Equal marriage around the world

Eleven countries have legalised same-sex marriage, with the Netherlands paving the way back in 2001. Can the UK become the 12th?

Fact File
  • 2005 The year same-sex couples were allowed to enter into civil partnerships in the UK
  • Life in prison The punishment for homosexual acts in seven countries: Sierra Leone, North Sudan, Uganda, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Barbados and Guyana
  • 35 The number of countries where homosexual acts are illegal for men but legal for women

There are currently eleven countries in the world which recognize and perform same-sex marriage: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa and Sweden. In addition, a number of sub-national jurisdictions have full marriage equality, such as Mexico City and New York State, while countries like Israel and Uruguay and territories like Rhode Island recognize, but do not perform, same-sex marriage.


Allow Same Sex Marriage

In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage. This was the result of consultations that began in 1995. In 1998, registered partnerships were brought in. These partnerships were designed to offer same-sex couples an alternative to marriage, but were also available to straight couples (some estimates suggest a third of registered partnerships between 1999 and 2001 were for heterosexual couples). Christian groups opposed the introduction of same-sex marriage, as did the opposition Christian Democrats when the legislation came to parliament in 2000. Nonetheless, the bill passed easily. Following the passage of the law, the Protestant Church in the Netherlands, the country’s largest protestant denomination, allowed individual parishes to choose whether to conduct same-sex marriages or not.

Belgium followed suit in 2003, followed by Spain and Canada in 2005. In Spain, the measure was also connected to granting gays and lesbians full adoption rights. Same-sex marriage was fiercely resisted by the Catholic Church, which organized street demonstrations against it, in spite of the fact that some 66% of the Spanish public were in favour of the changes. The country’s current prime minister has signalled his opposition to same-sex marriage, and has hinted that he may seek to repeal it. The Constitutional Court, however, is thought likely to keep the measure.

In 2006, South Africa legalized same sex marriage. Here, the initiative was that of the courts, who were upholding the clause in South Africa which forbids discrimination based on gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. The country’s Constitutional Court instructed the legislature to amend the marriage statutes to end discrimination. To avoid accusations of setting up a ‘separate but equal’ status for same sex couples, the parliament decided to offer both civil unions and marriages, and to offer them both to same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Religious officials are permitted to conduct same-sex marriages in South Africa if they wish, while civil officials also have the right to recuse themselves from performing such ceremonies if they object to the principle of same-sex marriage and have notified the home secretary in advance.

Norway and then Sweden became the next countries to recognize same-sex marriages in 2009. Both countries had long had civil partnership legislation that granted almost identical rights to marriage, but it was felt that a gender-neutral marriage law should be brought about. Shortly after the law was changed in Sweden, the Church of Sweden—effectively the country’s established church—voted overwhelmingly to perform same sex marriages.

In spite of fierce opposition from the Catholic Church and the country’s own president, the government of Prime Minister Jose Socrates pushed through same-sex marriage legislation in Portugal in 2010; like in neighbouring Spain, the issue also concerned granting full adoption rights to gays and lesbians. Later that year Iceland became the ninth country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage. The vote was passed unanimously by the Althing, the country’s parliament, and shortly afterwards Iceland’s openly lesbian prime minister had her civil union upgraded to a full marriage. Also in 2010, Argentina legalised same-sex marriage and granted full adoption rights to same-sex couples. Civil unions had been possible in several provinces previously. Denmark, the country that pioneered the recognition of same-sex unions with its civil partnership bill back in 1989, recognized same-sex marriage in 2012.

Civil Unions

Civil unions or partnerships offer some form of legal recognition to same-sex couples. While they are sometimes referred to as marriages colloquially, they are legally a separate status. In some countries, such as the UK, married couples and civil partners enjoy almost identical rights and obligations, while in Colombia same-sex couples that have cohabited for two years are entitled to the same rights and benefits as married couples, but get no special status under the law. It is worth remembering that even where civil partners are granted almost identical rights to married couples, unless there is full equality they are still denied the right to marry.

In jurisdictions such as Brazil, New Zealand, Uruguay, France, South Africa and the U.S. states of Hawaii and Illinois, civil unions are also open to opposite-sex couples also; some campaigners would like to see the UK follow suit. In countries such as Argentina both civil unions and same-sex marriages are available. In Denmark, which in 1989 became the first country in the world to recognize any sort of civil union between same sex partners, the civil partnership act was replaced entirely by the gender-neutral marriage act of 2012. In Scotland, England and Wales it is likely that civil partnerships will remain an option for same-sex couples, though there will also be a mechanism that will allow civil partners to ‘upgrade’ their status to married without needing to perform a further ceremony. There are currently no plans to introduce same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.

Owing to the difficulty in establishing what is a fully-fledged civil union, and the constantly changing legal environment, it is hard to give a definitive list of the countries and territories that offer civil partnerships, but the list would include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands, Ireland, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa Uruguay and Venezuela. Additionally, in the US the following states offer civil unions of some kind: California, Connecticut, Delaware, the District of Columbia, the Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington.


Self-governing units in a number of countries recognize same-sex marriage, even where their national government does not. In Mexico, Australia and the US constituent parts of the country have full marriage equality, but these marriages are not necessarily recognized outside of the sub-national territory. In many countries that currently recognize same-sex marriage, the groundwork was laid by local legislatures. In Canada and Argentina, for example, some provinces recognised civil unions while others did not, leading to a change in the law at a federal level.

In Mexico, where all official marriages are state marriages and therefore secular, same-sex marriages are performed in the states of Mexico (since 2010) and Qintana Roo (since 2012). In addition, same-sex civil partnerships are also offered in Mexico State and in Coahulia. Significantly, while only two states perform same-sex marriage, all the states of the Mexican Federation recognise these unions.

Australia, meanwhile, recognises same-sex relationships as domestic partnerships, which are registered in the register of births, marriages and deaths. In 2008, Tasmania became the first Australian state to recognise same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, and is likely to pass legislation soon that would see same-sex marriages performed there.

United States

Without a doubt, the debate on same-sex marriage is most polarized and fraught in the United States. Since 1996, the Defence of Marriage Act has prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, and has allowed each U.S. state to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed in another state.

In spite of this, six states, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont, recognize and perform same-sex marriage, as does the District of Columbia and the Coquille and Suquamish Native American Tribes. Furthermore, Maryland and Rhode Island recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere, but do not conduct such unions themselves.

Following the passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008, that state no longer performs same-sex marriage, though it does recognise marriages entered into before November, 2008, when the proposition passed.

Washington, Maryland and Maine will decide whether to allow same-sex marriage during the November elections this year.


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