundreds of well-wishers throwing rice and confetti, eleven gay couples celebrated their civil unions simultaneously. Denmark had just become the first country to legalise same-sex partnerships after years of lobbying by many advocates, including one devoted couple in particular: Axel and Eigil Axgil.
Axel was born Axel Lundahl-Madsen in Braendekilde, a tiny town west of Odense on Funen, in 1915. In an interview in 2011 quoted in British newspaper The Independent, he recalled his youth, spending time in dancehalls in Odense looking for love. “Most of the men came to find a girl. But I discovered that if you waited, there was always someone left behind,” said Axel. “You introduced yourself, talked and sometimes went home with them.”
In 1948, he and Eigil (born Eigil Eskildsen), together with several friends, founded Denmark’s first gay rights organisation, Forbundet af 1948 (the association of 1948). By 1951, membership had grown to 1,339 and there were branches in Sweden and Norway. The couple launched a magazine for supporters of their cause called Vennen (the friend).
“When I came out, I lost my job as a bookkeeper. And my landlord kicked me out of my apartment,” Axel said in a 2009 interview with Time magazine. In Denmark in 1948, homosexual relationships between adults over the ages of 18 had already been permitted for 15 years (in stark contrast to Britain, for example, where it was illegal until 1967, and even then only between over-21s). Before 1933, the punishment for ‘omgængelse mod naturen’ (intercourse against nature) was labour in a correctional facility.
In the 1950s, both were sentenced to short prison terms on pornography charges for running a gay modelling agency that sold pictures of naked men. While in prison, they melded their first names into the shared surname Axgil as a public show of defiance. Their new last name became a show of commitment to each other and to the future of gay rights.
In their book ‘Homofile kampår’ (homophiles fight) published in 1985, Axel Axgil and Helmer Fogedgaard, another founding member of the Forbundet af 1948, describe the events that prompted them to begin the long fight to attain the rights of other citizens: “The most meaningful thing that happened in advance of the founding of the homophile organisations in Scandinavia was the release of Professor Alfred Kinsey’s report on men’s sexual habits, which came out in the USA.”
Knut Jokker, the editor of the daily paper of the Social Democratic party in Copenhagen, Social-Demokraten, agreed, saying that Kinsey’s book “contained more dynamite than any other work since ‘The Origin of the Species’ by Darwin”.
“Ask an American what he thinks about the homosexual problem in the United States and he will awkwardly stammer that he had no idea that such a problem even existed in America,” wrote Jokker. “But the cold numbers in Kinsey’s report show that no less than 27 percent of young and unmarried men practice homosexuality to some degree, and among unmarried men between 36 and 40 years old, 39 percent are homosexual.”
Though reporters and editors of the time were equally sceptical that these figures could in any way be applicable in Denmark, Jokker did acknowledge the possibility of a more-open future. “The report could get us to realise the necessity of a moral society, one that is less based on judgement and wishful-thinking than on truth. Moral concepts and laws can be revised, but nature forces us – even if conflicting – to accept it, as it is.”
Among his friends in Aalborg, Axel reported another reason for activism. “The United Nations had just assembled a declaration of human rights, but you dared not talk about the fact that a group exists who also has a claim on these rights. The right to have our feelings be known.”
Tom Ahlberg was the deputy mayor of Copenhagen in 1989, and it was he that ‘married’ Axel and Eigil. He gave a short speech during the ceremony that made only one alteration to the standard civil service: substituting the word ‘marriage’ with the phrase ‘registered partnership’. Each of the 11 couples, starting with Axel and Eigil, followed Ahlberg into a private side room, where they exchanged their vows.
Ove Carlsen is a psychologist who also married his partner that day. “It was totally wonderful,” he told Time in 2009. “There were musicians playing as we came down from the wedding room, and then we stepped out into the crowd, and everyone was cheering. At that moment, I knew we were writing history.”
Journalist Rex Wockner was at City Hall reporting the occasion. “I was so busy taking pictures and dealing with a translator that I didn’t get emotional until the next morning, when I saw Axel and Eigil on the front pages of the papers,” he wrote in an editorial.
In an interview before finally tying the knot, the then-67-year-old Eigil told him: “We just never could have dreamed we would get this far.” As far as advice for gays in other countries, Eigil said: “Be open. Come out. Keep fighting. This is the only way to change anything. If everyone comes out of the closet, then this will happen everywhere.”
Axel and Eigil continued to run their gay-friendly bed and breakfast in northern Denmark after their marriage. However each man continued to refer to the other as his ‘friend’, unable to change the pattern that had lasted decades. In 1995, Eigil was in hospital after a heart attack that would eventually kill him. “A doctor saw I was always with him, and asked who I was,” Axel recalled in 2009, speaking to Time. “And Eigil looked at me and said: ‘Him? He’s my husband.’”
Axel passed away at the end of October 2011 at the age of 96 in a hospital in Copenhagen. He had lived through nearly a century of society’s changing relationship with homosexuality. His obituary appeared in newspapers around the world honouring his achievements. But he did not manage to live to see the legalisation of gay marriage.
Really, it’s surprising it took so long. Danish society in general had seemed fairly comfortable with the idea of same-sex partnerships. Since they were authorised in 1989, the country has witnessed some 4,700 gay and lesbian civil unions. And last year, homosexual couples in Denmark were also granted the right to adopt children, and this spring, the Lutheran Church of Denmark confirmed it would allow gay couples to get married in churches.
A recent poll had found that more than 60 percent of Danes were in favour of gay marriage. The church minister, Manu Sareen, said it had been a long time coming. And from June 15, gays and lesbians will be able to marry, less than a year after the passing of the pioneer to whom they owe everything.