Marriage equality not the norm around the world

30 countries have legal same-sex marriage in 2021.

As of November 2021, 30 countries out of the 195 recognized by the United Nations have legalized same-sex marriage, with the vast majority located in western Europe and North and South America. For 85 percent of the world, however, LGBTQ citizens will have to wait — for now.

On November 23, Chile’s Chamber of Deputies voted yes on marriage equality, and the bill is awaiting a vote in the Senate. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has said he will support the bill if it gets to his desk before he leaves office. The country is currently awaiting a runoff election to determine the next president.

Last week, the Constitutional Court of Thailand ruled in favor of a law that limits marriage to a man and a woman, but also released a statement that said the legislature should create laws “that guarantee the rights for gender diverse people,” Bloomberg reported. A Thai advocacy group, The Foundation for Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Rights and Justice, had previously filed a lawsuit challenging the country’s definition of marriage. 

Both Chile and Thailand had been on the radar of the Human Rights Campaign as a country to watch for marriage equality this year (along with Czech Republic, Japan, and the Philippines). The Thai cabinet approved a civil partnership bill in July of last year, but there have been numerous roadblocks put up in parliament to passing it, along with the disapproval of some LGBTQ activists who demand full marriage equality. The country is among the most LGBTQ-friendly in the region but has a spotty record when it comes to protective legislation.

The news out of Thailand highlights the often slow-moving nature of marriage equality in most parts of the world as well as the geographic disparity in regions that recognize it. 

Of the 30 countries with same-sex marriage, there are 17 in western Europe (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom); 5 in South America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay); 4 in North America (Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, U.S.A); 3 in Asia (Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan); and 1 in Africa (South Africa).

Looking at a map of marriage equality worldwide, the obvious gaps in marriage equality are in Africa, eastern Europe, and Asia (particularly southeast Asia and the Middle East). Approximately 6.4 billion people live in countries without marriage equality. Furthermore, many of those countries — especially in eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa — have explicitly banned same-sex marriage, either through secular or religious means.

The countries that do have marriage equality share much in common, most notably the political rights and civil liberties afforded to their citizens, such as freedom of speech, voting rights, and a lack of religious interference in government.

“Wherever you see restrictions on individuals — in terms of speech, expression, or freedom of assembly — you see a crackdown on LGBT rights,” Julie Dorf, senior advisor to the Council for Global Equality, told the Council on Foreign Relations.

However, even some countries whose populations are afforded great freedom — such as Croatia, Greece, Japan, and the Bahamas (all of which have a better Global Freedom Score than the United States) — do not recognize same sex marriage.

When one considers civil unions or domestic partnerships, the number of countries with same-sex partnership laws jumps considerably with the addition of Italy, Chile, Greece, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, and others. 

Marriage equality and civil union laws also vary by country. Some countries with either same-sex marriage or civil unions still prohibit couples from rights afforded to heterosexual couples, including the ability to adopt children. And in Mexico, same-sex marriage is done via individual states, with complicated legal procedures needed for people living in non-marriage states.

It has been 21 years since the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize same sex marriage. And what started as a slow trickle of countries legally recognizing the marriage rights of same-sex couples has increased, with 20 of the 30 marriage equality countries doing so within the last decade.