This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
The European Union’s Court of Justice provided a landmark judgment on Tuesday legally recognizing same-sex couples in the bloc. The EU’s highest court found that member states that do not recognize same-sex marriages must still grant residency to EU citizens’ partners under the bloc’s freedom of movement policy.
“Although the Member States have the freedom whether or not to authorize marriage between persons of the same sex, they may not obstruct the freedom of residence of an EU citizen by refusing to grant his same-sex spouse, a national of a country that is not an EU Member State, a derived right of residence in their territory,” the court said in a statement.
It also clarified the definition of spouse, writing that the term “includes spouses of the same sex” within the freedom of movement directive. The term, to the court, is gender neutral.
Tuesday’s ruling involves the case of Romanian Adrian Coman, who married his American husband, Clai Hamilton, in Belgium in 2010. They currently live in the United States.
Romania does not allow or recognize same-sex marriages or civil partnerships. The country is considered one of most anti-LGBTQ countries in the EU; the conservative Romanian Orthodox Church, along with anti-LGBTQ groups, has successfully urged the government not to pass equality measures that are common throughout the rest of Europe.
U.S. citizens can only stay in Romania for 90 days before requiring some sort of residency permit or extension. This barred the couple from the chance to settle in the country. The Romanian authorities would not provide Hamilton with the necessary residency documents because, as the court said, “he could not be classified in Romania as a ‘spouse’ of an EU citizen as that Member State does not recognize marriage between persons of the same sex.”
Coman and Hamilton went to Romania’s constitutional court to appeal the decision in 2013. That court then referred it to the ECJ in 2016.
Responding to the ruling, Hamilton tweeted: “My [husband] and I are so excited for this decision! We thank everyone who has supported us in this journey! Now we are one step closer to being recognized as a family!”
“We can now look in the eyes of any public official in Romania and across the EU with certainty that our relationship is equally valuable and equally relevant,” Coman said. “We are grateful to the EU Court and to the many people and institutions who have supported us, and through us, other same-sex couples in a similar situation.”
The judgment does not require EU countries to recognize marriages of same-sex couples, only to allow residency. But human rights groups and politicians still praised the court’s decision and called on the Romanian authorities to quickly comply with the ruling.
Romanita Iordache, vice president of the ACCEPT Association, a group that supported Coman and Hamilton in their case, said in a statement from the European LGBTQ rights organization ILGA-Europe that EU norms should now apply equally to same-sex families beyond only spousal recognition.
ILGA-Europe had acted as a third party intervener in the case to support Coman and Hamilton. Its executive director, Evelyne Paradis, praised the ruling.
“[The court] recognized that rainbow families should be recognized equally in the eyes of the law on freedom of movement. Now we want to see the Romanian authorities to move swiftly to make this judgment a reality,” she said.
EU politicians also hailed the ruling. The EU commissioner for justice, consumers, and gender equality, Vera Jourova, wrote her support for the decision on Twitter, saying she welcomed the results. Others noted that there is work to be done in Romania and across the EU.
“While this calls for celebration, we must stress that much remains to be done for Rainbow Families in the European Union. Too few countries allow same-sex couples to enter registered partnerships, let alone marriage. These families remain unrecognized and unprotected by law,” said Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch Member of the European Parliament and vice president of its LGBTI intergroup.
Recently, EU member states had been called out by LGBTQ rights activists on the static movement of LGBTQ rights. In its annual assessment of Europe’s performance, ILGA-Europe found that advances in policies are not progressing as in previous years. The group also cautioned against rising nationalist and populist movements in member states and the effect these movements have on LGBTQ-identifying people.
The organization ranks countries from across Europe, not only in the EU, on the laws in place protecting the LGBTQ population on the continent. The Netherlands, which became the first country to allow same-sex marriage in 2001, even slipped in its ranking.
Currently, six out of the 28 EU member states do not allow same-sex marriage. Northern Ireland also does not recognize it. For more than a year, Romania has been attempting to organize a referendum banning same-sex marriage. If the referendum were successful, marriage would be enshrined in the constitution as between a man and a woman. This follows other EU countries like Croatia and Slovakia that held similar referendums. The one in Croatia succeeded, though its government still recognizes same-sex civil partnerships. Slovakia’s referendum, however, failed.
Tuesday’s ruling provides some hope to activists who are concerned with the stagnation of LGBTQ rights in EU countries that have resisted embracing equality.
“It is human dignity that wins today,” Coman said.