Same-sex marriage has been legalized in twenty-seven countries, including the United States, and civil unions are recognized in many Western democracies. Yet same-sex marriage remains banned in many countries, and the expansion of broader lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights has been uneven globally. International organizations, including the United Nations, have issued resolutions in support of LGBT rights, but human rights groups say these organizations have limited power to enforce these newly recognized rights.
International Norms, Democracy, and LGBT Rights
Rights monitors find a strong correlation between LGBT rights and democratic societies; the research and advocacy group Freedom House lists nearly all the countries that allow same-sex marriage 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 LGBT rights in U.S. foreign policy. “It’s the canary in the coal mine,” she says.
Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst College who focuses on LGBT 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].
While same-sex marriage has made the most gains in Western democracies, antidiscrimination laws are gaining traction worldwide. In 2019, seventy-three countries, including some that retain sodomy laws, had protections against employment discrimination [PDF] based on gender identity or sexual orientation.
The UN Human Rights Council, expressing “grave concerns” 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-LGBT 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 in the international arena have focused on antiviolence and antidiscrimination campaigns rather than same-sex marriage. “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 that allow same-sex marriage allow couples to jointly adopt and cautions against equating the right to marry with freedom from discrimination. For example, in the United States, where same-sex couples can marry, federal law does not prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, and employees can legally be fired on the basis of their sexual orientation in more than half of states.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015, that the Constitution grants same-sex couples the right to marry, effectively legalizing same-sex marriage in the thirteen states where it remained banned. The five-to-four ruling, which extends to U.S. territories, came amid dramatic shifts in public opinion: 67 percent of Americans polled in 2018 approved of same-sex marriage, up from 27 percent in 1996.
The ruling came less than two decades after President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman, thereby denying same-sex couples federal marriage benefits, such as access to health care, social security, and tax benefits, as well as green cards for immigrant spouses of U.S. citizens. In June 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the parts of DOMA that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples.
Despite these Supreme Court rulings, a debate continues in the United States between advocates of legal equality and individuals and institutions that object to same-sex marriages on the basis of religious belief. In June 2018, the U.S. 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 LGBT people for religious reasons.
More than half of the countries that allow same-sex marriage 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), and Austria (2019). Italy is the largest Western European country where same-sex marriage is not legal; its parliament, however, approved civil unions for same-sex couples in 2016.
Support for same-sex marriage is weaker in Eastern Europe. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that support for legal recognition of same-sex marriage is 16 percent in Belarus and just 9 percent in Ukraine. Support in Poland and Hungary, which both have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, is 32 percent and 27 percent, respectively. At least ten other countries in Central and Eastern Europe have such prohibitions. Hungary and the Czech Republic, however, do recognize same-sex partnerships; in 2018, a Budapest court ruled that same-sex marriages performed abroad must be recognized as partnerships. Estonia also allows civil unions, though popular support for same-sex marriage in the Baltic states is low.
In 2013, Russia made it a crime to distribute “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships among minors.” More than a dozen 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-LGBT discrimination, and Europe’s top human rights court ruled that it is illegal in June 2017; though the decision is binding, the court has few means to enforce it. In Chechnya, a semiautonomous republic within Russia, dozens of men suspected of being gay have been detained, tortured, and even killed since 2017 in a crackdown on the LGBT community; a new wave of detentions and killings was reported in late 2018.
Despite growing support for same-sex marriage in many European countries, divisions remain. While in 2015 Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage through popular referendum, lawmakers in Northern Ireland defeated bills to legalize same-sex marriage five times. It was ultimately legalized in 2019, however, in a vote by the UK Parliament while Northern Ireland’s legislature was suspended. Croatians approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in a 2013 referendum, though the country’s parliament allowed civil partnerships a year later.
The European Union 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. 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 “a political, social and human and civil rights issue” [PDF]; however, the European Union is not able to impose such policy changes on its members.
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, and Ecuador in 2019. In a 2019 ruling, Brazil’s supreme court determined homophobia and transphobia to be crimes under a 1989 law outlawing racism.
Support for same-sex marriage 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 are in favor of same-sex marriage. In Central America, support is much lower: 33 percent of Costa Ricans, 28 percent of Nicaraguans, and 27 percent of Ecuadorians support same-sex marriage. Central American countries do not recognize same-sex couples, though some have limited antidiscrimination protections. Costa Rica’s constitutional court ruled that same-sex marriage must be legalized by mid-2020. Support for same-sex marriage also remains low in the Caribbean, at just 16 percent in Jamaica and 23 percent in the Dominican Republic. In Bermuda, a British territory, the parliament reversed the supreme court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2017; that was challenged in local courts and could now go to a London court of appeals.
Chile allows same-sex civil unions. The governments of Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay have enacted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. 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. Same-sex unions, however, are still not recognized.
New Zealand and Australia are the only Pacific Rim countries in which same-sex marriage is legal. Australia’s parliament voted in December 2017 to change the law on marriage after nearly eight million Australians backed the move in a national referendum that fall. Same-sex marriage became legal in Taiwan in May 2019, as the legislature implemented a ruling the top court issued two years earlier. Voters had voiced their opposition to the ruling in a 2018 advisory referendum. A district in Tokyo began recognizing same-sex unions in 2015; ILGA found a year later that only 33 percent of Japanese supported same-sex marriage. Lawmakers in Thailand and Vietnam have considered bills to legalize same-sex marriage or civil partnerships.
Just 31 percent of people in China, 30 percent in Malaysia, and 14 percent in Indonesia say same-sex marriage should be legal, according to ILGA. Same-sex relations between men are banned in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore, and in Brunei they are punishable by death. Rights groups have reported increased threats and violence against the LGBT community in Indonesia since 2016, including discriminatory comments by several public officials.
South and Central Asia
Same-sex relations are illegal in much of South and Central Asia [PDF], including in Bangladesh and Pakistan. In late 2018 India lifted a colonial-era ban on gay sex. 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.
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. In 2018, Lebanese courts set a potential precedent for decriminalization. Israel recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other countries, and same-sex couples enjoy civil benefits, including residency permits for the partners of Israeli citizens.
Israel stands apart from its neighbors in public attitudes toward same-sex couples: according to the ILGA survey [PDF], 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.
South Africa is the only sub-Saharan African country where same-sex couples can marry. The country’s parliament legalized same-sex marriage in 2006, less than a decade after the constitutional court struck down laws banning sex between men. The country’s postapartheid constitution was the first in the world to protect people on the basis of sexual orientation, though the 2016 ILGA poll found only 40 percent of South Africans are in favor of same-sex marriage, and human rights monitors have reported failures by security forces to uphold rights of lesbians and transgender men.
Same-sex relations are illegal on much of the continent and are punishable by death [PDF] in Mauritania and Sudan, as well as in parts of Nigeria and Somalia. Polling by Afrobarometer in 2016 found that 78 percent of Africans across thirty-three countries were intolerant of homosexuality. Human rights groups and Western nations raised alarm over a crackdown on LGBT people by officials in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 2018. Though the African Union’s human rights commission adopted a resolution condemning violence against LGBT people in 2014, a group of African nations attempted to suspend the appointment of a UN expert charged with investigating anti-LGBT discrimination in 2016.
However, there have been recent advances: Afrobarometer found that majorities in three countries in addition to South Africa—Cape Verde, Mozambique, and Namibia—are tolerant of homosexuality. In 2015 Mozambique decriminalized same-sex relations. And in recent years, courts in Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia have ruled in favor of LGBT advocacy groups.
Zoltan Aguera, Eleanor Albert, Laura Hillard, Noah Morgenstein, Brianna Lee, and Samuel Parmer contributed to this report.