Nations Say “I Do” to Marriage Equality

In history, the concept of marriage emerged in diverse cultures to recognize relationships, protect family bloodlines, organize economic affairs and provide caring for children. This institution did not touch homosexuals, estimated to comprise 5 to 10 percent of the population, most of whom remained mum about their preferences. With new forms of global technology in media, communicable diseases, fertility treatment and activism emerging in the 20th century, homosexuals quickly connected not only to meet and commiserate but plan strategy and rally for changes in laws and social understanding. By 2001, the Netherlands authorized marriage for gay partnerships and other jurisdictions rapidly followed suit. Demographer Joseph Chamie and independent consultant Barry Mirkin analyze how the phenomenon of same-sex marriage has emerged into the open and, thanks to growing global connectedness, has spread to the world. The right to marry, both declaring lifelong love and protecting economic interests as a contract, remains a viable reason for many to cross borders. – YaleGlobal

Nations Say “I Do” to Marriage Equality

Homosexuals reject policies that leave their status in economic and legal limbo
Joseph Chamie, Barry Mirkin
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Untying the legal knot: Australians demonstrate for same sex marriage

NEW YORK: Same-sex marriage is a new social phenomenon and, indeed, the label of homosexuality is relatively new, offered by German psychologist Karoly Maria Benkert in 1869. Even so, homosexual unions have been documented in Greece, Rome, China and elsewhere in the world since the days of antiquity, with varying mixtures of curiosity and nonchalance, praise and horror. But only with the modern era have increasing numbers of countries, regional governments and religious institutions sanctioned the right to legal marriage for couples of the same sex, along with all the economic protections and benefits this provides for partners and children.

In the late 20th century, movements emerged worldwide – first in Europe and then spreading to other regions – to regard marriage as a basic human right to be extended to same-sex couples. The public demands were extraordinary indeed, given that during most of the 20th century, many homosexuals kept their preferences secret, and others perceived same-sex marriage as an oxymoron.

Today seven countries, five US states, Washington, DC, and several Latin American cities have legalized same-sex marriage. The Netherlands ushered the way in 2001, the first nation to permit same-sex couples to marry legally. This historic decision marked a turning point, with demands for equality reverberating across borders. Barriers fell as Belgium (2003), Massachusetts (2004), Canada and Spain (2005), South Africa (2006), Norway and Sweden (2009) each approved legislation. Court decisions can go both ways: Massachusetts declared denial of marriage rights for same-sex couples as unconstitutional in 2004; while national courts review same-sex marriage embraced by Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Tierra del Fuego province of Argentina in early 2010.

After lying hidden from public view for centuries, the phenomenon exploded, and globalization of the media, technology and activism certainly played a role.

Television situation comedies, soap operas and reality shows, notably in the UK and US, delivered affable gay characters to family living rooms. The popular and critically acclaimed US television series “Friends” featured the first lesbian wedding on primetime network TV in 1996, enshrining the concept into popular culture, and the fans did not flee.

Sudden expansion of technological communications, particularly the internet, and worldwide diffusion from books, movies, television and news stories told homosexuals that they are not alone, rallying marriage-equality movements and generating public support. Proponents of same-sex marriage relied on internet and cell-phone social networking for both dating and building coalitions.

At the same time, a proliferation of secularism and corresponding decline in the influence of religious doctrines were underway, a trend reinforced by the global emphasis on individual human rights coupled with court decisions that challenged public sentiment and legislation prohibiting same-sex marriages. The rise of HIV/AIDS and campaigns to confront the pandemic through the promotion of stable relationships also raised public awareness and mobilized demands for homosexual rights.

This awareness and accompanying historic changes in marriage laws arrived amidst considerable controversies and divisive litigation. Reactions to same-sex marriage have been intense and sometimes even violent, with many commentators as well as much of the general public having little factual knowledge about same-sex marriages. The actual number of legal same-sex marriages worldwide remains small – about 100,000 by the end of the decade. After initial surges following legalization, annual levels of same-sex marriage in the European nations make up about 2 percent of marriages. 

All in all, laws and policies addressing same-sex couples have changed worldwide in the direction of increased tolerance, social acceptance and decriminalization, especially among younger generations. Growing numbers of governments, including Cyprus, Iceland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Slovenia, and Nepal are now considering legislation to permit same-sex marriage or, at least in this mobile society, to recognize same-sex marriages legally performed abroad, as is the case in France, Israel and Japan.

Importantly, public opinion polls around the globe, especially in developed nations, show strong support for recognizing same-sex couples as partnerships or civil unions. Recognition and acceptance of same-sex civil unions is entrenched throughout the Western Hemisphere, including Argentina, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador and Uruguay as well as in Australia and New Zealand.

Nevertheless, opposition remains intense, particularly among religious groups, because of the widespread belief that marriage by its nature is a union between a man and a woman, intended to protect reproduction. The issue is especially litigious in the United States. Although marriage is a state matter in the US, same-sex marriage has evolved into a major legal issue for the nation as a whole.

Other debates focus on the acceptability of homosexuality itself. Some countries only recently decriminalized same-sex sexual relations between consenting adults, such as China in 1997 and India in 2009.

In some 80 countries, same-sex sexual relations remain illegal, with penalties ranging from fines and prison terms to physical punishment and death. Polls suggest that majorities of the public in some African and Asian countries, such as Nigeria and the Republic of Korea, claim that homosexuality can never be justified. Recently, violence and threats of death punishment for homosexuality and arrests of gay couples have occurred in a number of African nations, including Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

Arguments on the topic of same-sex marriage fall into two camps. Those favoring same-sex marriage point to basic human rights, egalitarianism, stable partnerships, monogamy and safe sex and integration of minorities into mainstream society. Opponents resist redefinition or any undermining of traditional marriage or families, promotion of a homosexual lifestyle, change in social mores, as well as question the limited research on children raised by homosexual parents. A good deal of the opposition to same-sex marriage arises from a fundamental rejection of the use of the word "marriage" with respect to same-sex couples. While some are prepared to compromise on the issue and recognize same-sex unions, they are unwilling to let the term marriage be applied to such unions.

Irrespective of one’s position on this contentious issue, same-sex marriage is increasingly viewed as more than a private matter between two consenting adults; marriage imposes notable social, economic and political consequences, with respect to rights, benefits, responsibilities, privileges and services.

Moreover, the implications of same-sex marriage extend well beyond the borders where it’s permitted, influencing international relations and diplomacy, global norms and regional politics. Modifications in marriage laws affect many laws on adoption, divorce, child custody, inheritance, end-of-life and other health decisions, as well as international migration. Governments that do not recognize same-sex marriage must increasingly confront the thorny issues of granting divorce, determining child custody, or dealing with the immigration of same-sex foreign spouses in marriages performed outside their jurisdictions. 

The institution of marriage has undergone fundamental transformation. In addition to the diversity of marital unions, non-traditional arrangements – such as cohabitation, non-marital childbearing, assisted reproduction and surrogacy, interracial and inter-religious unions as well as divorce and separation have become commonplace and more acceptable. 

In the years ahead, social tensions and legal challenges concerning same-sex marriage – as well as more broadly the human rights of homosexuals – will intensify, especially as international migration brings cultures into closer contact. 

Same-sex marriage will remain a controversial part of the social, political and legal landscape both nationally and internationally for the foreseeable future. Dismissing or ignoring these developments is not an option. Governments that directly address concerns over same-sex marriage could decrease economic ramifications and reduce conflict and possible violence in the long run.


Joseph Chamie is research director at the Center for Migration Studies and Barry Mirkin is an independent consultant.

Copyright © 2010 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization