People involved in long-term same-sex relationships have long sought equal, or at least similar, civil and legal rights. Marriage confers a host of legal benefits, including many tax benefits, inheritance, community property, and social rights that are denied to people who are unable to marry. Although there has been considerable attention paid to parallel processes, such as civil unions and commitment ceremonies, only legally recognized civil marriage is generally believed to carry with it the full spectrum of rights sought by many same-sex couples.
Those who take a conservative or fundamentalist view of marriage may argue that the institution was designed exclusively as a civil and religious institution for persons of different genders, and that to legalize homosexual marriage would cause social chaos. Those who strongly oppose same-sex marriage may assert that homosexuality is a choice; is inherently wrong or unnatural; and poses a risk to society. According to opponents, homosexual marriage would diminish the sanctity of marriage as a social, religious, and legal institution, and might also significantly increase the divorce rate. In a related issue, those who oppose same-sex marriage often hold similar views about same-sex couples raising children.
In the United States, individual states are tasked with legislating civil marriage laws. Several states not permitting same-sex marriage have implemented legislation granting civil unions or domestic partnerships that confer limited rights and protections. Many states have legislation explicitly banning same-sex unions or marriages. Near the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, twenty-nine states had constitutional amendments explicitly banning same-sex marriage, while several other states had statutes defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Internationally, civil partnerships—also called domestic partnerships, civil solidarity pacts, life partnerships, registered partnerships, or civil unions—occur in many countries. Civil partnerships, with all of the rights, responsibilities, and benefits of traditional marriage became legal in 2005 in the United Kingdom, encompassing Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England. Denmark has allowed civil partnerships since 1989; Finland has been registering domestic partnerships since 2001. France and Luxembourg legalized civil solidarity pacts (PACS) and civil partnership in 1999 and 2004, respectively. In Mexico, individual states create their own legislation, which is then offered reciprocal recognition elsewhere in the country. To date, Mexico City (2006) and Coahuila (2007) have legalized same-sex civil unions. Civil partnerships occur in Croatia (2003), New Zealand (2004), Iceland (1996), Norway (1996), and Sweden (1995). Legal protection for various types of domestic partnerships and civil unions also exists in Israel, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, Hungary (2009), Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay, Slovenia, Andorra, and portions of Argentina and Brazil.
The first nation to legalize same-sex marriage, in 2001, was the Netherlands; Belgium followed in 2003. In 2005, Canada, Spain, and South Africa each enacted same-sex marriage legislation. Norway followed in 2008, and Sweden and Nepal legalized same-sex marriage in 2009.
During the early years of the twenty-first century, several countries created legislation banning homosexual marriage. Honduras amended its constitution to include wording prohibiting both same-sex marriage and adoption by lesbian and gay couples. Ugandan law prohibits the performance of homosexual marriages, assesses punishments for same-sex couples married elsewhere, and has criminalized homosexuality, incarcerating convicted homosexuals for periods up to and including life. Latvia has amended its constitution to define marriage as occurring only between a male and a female.
In 2003, the commonwealth of Massachusetts brought the issue of same-sex marriage into the U.S. spotlight when its Supreme Court ruled that barring same-sex couples from civil marriage was unconstitutional. Massachusetts has allowed same-sex marriage since 2004. The move prompted a backlash in many states, and ballot initiatives calling for constitutional amendments defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman were circulated. Eleven states voted on such constitutional amendments in 2004, and all were passed. In early 2008, California seemed to buck this trend when its Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage; however, by the time of the elections in November 2008, California citizens voted in favor of a ballot measure called Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage. Several lawsuits were filed challenging the legality of the ban.
Connecticut successfully legalized same-sex marriage in 2008. In 2009, Iowa, Vermont, and Maine—approved same-sex marriage within a period of a few weeks, and New Hampshire seemed poised to follow suit when its governor announced his willingness to sign into law a same-sex marriage bill currently working its way through the state legislature.
In October 2009, a Dallas judge presiding over the case of a gay male couple seeking a divorce ruled that gay couples legally married in other states may seek a divorce in Texas even though the state does not allow gay marriage. Conservative Texas politicians—including the Governor and one of the state's Senators, both of whom oppose gay marriage—expressed outrage at the judge's decision to allow the men to divorce. The state's Attorney General appealed the decision. A Dallas appeals court heard argument from both sides on 21 April 2010. A lawyer for one of the men seeking divorce argued that allowing the divorce would actually support the gay marriage ban in Texas, since it meant that there would be one less same-sex marriage in Texas. The attorney general stated that in order to allow a divorce, the marriage must first be recognized. In September, the 5th Texas Court of Appeals sided with the Attorney General, ruling that gay couples married outside Texas could not seek divorce in Texas.
In Sweden, a substantial majority of the Lutheran Church's synod (church council) voted to allow same-sex weddings. About 75 percent of Swedes are Lutheran, although few are regular churchgoers. Sweden granted same-sex couples equal rights with heterosexual couples in the mid-1990s.
In November 2009, Maine voters repealed the state's newly adopted law legalizing gay marriage. Gay rights activists in the state vowed to continue to press the issue. In December 2009, two Argentine men became the first same-sex couple in South America to be legally married. Their first attempt to marry, in Argentina's capital of Buenos Aires, was unsuccessful, but the governor of the country's Tierra Del Fuego province supported the couple's plan to wed, and the men were married on 28 December 2009 in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Just over a week later, on 8 January 2010, Portugal's parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage. The bill must be reviewed in committee before a final vote in Parliament and ratification by the President.
On 24 February 2010, the Attorney General of Maryland issued a legal opinion declaring that the state should recognize same-sex marriages that took place in other states, even though Maryland law defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Maryland is one of only six states that does not have a law that specifically addresses the validity of same-sex marriages performed in other states. The attorney general's ruling was meant to clarify the issue while legislation worked its way through Maryland's legal process.
In June 2010, closing arguments were heard in the case of Perry vs. Schwarzenegger, one of the lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8. U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker presided over the proceedings.
On 8 July 2010, a district court judge in Massachusetts ruled that the U.S. federal law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional. The judge ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in two cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). One case was filed by the State of Massachusetts and the other by a gay rights advocacy group. The federal government has sixty days to decided whether to appeal the decisions.
On 15 July 2010, Argentina legalized same-sex marriage, becoming the first Latin American country to do so. The new law legalizing same-sex marriage also allows homosexual couples to adopt children. The law was fiercely opposed by the Roman Catholic church in Argentina.
California's ban on same-sex marriage was dealt a blow on 4 August 2010 when Judge Walker ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional. Walker's ruling asserted, "Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license." Walker also issued a temporary stay with his ruling, meaning that his decision did not take immediate effect. Proposition 8 supporters appealed the decision, but the appeals court said on 4 January 2011 that the California Supreme Court must first decide if supporters of Proposition 8 have the legal standing to bring an appeal. California's Supreme Court ruled on 17 November 2011 that supporters of Proposition 8 do have the right to defend the initiative from legal challenges.
A public opinion milestone was reached in the United States in August 2010 when a CNN poll found that a very small majority of U.S. citizens believed that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry and have their marriages recognized as legally valid. CNN said 50.5 percent of respondents favored same-sex marriage, while 47.5 percent opposed it. This was the first time a major poll showed majority support for same-sex marriage in the U.S. The margin of error for the poll was 4.5 percent. Another poll, conducted by the Associated Press and the National Constitution Center in August, found that 52 percent of respondents felt same-sex marriages should be legally recognized.
On 23 February 2011, President Barack Obama (1961–) announced that he had determined DOMA to be unconstitutional and that his administration would no longer oppose legal challenges to the law. The administration would, however, continue to enforce the law pending a final decision on its constitutionality by the Supreme Court. Obama's decision represented a reversal in administration policy; as a candidate, Obama had supported the law. On 24 February, Democrats in the House of Representatives announced plans to reintroduce legislation to repeal DOMA.
The Brazilian Supreme Court ruled unanimously on 5 May that Brazil would recognize existing same-sex marriages and extend the same rights to unions between same-sex couples as those enjoyed by heterosexual couples. Though the ruling does not legalize same-sex marriage, gay rights advocates hailed it as a major advance.
Also in May, a same-sex marriage bill in New York advanced. Former President Bill Clinton (1946–), who signed DOMA into law in 1996, reversed his position on same-sex marriage, releasing a statement on 5 May 2011 that said he supported a bill that was working its way through the New York legislature that would make same-sex marriage legal in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo (1957–) had vowed to make legalization of same-sex marriage a top priority for his administration. New York's lower legislative chamber approved the bill on 15 June, and the Senate passed it narrowly on 24 June. On 29 June, Rhode Island's legislature approved a bill legalizing same-sex civil unions.
Hundreds of gay couples rushed to New York on 24 July, where the same-sex marriage law went into effect at midnight. By the end of 25 July, 484 couples had married in New York City alone.
A California appeals court ruled 2–1 on 7 February 2012 that the state's controversial Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. Legal scholars noted that the ruling was narrowly written to apply solely to the state of California, which made it less likely that the U.S. Supreme Court would elect to hear the case if Proposition 8 supporters sought further appeal.
Washington became the seventh U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage on 13 February, when Democratic governor Chris Gregoire signed legislation approving same-sex marriages. The law was set to take effect in June 2012. Opponents of the new law vowed to put the issue on a ballot measure in November 2012. Meanwhile, Obama continued to attempt to strike a middle ground on the divisive issue of gay marriage, saying in an ABC interview on 9 May that although he personally supported same-sex marriage, legally the issue should be determined by individual states.
In late May 2012, a three-judge federal appeals court in Boston unanimously ruled that DOMA deprived gay couples of the same rights as heterosexual couples. In October 2012, a New York federal appeals court also struck down DOMA, ruling that the law violated the Constitution's equal protection clause. The rulings meant that the U.S. Supreme Court would likely take up the issue.
During nationwide elections on 6 November, Maine become the first U.S. state to pass a law allowing gay marriage through a popular vote. Also, legislation seeking to reverse current same-sex marriage laws were defeated in Maryland and Washington.
Uruguay's Marriage Equality bill stalled in the country's Senate, which decided on 27 December to postpone voting on the law until April 2013. The proposed law would legalize gay marriage. The country's lower house already approved the measure on 11 December.
On 12 February 2013, France's National Assembly approved a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt children. Although the "Marriage for All" bill still needed the French senate's approval, analysts thought it likely would become law by May or June.
During the last week of March, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on two different pieces of same-sex marriage legislation. On 26 March, some of the justices seemed reluctant to rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the California law passed by voters in 2008 that banned gay marriage, but that was overturned in 2010 by a federal judge. Justice Anthony Kennedy (1936–), generally regarded as a swing vote, said that there were more than 40,000 children in California being raised by same-sex couples, and that "they want their parents to have full recognition and full status." Chief Justice John G. Roberts (1955–) said that marriage had been limited to a man and a woman since "time immemorial." The following day, the Court reviewed DOMA, which denies married gay couples federal benefits.
On 17 April, New Zealand became the thirteenth country to legalize gay marriage. Prior to the amendment of its 1955 Marriage Act, the country allowed same-sex couples to join only in civil unions.
France legalized same-sex marriage on 23 April 2013. The country, the most populous of all fourteen countries where gay marriage is allowed, passed the measure by 331 votes to 225 votes.
During the first week of May, two U.S. states legalized gay marriage. On 2 May, Rhode Island lawmakers passed the measure by 56 votes to 15. On 7 May, with a vote of 12 to 9, Delaware joined the ten other states that extend benefits to same-sex couples. Gay couples were permitted to marry in Delaware beginning 1 July and in Rhode Island beginning 1 August.
On 14 May, Brazil's National Council of Justice ruled that same sex couples could not be denied marriage licenses, a decision that effectively authorized homosexual marriage in the nation. The Latin American country's Congress was examining a bill to legalize gay marriage at the time. Analysts speculated that the ruling could pave the way for the bill's approval.
Also on 14 May, Minnesota became the twelfth U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage when Governor Mark Dayton signed a bill into law that had been passed by the State Senate one day earlier. The Senate vote was 37 to 30.
Thousands protested against France's new gay marriage law at the end of May. At least ninety-six people were arrested after the demonstration in Paris turned violent, and police had to fire tear gas to quell the rioters.
On 26 June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against both DOMA and Proposition 8. In a 5–4 decision, the Court struck down DOMA, ruling that the denial of federal benefits to gay couples violates the U.S. Constitution's promise to equal protection under law. As a result of the ruling, same-sex couples who were married under state law are entitled to equal treatment by the federal government. In another 5–4 ruling, the Proposition 8 case was rejected under procedural lines as the Court ruled that supporters of the anti-gay legislation did not have legal grounds to appeal in federal court. The result of the Supreme Court's ruling was that same-sex marriages were set to resume in California. The Court did not rule on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans in other states and did not set a federal precedent for same-sex marriage.
On 26 August, a judge in New Mexico's most populous county declared same-sex marriages legal. The county began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples the following morning.
In early September, Hawaii's Governor, Neil Abercrombie, announced a special session set for 28 October to discuss a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. The island state already allows civil unions, and State House Democrats have spent a few weeks determining that sufficient support exists for the passage of a same-sex marriage bill.
In late October, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes in Oklahoma married two men, challenging the state's ban on gay marriage. Jason Pickel and Darren Black Bear had previously planned to travel to Iowa to get married, but instead received a marriage license at the tribes' courthouse. According to the tribes' public relation officer, the two men were the "third same-sex couple to be issued a marriage license by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes." Although the tribes' legal code specifies one partner should be a member of either tribe, it does not have any qualifications regarding gender.
Illinois lawmakers voted to legalize same-sex marriage on 5 November. The measure was passed 61 to 54, making Illinois the fifteenth state in the U.S. to allow gay marriage. Governor Pat Quinn said, "Today, the Illinois House put our state on the right side of history." On 12 November, Hawaii passed a bill legalizing gay marriage; the vote was 19 to 4.