Same-sex marriage has been legalized in nearly two dozen countries, including, most recently, the United States, and civil unions are recognized in many Western democracies. Yet, despite the growing number of countries that allow same-sex marriage, it 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
There is a correlation between LGBT rights and democratic societies. All but one of the countries that allow same-sex marriage are listed as "free" in Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom in the World report [PDF]. (Mexico is listed as "partly 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 for 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 in policies toward these rights [PDF].
While same-sex marriage has made the most gains in Western democracies, antidiscrimination laws are another frontier in LGBT rights that is gaining traction worldwide. Sixty-six countries—including some that retain antisodomy laws—ban employment discrimination [PDF] based on gender identity or sexual orientation. And some countries that place restrictions on same-sex relations, such as India, offer protections toward transgender people.
The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2011 expressing for the first time "grave concerns" over violence and discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity and commissioning the body’s first study on the topic [PDF]. In 2014 the council passed a resolution to combat anti-LGBT violence and discrimination. "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 in twenty-eight states it is legal to be fired on the basis of sexual orientation.
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 5–4 ruling, which extends to U. S. territories, came amid dramatic shifts in public opinion: 57 percent of Americans polled in 2015 approved of same-sex marriage, up from 35 percent in 2001.
The rulings came less than two decades after President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 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, retirement and tax benefits for spouses of veterans and federal employees, and 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 the Supreme Court ruling, a debate continues in the United States over the balance between legal equality and the rights of individuals and institutions to object to same-sex marriages on the basis of religious belief. Shortly before the Supreme Court decision, Republican lawmakers introduced the First Amendment Defense Act, a bill that would provide legal protection from anti-discrimination laws for institutions, individuals, and businesses that want to avoid involvement in same-sex marriage (for example, by providing services to wedding receptions).
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), Great Britain (2013), Luxembourg (2014), Finland (2014, although it will not be implemented until 2017), and Ireland (2015). Germany and Italy are the two largest Western European countries where same-sex marriage is not legal. Germany offers civil unions, and Italy’s parliament is slated to debate a bill on that would allow civil unions for same-sex couples.
Support for same-sex marriage is much stronger in Western Europe than it is in Eastern Europe, opinion surveys show. A 2015 Buzzfeed/Ipsos poll found support for legal recognition of same-sex unions was above 75 percent in most of Western Europe, but just 20 percent in Russia. The poll found that support for recognition of same-sex partnerships in Poland and Hungary, which both have constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, is 56 percent and 54 percent, respectively. In 2013, Russia made it a crime to distribute "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships among minors" that is punishable by fine, or, for foreigners, deportation. Human rights groups say the law is a tool for discrimination.
Despite growing support in Europe for same-sex marriage, divisions remain. While Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage through popular referendum, lawmakers in Northern Ireland have defeated bills to legalize same-sex marriage four times. Croatians approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in a 2013 referendum, joining at least eleven other countries in central and eastern Europe that have such prohibitions. (Croatia’s parliament enacted a law allowing same-sex civil partnerships a year later.) Even France, where polls indicate 53 percent of the population supports same-sex marriage, saw widespread protests against same-sex marriage before it was legalized in 2013. Meanwhile, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, only 9 percent of Turkish respondents thought society should accept homosexuality.
EU governing bodies do not require member states to recognize same-sex partnerships. 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, such policy changes are not part of the EU’s jurisdiction.
Canada became the first country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2005. It was followed by Argentina in 2010. At the time of the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, same-sex marriage had also been legalized in Brazil (2013), Uruguay (2013), and Mexico (by a high court ruling in June 2015).
Support for same-sex marriage varies across the region. According to the Buzzfeed/Ipsos poll, 62 percent of Canadians, and, according to Pew, 62 percent of Uruguayans and 52 percent of Argentines support same-sex marriage. In Central America, where there are no protections for same-sex couples, support is much lower: Pew found that 83 percent of Hondurans, 82 percent of Guatemalans, and 81 percent of Salvadorans oppose same-sex marriage.
Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador allow same-sex civil unions. The govenrments of Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Paraguay have enacted constitutional bans on same-sex marriage. Cuba, where homosexuality was once criminalized (and punishable by internment in forced labor camps), has changed markedly in recent years: Cuba’s National Assembly passed a law in 2013 aimed at protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination. Same-sex unions, however, are not recognized.
As of July 2015, New Zealand was the only Pacific Rim country where same-sex marriage was legal. Australia allows same-sex civil unions, and a district in Tokyo began recognizing same-sex unions in 2015. Lawmakers in Australia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam have considered bills to legalize same-sex marriage or civil partnerships. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 79 percent of Australians, 73 percent of Filipinos, and 54 percent of Japanese reported that "society should accept homosexuality." That figure dropped to 21 percent in China, 9 percent in Malaysia, and 3 percent in Indonesia. A separate poll, by a Taiwanese advocacy group, found that 53 percent of Taiwan’s population supports same-sex marriage. Same-sex relations between men are banned in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore, and in Brunei, it is punishable by death.
South and Central Asia
Same-sex relations are illegal in much of South and Central Asia [PDF], including in Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan. 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. India decriminalized same-sex relations in 2009, but the country’s supreme court ruled in 2013 that it should remain a criminal offense. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan allow people to register as a third gender in official documents; this is typically used by individuals who are born male but identify as female.
There is little information on public attitudes toward homosexuality in South and Central Asia. Despite restrictive laws, the 2015 Buzzfeed/Ipsos poll found that 47 percent of the population in India thought same-sex couples should be allowed to marry or obtain legal recognition. In Pakistan, researchers found that 87 percent of respondents said society should not accept homosexuality.
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. 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 LGBT rights and public attitudes toward same-sex couples: according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll, 40 percent of Israelis said society should accept homosexuality, compared to 18 percent of Lebanese respondents. That figure falls to 3 percent in both Egypt and Jordan and 2 percent in Tunisia.
South Africa is the only sub-Saharan African country where same-sex couples can be married. The country’s parliament legalized same-sex marriage in 2006, less than a decade after a constitutional law struck down laws banning sex between men. The country’s postapartheid constitution was the first in the world to protect people based on sexual orientation, though only 32 percent of South Africans say society should "accept" homosexuality, according to the Pew Research Center. Human rights groups say South African officials fail to protect LGBT people—particularly lesbians and transgender men—from targeted violence.
Same-sex relations are illegal on much of the continent and punishable by death in Mauritania, parts of Nigeria, and Sudan. A Pew Research Center poll found low support for LGBT rights: Only 8 percent of Kenyans said that society should accept homosexuality. The figure is 4 percent in Uganda, 3 percent in both Ghana and Senegal, and 1 percent in Nigeria. However, there have been recent advances: In 2014 the African Union’s human rights commission adopted a resolution condemning violence against LGBT people, and in 2015, Mozambique took steps to decriminalize same-sex relations; courts in Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia have ruled in favor of basic freedoms for LGBT people in the last two years.
Eleanor Albert, Noah Morgenstein, and Brianna Lee contributed to this report.