Where in the World Is Same-Sex Marriage Legal?

It's not just those liberal Northern Europeans who have embraced homosexual unions.

By , a former deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

The debate over gay marriage has shot up to the top of the U.S. political agenda in recent days, with Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressing support for same-sex marriage, North Carolina overwhelmingly passing an amendment banning same-sex marriage, and a same-sex civil unions bill failing in Colorado.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama took his first definitive stand on the question, telling ABC News that “for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for his part, reiterated his opposition to “marriage between people of the same gender.” (As for the voters, the American public is roughly split on the topic, though support for gay marriage has increased significantly over the past 10 years).

In his interview, Obama added that he still supports the idea of states deciding the issue on their own, despite his personal views. But if same-sex marriage were to become legal in the United States, what club of countries would it be joining? Let’s take a tour of the 10 places in the world where same-sex marriage has been legalized — all in roughly the last decade.

Country: The Netherlands

Year legalized: 2000

How it happened: The Netherlands became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage when the Dutch parliament passed the most sweeping gay-rights legislation in the world at the time, overcoming opposition from the Christian Democratic Party and other right-wing parties to homosexual couples adopting children. Lawmakers were operating in a receptive climate, however; a poll at the time showed that 62 percent of Dutch people had no objection to gay marriages. More than 2,400 same-sex couples married in the Netherlands within nine months of the law’s passage, with the mayor of Amsterdam officiating at the first ceremonies.

Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty Images

Country: Belgium

Year legalized: 2003

How it happened: Belgium’s law enjoyed support from both the Flemish-speaking North and the French-speaking South, and afforded homosexual couples the same tax and inheritance rights as heterosexual couples. But the Belgian parliament did not grant gay and lesbian couples the right to adopt children until 2006. The law “remains blatantly hypocritical in one respect: a single person can adopt a child, but not a homosexual couple,” a Socialist lawmaker complained in 2003.

Yves Boucau/AFP/Getty Images

Country: Spain

Year legalized: 2005

How it happened: In the face of vocal opposition from Catholic officials, the Spanish parliament narrowly passed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage by adding just one line to existing law: “Marriage will have the same requirements and results when the two people entering into the contract are of the same sex or of different sexes.” Gay-marriage advocates hailed the language, arguing that it did away with legal distinctions between same-sex and heterosexual unions, while the legislation in the Netherlands and Belgium established a separate category of rights for same-sex couples.

Pedro Armestre/AFP/Getty Images


Country: Canada

Year legalized: 2005

How it happened: Canada legalized same-sex marriage around the same time that Spain did, and with similar legislation. The parliamentary action came after a string of court cases had already made same-sex marriage legal in nine of the country’s 13 provinces and territories. Conservative leader Stephen Harper vowed to revive the gay-marriage debate if he was elected prime minister. But Harper has held that very position since 2006 and the law still stands — despite attempts to overturn it. 

Aaron Harris/AFP/Getty Images


Country: South Africa

Year legalized: 2006

How it happened: South Africa isn’t just the first and only African country to legalize same-sex marriage — it also managed this on a continent where homosexuality is frequently condemned and often illegal. The law came a year after the country’s highest court ruled that South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, guarantees the right of gays and lesbians to marry. Some gay-rights advocates, however, criticized South Africa’s legislation for permitting clergy and civil marriage officers to refuse to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies for reasons of conscience.

Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images


Country: Norway

Year legalized: 2008

How it happened: Norway’s law gave gay couples the same rights as heterosexual couples to marry, adopt children, and undergo artificial insemination. The legislation granted clergy the right but not the legal obligation to perform same-sex wedding ceremonies — an important distinction, since the Lutheran Church of Norway (which at the time counted roughly 85 percent of Norwegians as members) was divided on gay marriage.  

Poppe Cornelius/AFP/Getty Images


Country: Sweden

Year legalized: 2009

How it happened: Sweden — one of the first countries to give gay couples legal “partnership” rights in the mid-1990s — legalized same-sex marriage by a landslide parliamentary vote of 226 to 22 (a whopping 70 percent of Swedes polled before the passage of the new law supported gay marriage). Several months after the approval of the bill, the Lutheran Church of Sweden voted to allow gay weddings. Priests had a right to refuse to perform these ceremonies, but if they did the church would find another member of the clergy to officiate.

Jonas Ekstromer/AFP/Getty Images

Country: Portugal

Year legalized: 2010

How it happened: When Portugal’s Socialist government passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage, the country’s conservative President Aníbal Cavaco Silva was less than thrilled. “I feel I should not contribute to a pointless extension of this debate,” he explained in reluctantly ratifying the measure. But Pope Benedict XVI was even harsher when he visited Portugal only days before Cavaco Silva signed the bill into law — calling for the protection of “the indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman.”

Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images

Country: Iceland

Year legalized: 2010

How it happened: It seemed fitting when Iceland — the only country in the world with an openly gay head of state — passed a law (by a vote of 49 to zero, no less) permitting same-sex marriage. Shortly after the law came into effect, Iceland’s prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir (pictured above), married her longtime partner, Jonina Leosdottir.

Halldor Kolbeins/AFP/Getty Images

Country: Argentina

Year legalized: 2010

How it happened: When Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage, it faced fierce opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. But the move also inspired enthusiastic support. In Mexico City — the first jurisdiction in the region to legalize gay marriages — the tourism board offered an all-expenses-paid vacation to the first Argentine gay couple to get married. “In a few years, this debate will be absolutely anachronistic,” Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner declared when signing the new law.

Judging by the debate this week, we’re not there yet.

Daniel Garcia/AFP/Getty Images

Uri Friedman is a former deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @UriLF

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