In the last eight years, same-sex marriage has become legal in seven countries. The first ceremonies were performed in the Netherlands in 2001.
Belgium followed in 2003, Canada and Spain in 2005 and South Africa in 2006.
The most recent countries to allow it are Norway, which introduced the law in 2008, and Sweden, in May of this year. Same-sex marriage is recognized, but not performed in Israel, Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles, Washington D.C., and New York state.
“This train is moving. In fact it’s unstoppable,” says Cary Johnson, executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, based in New York City.
Johnson notes, however, that there has been a backlash by some conservative governments.
“Latvia, Congo, and Uganda have passed constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, even though such marriages were already technically impossible in these countries. The East African nation of Burundi just implemented a law criminalizing homosexuality.”
For gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, the battle for same-sex marriage is emblematic for the struggle for equality, notes Johnson. “What could be more human than to want to have your primary relationship recognized by the state and society?” he says.
Many countries that don’t recognize gay marriage allow civil unions and registered partnerships. Denmark was the first to grant same-sex civil partnerships in 1989 with most of the same rights as marriage.
In Croatia, same-sex partners who have shared a residence for at least three years are recognized as a civil union. Finland has offered registered partnership benefits since 2001, but partners cannot take on surnames or adopt. Germans have been able to register as partners since 2001 and rights include second parent adoption.
Gay and lesbian Icelanders have had registered partnerships since 1996 with the full rights of marriage, including adoption. In Portugal, unregistered civil unions have been extended to same-sex couples since 2001 as long as they have been living together for two years.
The United Kingdom’s Civil Partnership Act has allowed registered same-sex couples all the rights of married heterosexual couples since 2005.