A global license to marry

PAULA L. ETTELBRICK is the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.

WHILE STATE after state in the U.S. closes its doors to the prospect of same-sex marriage, lesbian and gay relationships have been gaining acceptance in the rest of the world.

Last month, South Africa joined the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and Spain in opening civil marriage to same-sex couples, allowing them equal economic benefits, legal rights and social status as families. The law, passed by an astounding 230-41 margin in Parliament, was in response to an equally notable unanimous decision last year by the South African Constitutional Court. It ruled that the post-apartheid constitution ensures the dignity and equality of all people -- and that includes lesbian and gay couples wishing to affirm their love and commitment through civil marriage.

Days afterward, when faced with five Israeli lesbian and gay couples who had married in Canada, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the government is required to officially register them as they would any other foreign marriage.

In the U.S., only Massachusetts has enacted full marriage for same-sex couples. Vermont, Connecticut and California have elected to use the less inflammatory terms civil union” or “domestic partnership,” and New Jersey is still hashing out its terminology. The majority of the states have laws or constitutional amendments restricting “marriage” to one woman and one man.


Denmark in 1989 became the first nation to legally recognize same-sex relationships, and Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland swiftly followed that lead. Much of Europe, including France, Germany, Portugal and Hungary, now recognizes same-sex partnerships for a range of purposes, including inheritance, property and social-benefits rights. Countries in formerly communist blocs -- the Czech Republic and Slovenia -- recognize partnerships, and Croatia has extended some economic benefits to same-sex couples.

In September, the Senate in Uruguay voted 25 to 2 to pass a broad partnership law, positioning that country to be the first Latin American nation to extend legal rights when it is passed by the full legislature. New Zealand’s and Australia’s domestic partnership laws allow some of the most important benefits, such as immigration, inheritance and property rights. The government in Taiwan suggested a bill allowing same-sex marriage, though nothing has yet come of it. In Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Switzerland, some economic and legal rights have been extended by city and regional authorities. Just last month, Mexico City broke ground as the first government entity in that country to recognize same-sex civil unions.

These developments clearly mean that the number of same-sex couples whose relationships are legally valid is on the rise. By the end of the decade, it is possible that hundreds of thousands of same-sex couples will have entered legal marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships.

When Britain’s domestic partnership registration law went into effect last December, government ministers predicted that between 11,000 and 22,000 couples would benefit from the law by 2010. More than 6,500 same-sex couples registered just in the first year.


About 12,000 Canadian, 7,000 Dutch, 2,500 Belgian and 1,300 Spanish same-sex couples are already married.

These unions are already having ripple effects around the globe. In Ireland, a lesbian couple is asking the government to recognize their Canadian marriage. A court in the Caribbean country of Aruba ruled that the Dutch marriage of a lesbian couple must be registered in Aruba, which is part of the kingdom of the Netherlands.

How this trend will play out in countries that have not yet recognized same-sex relationships is still up in the air. Will the United States, for instance, accommodate a major corporation’s desire to have one of its top executives from Canada move here with her legal spouse? Or a domestic-partnered diplomat from New Zealand? Or an American lucky enough to find the man of his dreams while working in South Africa? Will Sir Elton John’s highly publicized civil union with longtime partner David Furnish be recognized by a hospital emergency room in Las Vegas or St. Louis or Salt Lake City should one of them fall ill on a concert tour?

TO BE SURE, the backlash prompted by increased gay and lesbian visibility, whether through marriage or other demands for equality, has been fierce. South Africa’s decision has drawn angry responses from religious and community leaders. Angry crowds in Moscow last May jeered a few dozen lesbian and gay marchers and demanded that Russia be cleansed of the evils of homosexuality. Likewise, an international gay pride event in Jerusalem had to be held in a stadium -- instead of as a parade -- because of threats and lobbying from ultra-Orthodox Jews and some Muslim and Christian groups.


Gay communities haven’t even raised the issue of marriage in Latvia, Uganda and Honduras -- where police violence and state discrimination are still standard practice. Yet the governments of those countries have gone out of their way to promote anti-gay hostility by outlawing same-sex marriage.

In Nigeria, a bill awaiting legislative action would impose criminal penalties for engaging in or performing a marriage ceremony for two men or two women.

In the United States, President Bush has consistently pushed the radical measure of amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, as has Australia’s prime minister, John Howard.

Despite the backlash, one fact is self-evident. The trend toward recognizing the dignity and love of two people of the same sex will not disappear. As barriers to same-sex couples fall, courts, legislatures, religious denominations and businesses everywhere will need to respond.


As Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero proclaimed when his newly elected reform government approved same-sex marriage in 2005: “We are not the first, but I am sure we will not be the last. After us will come many other countries, driven, ladies and gentlemen, by two unstoppable forces: freedom and equality.”