Conservative politician stirs gay marriage debate in Austria

A debate over gay marriage and equal rights for same sex couples has begun in Austria. The debate was sparked by Andreas Khol, the Parliamentary President and a senior figure in the conservative People's Party. Joanna King reports.

It's surprised many that Mr Khol, a known conservative on issues of family and homosexuality should demand that his party review its traditional opposition to gay marriage. He told Der Standard newspaper his party should establish a working group on equal rights for couples in same sex relationships. Others are also demanding a re-think including Christoph Drexler - the People's Party whip in the regional assembly in Styria.

"I think it's absolutely necessary to discuss this issue because, I think, in the Federal Republic of Germany they have had this law for three years now and this law was quite successful. So I hope we will succeed in this issue also in Austria. I think we need a law for the circumstances of a homosexual partnership."

None of the major parties are going so far as to suggest gay marriage. But there seems to be an emerging consensus that the current laws are discriminatory. Heterosexual couples who do not marry do not enjoy the same legal rights and privileges as those who are married. Homosexual couples receive no recognition at all. The Greens will put to Parliament a proposal for what they call a "civil contract." Their spokeswoman on this issue - Ulrike Lunacek.

"What we mean by this is a legal institute of civil unions, legal equality for lesbians and gays and also heterosexual couples in a legal context having more or less the same rights and obligations as married couples have."

Such a civil contract, according to the Greens, would give same sex couples all the right of married couples - but not the title of marriage. However Helmut Graupner, a lawyer and gay rights activist say this does not go far enough..

"It is not satisfactory under the aspect of equality because at the moment heterosexual couples have two choices, living together and marriage. Homosexual couple have only one choice, just living together, marriage is not open to them. If the Green proposal becomes law, then homosexual couples will have two choices, just living together and the new registered partnership but heterosexual couples will have three choices, living together, registered partnership and marriage - and this is again not equality"

But the greens say their proposal is politically achievable and would bring to an end Austria's discriminatory laws which have often been criticised by the European Commission.

"For example it would mean that if my lesbian partner has an accident and is in hospital then I would have the right to information and the right to decide what would happen to her. At the moment it is not possible. Or if I have something to give in inheritance to give to my partner then it would be possible to do that under the lowest tax and not the highest which is the fact now."

Some commentators are suggesting that the debate will not go very far. They say the conservative wing of the people's party, which is closely linked to the catholic church will never accept equal rights for same sex couples. But with so many senior figures in the party calling for change the Greens proposal for a "civil contract" - rather than gay marriage - may just get some attention.