International Progress Toward the Freedom to Marry
Eleven countries now have the freedom to marry for same-sex couples nationwide (Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, and Denmark), while three others have regional or court-directed provisions enabling same-sex couples to share in the freedom to marry (Mexico, United States, and Brazil). Many other countries provide some protections for such couples. As more and more countries and parts of the United States win the freedom to marry, we see that families are helped, and communities and countries made stronger, by protecting all loving committed couples. (Last Updated: April 2013)
Countries with the Freedom to Marry
The Netherlands: April 1, 2001
The Netherlands was the first country to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage in 2001, when their Parliament voted 107-33 to eliminate discrimination from their marriage laws. The law requires that at least one member of the couple be a Dutch national or live in the Netherlands, and it took effect on April 1, 2001. Anne-Marie Thus, a Dutch lesbian who married in 2001, explains, "It's really become less of something that you need to explain. We're totally ordinary. We take our children to preschool every day. People know they don't have to be afraid of us." In December 2012, the Dutch Caribbean island of Saba also established the freedom to marry.
Belgium: June 1, 2003
Belgium became the second country to legalize equal marriage on February 13, 2003, when King Albert II approved the bill, which had previously been passed by the Senate and Chamber of Representatives. Without fanfare, 91 of the 122 deputies in the Belgian Parliament voted for the change, which stipulates that only couples from countries with the freedom to marry can be married under Belgian law. Initially, gay and lesbian couples were not allowed to adopt children under the original legislation, but Parliament passed co-parenting for same-sex couples in 2006.
Spain: July 3, 2005
After the unexpected victory of the Spanish Socialist Party in 2004, the newly elected Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, moved to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage in the country. Despite serious opposition from the Catholic Church, a majority of Spaniards supported the measure, and the Parliament voted 187 to 147 in favor of the freedom to marry. The law states that at least one partner must be a Spanish citizen in order to legally marry, although it also allows couples to marry if they have legal residence in Spain. Following passage and enactment in 2005, Zapatero's said: "We were not the first, but I am sure we will not be the last. After us will come many other countries, driven ... by two unstoppable forces: freedom and equality." In July 2012, after some speculation about repealing the freedom to marry from Spain's new president, the country's Constitutional Court reaffirmed that the freedom to marry was constitutional and ruled that it could not be repealed.
Canada: July 20, 2005
On June 28, 2005, the House of Commons in Canada passed the Civil Marriage Act, which was then passed by the Senate on July 19. The Civil Marriage Act, which received Royal Assent on July 20, provided a gender-neutral definition of marriage. The national legislation passed after more than three quarters of Canadian provinces and territories legalized same-sex unions. Since marriage laws in Canada do not have residency requirements, same-sex couples who travel from the United States to Canada may also get married there. Canadian leaders adamantly supported full marriage, as opposed to civil union legislation, saying that they recognized the importance of full equality. Canada's Prime Minister at the time, Paul Martin, explained, "We've come to the realization that instituting civil unions — adopting a 'separate but equal' approach — would violate the equality provisions of the [Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms]. We've confirmed that extending the right of civil marriage to gays and lesbians will not in any way infringe on religious freedoms."
South Africa: November 30, 2006
In December 2005, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that denying marriage to same-sex couples violates the country's constitution and gave the Parliament one year to adjust laws to comply with the ruling. The court also made it clear enacting only a civil unions law would not work. On November 14, 2006, Parliament voted, 230 to 41, to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage in South Africa, making the nation the first in Africa to do so.
Norway: January 1, 2009
On June 11, 2008, members of Parliament in Norway approved a gender-neutral bill that ended the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage by a vote of 84-41. Family Issues minister Anniken Huitfeldt noted, "The new law won't weaken marriage as an institution. Rather, it will strengthen it. Marriage won't be worth less because more can take part in it." The Scandinavian country had already allowed gay and lesbian couples to enter into civil partnerships but realized that such partnerships did not provide equality. The law was backed by the ruling red-green coalition of the Labour Party, the Centre Party and the Socialist Left Party, as well as members of the opposition Conservatives and Liberals. Socialist Left Party leader Kristin Halvorsen, also finance minister, said the bill was for "equal rights" and against all forms of discrimination.
Sweden: May 1, 2009
On April 1, 2009, a broad majority of the Swedish Parliament voted in support of a bill to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. The proposal was approved by a 261 to 22 vote, with 16 abstentions. The new legislation took effect as of May 1, 2009, replacing the legislation approved in 1995 that allowed gay couples to form a union in Sweden via registered partnership. Couples who have registered partnership can keep that status or amend it to a marriage by an application to the authorities. On October 22, 2009, the Church of Sweden's board voted to allow priests to wed same-sex couples using the term "marriage."
Portugal: June 5, 2010
On May 18, 2010, Portugal's President ratified a law that was passed in January 2010 by Portugal's parliament to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. The law was upheld as constitutional by the Portuguese Constitutional Court in April and was officially published in the official gazette of Portugal on May 31 and took effect a few days later.
Iceland: June 27, 2010
On June 11, 2010, Iceland’s parliament unanimously voted, 49 to 0, to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. The Althingi parliament voted to add the words “man and man, woman and woman” to the country’s existing marriage legislation. In 2009, the country became the first in the world to elect an openly gay head of state, when Johanna Sigurdardottir became the prime minister. Iceland is the seventh country in Europe to uphold the freedom to marry, and ninth in the world.
Argentina: July 22, 2010
On July 15, 2010 Argentina became the first country in Latin America to uphold the freedom to marry for gay and lesbian couples. The legislation was approved by a 33 to 27 vote, with 3 abstentions by the Argentine National Congress. It gives same-sex couples the same rights and protections as different-sex couples, including the ability to adopt. The law was backed by the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who signed the measure into law on July 21, 2010. Marriages are only allowed only for citizens or permanent residents of Argentina.
Denmark: June 15,2012
On June 7, 1989, Denmark passed a first-of-its-kind law allowing same-sex couples to receive the same legal and fiscal rights provided by marriage through registered partnerships (with the exception of laws making explicit references to the sexes of married couples and regulations of international treaties). On January 18, 2012, the government of Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt introduced a gender-neutral marriage bill that would legalize marriage between same-sex couples through civil registry or the Church of Denmark. The bill passed by a vote of 85-24 on June 7, 2012 and took effect on June 15, 2012.
Countries with Regional Freedom to Marry
On December 10, 2010, the Brazilian government issued an executive order ensuring that members of same-sex couples will receive survivor's benefits in the event of a partner's death. The executive order is grounded in provisions of the Brazilian civil code and constitution that guarantee the well being of all citizens. On May 5, 2011, the Supreme Federal Court voted to allow same-sex couples the same legal rights as married couples (through a mechanism called a "stable union"), and on June 27, a stable union between two men was converted into a full marriage. On October 25, 2011, the top appeals court in Brazil declared that the stable union of two women who sent a petition to the Court would be recognized as a marriage, and as the law applies now, couples with stable unions may petition a judge to convert their union into a marriage. This two-step process to getting married can be performed anywhere in Brazil, and hundreds of same-sex couples in the country have taken advantage of this policy since June 2011. Same-sex couples in the states of Alagoas, Bahia, and São Paulo have had the freedom to marry without the two-step process since January 2012, November 2012, and December 2012, respectively, when judges in each state ordered a final end to the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage.
The United States
On September 21, 1996, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, a law that prohibits federal recognition of legal marriages between same-sex couples. With DOMA defining marriage on a federal level, individual states were left to decide their own marriage laws. On May 17, 2004, Massachusetts became the first state to provide the freedom to marry to same-sex couples. Since then, CT, IA, ME, MD, NH, NY, VT, WA, and Washington, D.C. have also passed their own freedom to marry laws. Meanwhile, DOMA has been deemed unconstitutional by the Obama Administration and by ten federal judges; it is now awaiting judgment by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected by June 2013.
On March 4, 2010 Mexico City's Legislative Assembly voted 39-20 to uphold the freedom to marry for same-sex couples on December 21, 2009. The law defines marriage as "the free uniting of two people." The bill also legalizes adoption by gay couples. In August 2010, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled that the law honoring the freedom to marry in Mexico City is constitutional and all states must honor same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. In May 2012, after dealing with a civil code that did not specifically state gender requirements for marriage, the state of Quintana Roo declared that all marriages between same-sex couples would be legal. In December 2012, the Mexican Supreme Court declared that the Oaxaca civil code restricting marriage to different-sex couples is unconstitutional. Because of Mexican law, the ruling currently only applies to the three couples who filed the suit. If the court rules the same way in two additional cases, binding national precedent is set in Mexico, and all other jurisdictions in the country will have the freedom to marry.
Countries Taking Steps Toward Marriage
France is poised to approve the freedom to marry for same-sex couples in 2013. On February 12, 2013, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of the marriage bill, and on April 9, the most significant portion of a bill to extend the freedom to marry to same-sex couples was approved by the French Senate. The legislation still faces several additional votes before it is wholly approved, but final passage is now considered assured. French President François Hollande, who has vocally supported the freedom to marry this year, is certain to sign the bill.
The freedom to marry has taken major steps forward in the United Kingdom this year. On February 5, 2013, the British House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in favor of a bill to extend marriage to same-sex couples, with 400 representatives in favor and just 175 against. It marked the first major victory in the legislative process. Next is a vote in the British House of Lords and a signature from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has consistently voiced his whole-hearted support for marriage over the past year.
Since the British legislature's decisions affect Wales, the recent momentum in England directly impacts Wales and means that Welsh same-sex couples could soon also be able to share in the freedom to marry. The February 5, 2013 vote by the British House of Commons to overwhelmingly approve a bill to extend marriage to same-sex couples was the first major victory in the legislative process. Next is a vote in the British House of Lords and a signature from British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has consistently voiced his whole-hearted support for marriage over the past year.
The freedom to marry has cleared two of three votes needed to pass legislation that would end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage across the country. On August 29, 2012, the bill passed its first reading on a conscience vote, with 80 votes for marriage and just 40 against. On March 12, 2013, the bill cleared the critical second vote by a 77-44 margin. The second vote is typically the most crucial step in the country's legislative process and the third and final vote, expected in April, is widely regarded as a formality. Prime Minister John Key has vocally supported the freedom to marry, so if the bill is passed and he signs it into law, marriages will likely begin in early Fall.
Both houses of the legislature in Uruguay have approved bills to extend the freedom to marry to same-sex couples, meaning that the last step in ending the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage is the signature of President José Mujica, who has indicated that he will sign the bill. On December 11, 2012, the Chamber of Deputies approved the bill, and on April 2, 2013, the Uruguay Senate approved a similar bill, with the Deputies confirming the bill again on April 10. When Mujica signs the bill into law, Uruugay will become the second country in Latin America to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage nationwide.
In late July 2011, the national Colombian Court ruled that the Colombian Congress must pass marriage or an equal alternative for same-sex couples before June 20, 2013, or else the Court would automatically allow any judge or notary to formalize a marriage between same-sex couples. In December 2012, a committee in the Colombian Senate approved a measure by a 10-5 vote to extend the freedom to marry. It now faces three additional votes, debate for which is scheduled for April 2013.
Countries with Other Forms of
Relationship Recognition for Same-Sex Couples
Broad Protections for Same-Sex Couple
Countries that offer many rights to same-sex couples but stop short of marriage include Ireland, Finland, Germany, Greenland, Hungary, New Zealand, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Uruguay.
Limited Protections for Same-Sex Couples
Countries that offer some spousal rights to same-sex couples, which are far from full marriage equality, include Andorra, Austria, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, France, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Slovenia, and Switzerland.
Marriages Between Same-Sex Couples Recognized, but Not Performed
Countries that only recognize marriages between same-sex couples performed in other countries include Israel, Mexico, and Uruguay.