Marriage Equality: Global Comparisons
Backgrounder

Marriage Equality: Global Comparisons

A growing number of countries are legalizing same-sex marriage amid a steady advance in rights for LGBTQ+ people, but opposition remains strong in many others.
The first known same-sex couple to get married in Northern Ireland addresses the media in February 2020.
The first known same-sex couple to get married in Northern Ireland addresses the media in February 2020. Phil Noble/Reuters
Summary
  • More than two dozen countries have marriage equality, and more than half of these are in Western Europe.
  • Cuba and Slovenia were the latest to legalize same-sex marriage, both in 2022.
  • The expansion of LGBTQ+ rights around the globe has been uneven, with bans on same-sex relationships still in place in many countries.

Introduction

Thirty-three countries, including the United States, have legalized same-sex marriage, and some others recognize same-sex civil unions. Yet same-sex marriage remains banned in many countries, and the expansion of broader LGBTQ+ rights has been uneven globally. International organizations, including the United Nations, have issued resolutions in support of LGBTQ+ rights, but human rights groups say these organizations have limited power to enforce them.

International Norms, Democracy, and LGBTQ+ Rights

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Rights monitors find a strong correlation between LGBTQ+ rights and democratic societies; the research and advocacy group Freedom House lists nearly all the countries with marriage equality—when same-sex couples have the same legal right to marriage as different-sex couples—as “free.” “Wherever you see restrictions on individuals—in terms of speech, expression, or freedom of assembly—you see a crackdown on LGBT rights,” says Julie Dorf, senior advisor to the Council for Global Equality, a Washington-based group that promotes LGBTQ+ rights in U.S. foreign policy. “It’s the canary in the coal mine,” she says.

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Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst College who focuses on LGBTQ+ rights in Latin America, points to income levels and the influence of religion in politics, as well as the overall strength of democracy, to explain regional divergences [PDF].

The UN Human Rights Council, expressing “grave concern” over violence and discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity, commissioned the body’s first study on the topic [PDF] in 2011. In 2014, the council passed a resolution to combat anti-LGBTQ+ violence and discrimination. Two years later, the United Nations appointed its first-ever independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity. “What is important here is the gradual building of consensus,” says Graeme Reid, director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights program at Human Rights Watch. “There’s an accumulation of moral pressure on member states to at least address the most overt forms of discrimination or violence.”

Activists have focused on antiviolence and antidiscrimination campaigns rather than marriage equality. “There’s no sensible diplomat who would think that pushing same-sex marriage on a country that’s not ready for it is a good idea,” says Dorf. She adds that not all countries with marriage equality allow same-sex couples to jointly adopt and cautions against equating the right to marry with freedom from discrimination. Still, antidiscrimination laws are gaining traction worldwide. In 2020, eighty-one countries and territories, including some that retain sodomy laws, had protections against employment discrimination [PDF] based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

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United States

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that the Constitution grants same-sex couples the right to marry. The 5-4 ruling effectively legalized same-sex marriage in the thirteen states where it remained banned and extended to U.S. territories. In 2022, amid fears that the Supreme Court could rule to let states deny the validity of same-sex marriages, Congress passed and President Joe Biden signed into law the Respect for Marriage Act, which recognizes such marriages at the federal level. That year, 71 percent of Americans polled approved of same-sex marriage, up from 27 percent in 1996.

Despite the increase in public support for same-sex marriage, debate continues between advocates of legal equality and individuals and institutions that object to marriage equality on the basis of religious belief. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because of his religious beliefs, violating the state’s civil rights law. However, the court chose not to issue a broader ruling on whether businesses have a right to deny goods or services to LGBTQ+ people for religious reasons. In 2020, the court ruled that a 1964 civil rights law prohibiting sex discrimination in the workplace also applies to discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The ruling protected LGBTQ+ employees from being fired in more than half of states where no such legal protections previously existed.

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However, the Supreme Court’s decision in 2022 to overturn Roe v. Wade, a case that used the fourteenth amendment to protect the right to have an abortion, sparked some concerns that it would similarly overturn its 2015 decision on marriage equality. In his concurring opinion on the 2022 ruling, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that Obergefell v. Hodges was “demonstrably erroneous” and that the court had a duty to overrule this and other decisions. 

Europe

More than half of the countries that have marriage equality are in Western Europe. Same-sex marriage has been legalized in the Netherlands (2001), Belgium (2003), Spain (2005), Norway (2009), Sweden (2009), Portugal (2010), Iceland (2010), Denmark (2012), France (2013), the United Kingdom (2013), Luxembourg (2015), Ireland (2015), Finland (2017), Malta (2017), Germany (2017), Austria (2019), and Switzerland (2021). In Italy, the parliament approved civil unions for same-sex couples in 2016, but same-sex marriage is not legal. Lawmakers in Andorra voted in 2022 to convert all same-sex civil unions to civil marriages and legalize same-sex marriage. The changes will take effect in early 2023. Meanwhile, Slovenia made history in 2022 as the first country of the former Yugoslavia to legalize marriage and adoption for same-sex couples.

“More than half of the countries that have marriage equality are in Western Europe.”

Despite this, same-sex marriage remains restricted in much of Central and Eastern Europe. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that support for legal recognition of same-sex marriage was 28 percent in Lithuania and 14 percent in Ukraine. Support in Poland and Hungary has increased in recent years, to 47 percent and 49 percent, respectively, though both maintain bans on same-sex marriage. At least ten other countries in Central and Eastern Europe have such prohibitions. Estonia allows civil unions, though popular support for marriage equality in the Baltic states is low. The Czech Republic and Hungary recognize same-sex partnerships. In 2018, a Budapest court ruled that same-sex marriages performed abroad must be recognized as partnerships. Since then, however, Hungarian lawmakers and populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban have passed several anti-LGBTQ+ laws, including ones that prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children and ban any content deemed to promote being gay or transgender from being distributed to people under the age of eighteen. The European Union (EU) condemned the laws as discriminatory.

In 2013, Russia made it a crime to distribute “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships among minors.” Dozens of people have been fined for violations, including participating in protests and sharing articles on social media. Human rights groups say the law is a tool for anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination, and Europe’s top human rights court ruled that it is discriminatory and violates freedom of expression. In 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law an expansion of the ban. It prohibited the distribution of such material to adults, made it illegal to treat same-sex relationships as “normal,” and increased penalties against people who violate the law. Meanwhile, in Chechnya, a semiautonomous republic within Russia, dozens of men suspected of being gay have been detained, tortured, and even killed in two separate official crackdowns since 2017.

The EU does not require its members to recognize same-sex marriage, though a 2018 ruling [PDF] by the EU’s top court says they must uphold same-sex couples’ rights to freedom of movement and residence. In 2021, the court ruled that all EU countries must recognize children of same-sex couples, even countries that do not have marriage equality. The ruling came after Bulgaria refused to grant identity documents to the daughter of a same-sex couple. A 2013 European Parliament report on human rights and democracy “encourages” EU institutions and member states to recognize same-sex marriage or civil unions as “a political, social and human and civil rights issue” [PDF]; however, the EU is not able to impose such policy changes on its members. 

Americas

In 2005, Canada became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize same-sex marriage. It was followed by Argentina in 2010, Brazil and Uruguay in 2013, Mexico in 2015, Colombia in 2016, Ecuador in 2019, Costa Rica in 2020, and Chile in 2021. The only Central American country to recognize same-sex couples is Costa Rica, though some others in the region have limited antidiscrimination protections. 

Support for marriage equality varies across the region. According to a 2016 survey [PDF] by the International LGBTI Association (ILGA), 54 percent of Canadians, 48 percent of Chileans, and 57 percent of Argentines were in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. In Central America, support was much lower: 33 percent of Costa Ricans, 28 percent of Nicaraguans, and 27 percent of Ecuadorians supported legalizing it. In 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of marriage equality, but the decision has not spurred much action among member states. 

Support for legalizing same-sex marriage also remains low in the Caribbean, at just 16 percent in Jamaica and 23 percent in the Dominican Republic, according to the ILGA. Bermuda, a British territory, legalized domestic partnerships for same-sex couples in 2017, but the government fought to reissue a ban. Same-sex marriage remains illegal there. However, in 2022, Antigua and Barbuda, Bermuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis struck down laws criminalizing gay sex. 

The governments of Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay have enacted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Although Brazil has legalized same-sex marriage, in 2019,  then-President Jair Bolsonaro removed the Human Rights Ministry’s ability to consider LGBTQ+ concerns. He drew criticism from LGBTQ+ advocacy groups during his campaign over homophobic remarks.

Cuba, where homosexuality was once punished by internment in forced-labor camps, has changed markedly in recent years. The National Assembly passed an antidiscrimination law in 2013, and a new constitution in 2019 removed language defining marriage as between a man and a woman. In September 2022, voters approved a referendum legalizing same-sex marriage.

Pacific Rim

Australia and New Zealand are the only Pacific Rim countries in which same-sex marriage is legal. Same-sex marriage became legal in Taiwan in 2019, as the legislature implemented a ruling the top court issued two years earlier. In China, 43 percent of people supported legalizing same-sex marriage in 2021. 

A district in Tokyo began recognizing same-sex unions in 2015, amid rapidly shifting public opinion in Japan. In 2022, the city adopted legislation granting same-sex couples some privileges enjoyed by married couples. A court in Sapporo ruled a year earlier that the Japanese government’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages is unconstitutional, while a court in Osaka ruled that it is constitutional. In a 2022 survey, public support for same-sex marriage reached nearly 65 percent. 

In 2022, a court in Seoul, South Korea, ruled against recognizing same-sex partnerships and rejected a same-sex couple’s claim to spousal health insurance, even though public opinion supports antidiscrimination legislation. More than a third of people in South Korea supported legalizing same-sex marriage in 2021.

“Australia and New Zealand are the only Pacific Rim countries in which same-sex marriage is legal.”

Lawmakers in Thailand and Vietnam have considered bills to legalize same-sex marriage or civil partnerships. However, in 2021, Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled that the nation’s marriage law—which only recognizes marriage between a man and a woman—does not violate the constitution. The country’s parliament is considering two proposals that will essentially give lawmakers a choice between permitting civil partnerships for same-sex couples and allowing them to marry. In the Philippines, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has said that if there is popular support for same-sex unions, it is up to lawmakers to legalize it. However, he has maintained his own opposition to same-sex marriage.

Same-sex relations between men are banned in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Myanmar. Rights groups have reported increased threats and violence against LGBTQ+ people in Indonesia since 2016, including discriminatory comments by several public officials. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong vowed in 2022 to decriminalize gay sex but said this would not change the status quo on marriage. In Brunei, gay sex is punishable by stoning to death, though following international outcry, the government said it won’t enforce the law. 

South and Central Asia

Same-sex relations are illegal in much of South and Central Asia [PDF], including in Bangladesh and Pakistan. In 2018, India lifted a colonial-era ban on gay sex, and in 2020, Bhutan moved to decriminalize it. In 2022, India’s Supreme Court ruled to expand the definition of family to include “atypical” families, such as same-sex couples, though same-sex marriage remains illegal. Nepal has enacted some protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and in 2015 a government-appointed panel recommended that lawmakers legalize same-sex marriage. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan allow people to register as a third gender in official documents. 

There is little information on public attitudes toward homosexuality in South and Central Asia. ILGA found 35 percent of Indians and 30 percent of Pakistanis in 2016 thought same-sex marriage should be legal. Support in Kazakhstan stood at 12 percent. 

Support for same-sex marriage has historically been low in Afghanistan. According to a 2022 Human Rights Watch report, the Taliban’s takeover in 2021 “dramatically worsened” LGBTQ+ people’s lives, with individuals reporting attacks, sexual assaults, and direct threats against them or their families.

Middle East and North Africa

Same-sex relations are illegal in much of the region and are punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Algeria, Morocco, Oman, Syria, Tunisia, and Gaza have laws explicitly prohibiting same-sex acts. When Qatar hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup, its anti-LGBTQ+ laws were widely criticized; it prohibits gay sex, and security forces have assaulted transgender women and other LGBTQ+ people, according to Human Rights Watch.

In 2018, Lebanese courts set a potential precedent for the decriminalization of gay sex, but the country continued to crack down on peaceful LGBTQ+ gatherings in 2021 and banned them outright in 2022. 

Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other countries, but a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriages failed to pass in the Knesset, Israel’s legislative assembly, in 2018. Same-sex couples enjoy civil benefits, including residency permits for the partners of Israeli citizens, and they were granted the right to use surrogates to have children in 2022. 

Israel stands apart from its neighbors in public attitudes toward same-sex couples: according to the 2016 ILGA survey, 49 percent of Israelis said same-sex marriage should be legal, compared to 19 percent of respondents in the United Arab Emirates, 16 percent in Egypt, and 14 percent in both Jordan and Morocco.

Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa is the only sub-Saharan African country where same-sex couples can marry. The parliament legalized same-sex marriage in 2006, less than a decade after the constitutional court struck down laws banning sex between men. The postapartheid constitution was the world’s first to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, though the 2016 ILGA poll found only 40 percent of South Africans were in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, and human rights monitors have reported failures by security forces to uphold rights of lesbians and transgender men.

“South Africa is the only sub-Saharan African country where same-sex couples can marry.”

Same-sex relations are illegal on much of the continent and are punishable by death in Mauritania and Sudan, as well as in parts of Nigeria and Somalia. Polling by Afrobarometer between 2016 and 2018 found that 78 percent [PDF] of Africans across thirty-four countries were intolerant of homosexuality. Although the African Union’s human rights commission adopted a resolution condemning violence against LGBTQ+ people in 2014, a group of African nations attempted to suspend the appointment of a UN expert charged with investigating anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in 2016. In Ghana, where same-sex relations are an imprisonable offense, draft legislation would make identifying as gay or an LGBTQ+ ally a felony.

However, there have been recent advances: the Afrobarometer poll found that majorities in three countries in addition to South Africa—Cape Verde, Mauritius, and Namibia—are tolerant of homosexuality. In 2015 Mozambique decriminalized same-sex relations, followed by the Seychelles in 2016, Angola and Botswana in 2019, and Gabon in 2020. And in recent years, courts in Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia have ruled in favor of LGBTQ+ advocacy groups.

Recommended Resources

On The President’s Inbox podcast, Council for Global Equality’s Julie Dorf discusses the advancement of global LGBTQ+ rights.

Former CFR fellow Paul J. Angelo and CFR’s Dominic Bocci unpack the changing landscape of global LGBTQ+ rights

This CFR event discusses how to report on LGBTQ+ issues

Human Rights Watch provides extensive coverage on global LGBTQ+ rights.

Equaldex tracks actions related to LGBTQ+ rights internationally. 

Pew Research Center measures the divide on acceptance of homosexuality around the world.

Zoltan Aguera, Eleanor Albert, Nathalie Bussemaker, Claire Klobucista, Laura Hillard, Alice Hickson, Jacqueline Jedrych, Lindsay Maizland, Melissa Manno, Noah Morgenstein, Brianna Lee, Samuel Parmer, Danielle Renwick, and Avery Reyna contributed to this Backgrounder.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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