Same-sex marriage has been legalized in two dozen 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 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 a frontier in LGBT rights gaining traction worldwide. Seventy-two countries, including some that retain sodomy laws, have protections against 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 to transgender people.
The UN 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; it also commissioned 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 employees can legally be fired on the basis of their 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 five-to-four ruling, which extends to U.S. territories, came amid dramatic shifts in public opinion: 62 percent of Americans polled in 2017 approved of same-sex marriage, up from 35 percent in 2001.
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 those arguing that individuals and institutions have the right to object to same-sex marriages on the basis of religious belief. The court is expected to hear a case in December 2017 over a Colorado baker’s refusal to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, violating the state’s civil rights law. The Justice Department has argued that compelling the baker to do so would violate his First Amendment rights, since his cakes are a “form of expression.”
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), and Germany (2017). Italy is the largest Western European country where same-sex marriage is not legal, though its parliament 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. 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 March in a crackdown on the LGBT community.
Despite growing support for same-sex marriage in many European countries, 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, though the country’s parliament allowed civil partnerships a year later.
The European Union does 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, 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, and Colombia in 2016.
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: a 2013 Pew poll found that 13 percent of Hondurans, 12 percent of Guatemalans, and 11 percent of Salvadorans support same-sex marriage. There is no recognition of same-sex couples, though some Central American countries have limited antidiscrimination protections.
Chile and Ecuador allow 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 is the only Pacific Rim country where same-sex marriage is legal. In May 2017, Taiwan’s top court ruled that the legislature must legalize same-sex marriage within two years. Nearly thirteen million voters in Australia, which allows same-sex civil unions, voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage in a nonbinding referendum in the fall of 2017, after which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called on parliament to pass legislation by Christmas. A district in Tokyo also began recognizing same-sex unions in 2015, though ILGA found only 33 percent of Japanese support same-sex marriage. Lawmakers in Australia, 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 in January of that year.
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. In India, the Supreme Court overruled in 2013 a lower court’s decriminalization of same-sex relations. 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. ILGA found 35 percent of Indians and 30 percent of Pakistanis 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. 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 be married. 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 based on 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 found that 78 percent of Africans across thirty-three countries are intolerant of homosexuality. 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 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.
Eleanor Albert, Noah Morgenstein, and Brianna Lee contributed to this report.