Marriage Equality in World Politics

Recently, a friend of mine posted an interview online of the new Australian Prime Minister’s opposition to same-sex marriage. It was an interesting article, as she has a very different background from most groups that oppose marriage equality, which I will further discuss later on. I wanted to take a look at the various marriage laws and how they came about in different countries. Currently, there are ten countries, 5 U.S. states and Washington D.C. that have legalized same-sex marriage.

On April 1, 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage. It wasn’t a quick process. As early as the mid-eighties, a group of gay rights activists asked the government to let same-sex couples marry. In 1995, Parliament decided to create a special commission to research the possibility of same-sex marriages.  The Democratic Christian Appeal was not part of the ruling coalition for the first time since the introduction of full democracy. The commission finished their investigation in 1997 and ruled that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. After the legislative election of 1998, the government promised to tackle the issue. In September 2000, the final draft of the bill was voted on by the Dutch Parliament. The House passed the bill 109-33 and the Senate approved the bill on December 19, 2000. Only the Christian parties, which held 26 of the 75 seats at the time, voted against the bill. The mayor of Amsterdam became a registrar specifically to officiate these ceremonies and on April 1, 2001, four couples were married. Statistics show that by June 2004, more than 6000 same-sex couples had been married in the Netherlands, as Dutch law states that only one of the two people in a gay couple that wishes to marry must have citizenship or reside in the country.

On June 1, 2003, Belgium became the second country to legalize same-sex marriage, but with some restrictions. Originally, Belgian law stated that foreigners could only get married there if similar unions existed in their own countries. However, a law enacted in October 2004 allows any couple to marry in Belgium as long as one of the spouses had resided in the country for at least three months. On May 28, 2002, the bill was introduced to the senate and on November 28 of that same year, it passed by an overwhelming 46-15. On January 30, 2003, the bill passed the House with an even more astounding 91-22. King Albert II signed the bill on February 13, 2003 and by July 22, 2005, the Belgian government announced that approximately 2442 same-sex couple had been married since its enactment.

Spain became the third country to legalize same-sex marriage on July 3, 2005. In 2004, the newly elected socialist government, led by President José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, began campaigning for its legalization. After a lengthy debate, the law was passed by the Cortes Generales (Spain’s bicameral parliament) on June 30, 2005, and approximately 4500 couples were married in the first year. The legalization was not without conflict, however, as Spain is a more religiously conservative country. The Roman Catholics were heavily opposed to the law despite a 66% approval from the population.

On July 20, 2005, Canada became the fourth country in the world and the first in the Americas to legalize same-sex marriage, enacting the Civil Marriage Act, which provides a gender neutral definition of marriage. Court decisions in 2003 had already legalized gay marriage in eight of the ten provinces and one of the three territories. Interestingly enough, the Ontario government decided to uphold a marriage performed in Toronto on January 14, 2001, which makes Canada the location of the first legal same-sex marriage in the world.

Same-sex marriage was legalized in South Africa on November 30, 2006. This was probably the most surprising victory for me considering how many gays and lesbians live in fear of their lives in other African countries, such as Uganda, where politicians are currently pushing the Anti-Homosexuality bill, which calls for the death penalty for gay people. This is such a discriminatory and controversial law that even the Roman Catholic Church is publicly opposed to it.

Sweden became the seventh country to legalize same-sex marriage on May 1, 2009 following the passage of a new gender-neutral marriage law by the Swedish parliament. One of the things that I found most surprising about Sweden’s story is that on October 22, 2009, the governing board of the Church of Sweden voted 176-62 for allowing their priests to wed same-sex couples in the new gender-neutral ceremonies, including the use of the term marriage. They were the first Church to take a positive position on the new law. The second and third largest Christian denominations, the Catholic Church and the Pentecostal Movement respectively, said they were “disappointed” with the decision of the Church of Sweden.

Norway legalized same-sex marriage on June 1, 2009, when a gender-neutral marriage bill was passed by the Norwegian legislature. Norway became the first Scandinavian country and the sixth country in the world to legalize gay marriage. Four different polls conducted by Gallup Europe in 2003, Sentio in 2005, Synovate MMI in 2007, and Norstat in 2008, concluded that 61%, 63%, 66%, and 58% respectively, of the Norwegian population supported gender-neutral marriage laws.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Iceland since June 27, 2010. This was yet another gender-neutrality bill that was passed by the Icelandic Althing (their national parliament) on June 11 of that year. No members of parliament actually voted against the bill and public opinion polls show that it was heavily supported bill.

Argentina followed soon after on July 22, 2010. The bill was passed by the Chamber of Deputies on May 5, 2010, and July 15, 2010 by the Senate. Argentina was the first Latin American country and the second in the Americas, following Canada, to pass the law. In a country where the majority of the population is Roman Catholic, the bill passed despite large opposition from the Catholic Church in Argentina led by the Catholic Primate (title or rank given to bishops in certain Christian churches) of Argentina, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires Cardinal Jorge Mario Begoglio. Evangelical groups also joined the opposition.

The final full country to legalize same-sex marriage was Portugal on June 5, 2010. The Prime Minister, José Sócrates, introduced the bill in December 2009 and it was passed by the Assembly of the Republic in February 2010. As with other largely Catholic countries, the bill was met with a great deal of opposition. The Catholic Church of Portugal was opposed to the law, and even though Portugal is a constitutionally secular country, its history as a Catholic country was a main reason for the media sensationalism which heightened the controversy. On May 13, 2010, during an official visit, Pope Benedict XVI publicly opposed the bill, calling it “insidious and dangerous”.

In addition to the countries around the world that have legalized same-sex marriage, many jurisdictions have their own laws. For instance, same-sex marriage became legal in Mexico City on March 4, 2010. Even though that’s the only city in Mexico where these unions can be performed, anyone in Mexico can get married there. In the U.S. there are six states and D.C. that perform same-sex marriages: Massachusetts legalized it in 2004, Connecticut in 2008, D.C., Iowa, and Vermont in 2009, New Hampshire in 2010 and New York in 2011. With the Defense of Marriage Act being signed into law in 1996, states are not required to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. The Obama administration has now declared DOMA unconstitutional and it’s being considered for repeal.

Gay marriage has begun, and life has not changed for the citizens of the commonwealth (referring to Massachusetts being the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage), with the exception of those who can now marry.  –  Brian Lees (One of the original sponsors for the amendment to ban gay marriages.)

It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come even in the last 10 years even though we still have a long way to go. Homosexuality was not fully legalized in the United States until 2003 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ anti-sodomy law in Lawrence vs. Texas. Meanwhile, it’s still illegal in all of Northern Africa with penalties ranging from two years in prison up to the death penalty depending on country. There are a few reasons that I wanted to do this piece on the marriage laws in the world. I wanted to take a look at the reasons for opposition as well as the change in public opinion. Looking back, public opinion has been changing for a while now. Where the majority of the population of the world opposed same-sex marriage when the advocacy groups started their campaigns, with a little education, public opinion over the last decade has swung in our favor. I have noticed that the great majority of opposition comes from religious conservatives. I have heard three main arguments that I want to address: 1. We have to preserve the sanctity of marriage. (With a 53% divorce rate in the U.S. and Larry King on his ninth wife, I’m not sure this argument is really valid.) 2. We have to protect our children. (An Alabama case took a lesbian woman’s children away and gave custody to her abusive ex-husband. How is that protecting our children?) 3. Homosexuality is an abomination. (See my article: Equality vs. Religion.) So, if the main arguments are marriage, children, and religious beliefs, what is the Prime Minister of Australia’s excuse?

In an interview, the new Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, stated that she’s against gay marriage. Now, we’re definitely used to government leaders opposing these unions. However, the majority of them have conservative and religious beliefs to back up their reasoning. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. She’s never been married (she actually lives with her boyfriend), she has no children and she’s an atheist. When asked why she opposes the change in law, she talked about her conservative upbringing and her “respect” of other people’s beliefs. She also mentioned that current opinion prefers that the law continues defining marriage as one man and one woman, but this seems to be a contradiction, as public polls actually show that the population is largely in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. She has made it clear that as long as she’s prime minister, gays and lesbians will not be allowed to marry, and she’s taking her anti-gay policy global. She has instructed the Australian government to deny couples access to CNI (Certificate of No-Impediment to Marriage) documents, thereby prohibiting same-sex couples from getting married overseas.

While our governments have the final say, they do listen to public opinion (most of the time), so I would encourage everyone to get involved. I have often said that we can’t keep complaining about the inequality in the world if we’re not willing to stand up and do something about it. I urge everyone to reach out to your local legislators and let them know where you stand on these issues. Sign this letter to your lawmakers urging them to repeal DOMA. If you want to contact your legislators separately and you don’t know who they are, here’s a list of legislators by district in Maryland. As many of you know, I’m also a huge advocate of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) and they’re always looking for volunteers for their coalition of marriage campaigns. So, please, reach out. Let your opinion be known. It matters!

***On a side note***

When you use the Bible as your excuse for restricting marriage equality, know what you’re supporting:

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4 responses to “Marriage Equality in World Politics

  1. What an interesting and necessary topic! It seems an incredible thing to see those countries where full marriage rites have been passed. I am especially surprised by those nations that have passed marriage equality that have been traditionally Catholic. Just as I was surprised when I stopped to think that Iowa allows same sex marriage (Iowa!! and I live in Washington a liberal state if ever there was one and we are only just now looking at a run at moving towards Marriage equality- we have a robust domestic partner law- but we are behind IOWA!!!!) It boggles the mind. And the Mexican Supreme Court upheld same-sex marriage in 2010. MEXICO!!!!

    • I agree. I wanted to have this information in one place and show my readers that even in nations that are more heavily religious, change can be made! Being from Maryland, we were dealt a hard blow earlier this year when, after being passed by the Assembly, the bill didn’t even make it before the Senate. However, after the victory in New York, the HRC has realized exactly what needs to be done to win here. New York’s win is of course thanks to the Governor, but also to the fact that all of the marriage equality organizations (HRC, Freedom to Marryland, New Yorkers for Marriage, etc) worked together towards their goal. Luckily, our Governor, Martin O’Malley, stated once again that he was dedicating himself to the passage of the bill when it comes up next year, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed. If we can launch a campaign half as extensive as New York’s, we’ll have our win.

      • You know I think we are going to be looking back on the New York passage as a watershed moment. That combined with the President’s determination not to defend DOMA has put new life into the movement. Here in Washington our state Senate is now reconsidering the passage of a full marriage equality bill instead of just a watered down Domestic Partnership law that we have. And what a great thing that they signed their bill on Gay Pride Day in New York City!!

  2. I can definitely see that. Politicians and Advocacy leaders have already stated that New York will pave the way for others to follow suit. New York was by far the most extensive and agressive campaign in history. It was spearheaded by the HRC in conjunction with the Coalition for Marriage and New Yorkers for Marriage Equality. An unprecedented 30 full-time field organizers across the state have generated over 151,608 constituent contacts to targeted legislators including: tens of thousands of post cards, emails, calls and a twice-weekly phone bank.

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