As we speak, the people of Australia are voting on same-sex marriage. That's right: in 2017. A postal vote is taking place to decide whether or not same sex marriage should be legalized. For many people around the world, it may come as a surprise that it’s not legal there already—but it’s an important reminder that same-sex marriage does not have the status that it should worldwide. We think of Australia as a liberal country similar to the United States, a country with a much more progressive view of issues like gun control. And yet in 2004 Australia banned same sex marriage with an amendment to the Marriage Act 1961. That’s right, a liberal Western country chose to ban same-sex marriage in the 21st century rather than endorse it. And they’re only revisiting the issue now.
It’s hard for many of us to imagine that same-sex marriage is still a controversial issue. You probably have queer friends who have gotten married or are happily coupled up for the long haul. But in so many places that just wouldn’t be an option. Because while we’ve made huge strides when it comes to same-sex marriage over the past two decades, it’s only a fraction of the work that needs to be done. According to the Pew Research Center only around two dozen countries—out of nearly 200 countries worldwide—recognize same-sex marriage legally. And in some countries, the problem goes far beyond the marital status of same-sex couples. We can’t forget that, for many gay people around the world, they are still fighting against discrimination and for basic safety.
Where Gay Marriage Is Recognized
As the Pew Center pointed out, gay marriage is currently recognized in about two dozen countries. Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, England/Wales, Finland, France, Germany, Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the United States, and Uruguay all currently provide legal recognition for same-sex marriages.
As you might notice, the vast majority of those countries are in Europe and the Americas. No country in Asia has made the move, although a constitutional court in Taiwan recently showed signs of a changing attitude by saying same-sex couples had a right to marry. South Africa is the only African country that has made the move to legally recognize same-sex marriages. Legalizing gay marriage is still very much an unusual, progressive choice in the world today. We can’t take it for granted just because we happened to be lucky enough to live somewhere we have that right.
Where It’s Ambiguous
Just as when it was becoming more common in the U.S., in many countries legalization is complicated—it’s not always as simple as one decision. In Mexico, same-sex marriage is not technically legalized countrywide, although the Supreme Court has made major steps that make it easier for same-sex couples to get married. Currently, some states recognize the marriages while others do not, but the trend seems to be toward legalization.
The Bigger Problem
It's a huge problem that only a small percentage of countries right now recognize gay marriage, but it’s reflective of an even bigger one. While fighting for gay marriage matters to a lot of people, we can’t lose perspective on the struggle for gay rights worldwide. “There are at least 71 countries (37 percent of United Nation–member states) where same-sex sexual activity is a crime,” USA Today explains. Think about that for a second: Any same-sex activity is still criminalized in over one third of countries worldwide. And it gets worse. “The death penalty is implemented for same-sex sexual activity within eight of these countries. These countries include Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, Syria, and Iraq.” We need to remember that in so many countries same-sex marriage feels like a distant dream. More pressing issues of basic health, safety, and legal protections have yet to be met. LGBTQ people around the world still live in fear. That is the reality.
And it’s easy to think of it as a far away problem, to think that America is more progressive and not part of the problem. But the U.S. recently voted against a UN resolution condemning the death penalty for gay sex. This country refused to condemn countries which use the death penalty of gay people. We really, really haven’t come as far as you think.
While gay marriage has become relatively uncontroversial in many areas of the U.S., we need to look toward queer rights globally. So many countries still don’t protect the rights of people to marry the person that they love. And a terrifying number of countries still criminalize doing just that. We have a long way to go when it comes to same-sex marriage and, if the UN vote is anything to go by, the U.S. needs to start stepping up to the plate and supporting the basic human rights of the gay community.