This article originally appeared in May 2012.
On Tuesday, North Carolina voted to amend their constitution making gay marriage illegal. In response, on Wednesday President Obama came out in support of same-sex marriage. It will probably be a long time before anything is decided here. But eleven other countries have already legalized gay marriage. Here are their stories.
1. The Netherlands
In 1996, 15 years after gay activists brought the issue to the forefront in the early 1980s, the Dutch Parliament created a special commission to look into what effect, if any, making gay marriage legal would have on the country. Four years later legislation was passed making same-sex marriages legal starting April 1, 2001. Four couples, six men and two women, were married at midnight on that date by the Mayor of Amsterdam. The women wore classic wedding dresses with long trains, two of the male couples wore suits, and the third wore leather.
Ten years later, Senator Hannie van Leeuwen, who had fought hard against legalization, said, “At the time I opposed same-sex marriage, I was led by fear. Having seen so many happy gay and lesbian couples getting married, I realize I was wrong."
One year after the Netherlands’ first weddings, a bill was put forward for similar legislation in the Belgian Senate. At the time same-sex couples in the country had some rights thanks to a 1998 law allowing registered cohabitation. On June 1, 2003 the first legal gay marriages were performed.
One of those first couples was Alain De Jonge and Olivier Pierret. At their reception, Olivier’s stoic 74-year-old father gave an unplanned speech, saying, “You’ve envisaged and built your life along a different emotional track from that of your parents. That's your right and above all your choice, and I respect and accept it with sincerity and joy.”
On June 8, 1901, Elisa Sanchez Loriga, dressed as a man and using a male alias, married her girlfriend Marcela Gracia Ibeas. Once the truth was discovered (and published in two newspapers) the women lost their jobs, were excommunicated, and had to flee the country in order to escape arrest. Despite all this their marriage was never annulled, making theirs the first recorded gay marriage in Spain’s history.
On June 30, 2005, the lower house of the Spanish Parliament overrode the Senate’s rejection and made same-sex marriage legal. The bill was heavily opposed by the Catholic Church, but despite 80% of Spaniards identifying as Catholics, polls showed 62% of the population was in favor of the legislation.
By the time Parliament legalized gay marriage on July 20, 2005, almost all of Canada’s provinces and territories had already legalized it themselves. But Canada’s legalization process has not been without its problems. After passing the legislation, Canada issued more than 15,000 marriage licenses to foreign same-sex couples who lived in the country or traveled there to get married. What these couples were not told was that the law said their marriage was only valid in Canada if same-sex unions were legal in their home country, although they were issued Canadian marriage licenses regardless of where they were from. In January of this year, an Anglo-American couple who got married there tried to get divorced in Canada, only to be told by the judge that their marriage had never existed. After that, more than 5,000 such couples found out they had never really been married in the eyes of the law.
5. South Africa
In some African countries, you can be sentenced to death or life in prison simply for being gay. But South Africa is different, and the rights afforded to gays in that country since November 30, 2006, can be directly traced back to the end of apartheid. The 1997 Constitution made almost any form of discrimination illegal, including that based on sexual orientation. In 2005, the Supreme Court found that the definition of marriage unfairly excluded same-sex partnerships and gave the Parliament one year to pass the necessary legislation.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates the connection between the end of apartheid and the legalization of same-sex marriage than one interaction between a black woman from the townships and a middle-class white man for whom she was preparing a marriage license. When he said he “didn’t want to make a fuss” and that there would be no guests and no rings, the woman asked, “Do you think you are a second-class citizen because you are gay? You have full rights in this new South Africa. You have the right to make a fuss.”
In 1993, Norway became only the second country, after Denmark, to recognize “registered partnerships” between same-sex couples. Starting in 2004, same-sex marriage became a topic of discussion in Parliament, although no legislation for full marriage status was passed until June 17, 2008, going into effect on the first day of 2009.
The main party against same-sex marriage, the Christian Democrats, is finally coming around to the idea some three years later. Just this week they signaled a major shift to the left in the party’s position on gay marriage, saying that all couples in Norway should be allowed to get married in non-religious ceremonies, but that the decision to marry any couple in a religious ceremony should still be left to the individual church.
Scandinavia is one of the most liberal parts of the world, and 71% of the population of Sweden was in favor of same-sex marriage replacing the registered partnerships that had been legal since 1995. Legislation was passed in May 2008, and five months later the Lutheran Church of Sweden announced its full support of gay marriage.
When neighboring Spain passed their legislation in 2008, campaigners in Portugal pushed even harder for same-sex marriage, and wanting to keep up with their neighbor most likely played a large part in Portugal legalization. There are very few other obvious reasons why this largely Catholic and traditional nation accepted the idea so quickly. Homosexuality was a crime until 1982. Single women still cannot adopt or receive any fertility treatments. In 2009, support for gay marriage was at only around 40%. But when Prime Minster Jose Socrates was running for re-election in 2009, he made legalizing same-sex marriage part of his platform, reportedly after seeing the movie Milk and remembering a childhood friend who was gay. His legislation passed and the law went into effect June 5, 2010.
In Iceland, not a single member of Parliament voted no on the country’s same-sex marriage legislation. That might have had something to do with the fact that the most powerful person in the country would be affected by the outcome. Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir had her registered partnership changed to a marriage on June 27, 2010, the same day the legislation went into effect.
This South American country is the most recent to legalize same-sex marriage; it did so on July 22, 2010. It is also the third predominantly Catholic country on this list. Considering the Church’s views on gay marriage and homosexuality in general this is rather surprising. But the people who study this sort of thing have a theory: Portugal, Spain, and Argentina were all under dictatorship until well into the second half of the 20th century. The older generations, which in countries like the USA generally tend to be against same-sex marriage, remember what it is like to be persecuted for things you can’t control.
OK, Mexico gets an asterisk by it when it comes to gay marriage. The reason Mexico isn’t usually listed with the other ten is because since December 21, 2009, gay marriages can be performed in the capital, Mexico City — but only in that city.
In the US, gay marriage is legal in Washington D.C., but if a gay couple moves to Texas, their marriage would not be recognized. In Mexico, any couple can get married in the capital and that marriage is legal throughout the country. Individual states can now decide if they want to perform their own same-sex marriages. Quintana Roo, where holiday and beach wedding hot spot Cancun is located, is currently working on its own legislation.