FOR the first time in America, three states voted on November 6th to allow gay couples to wed—ending a succession of electoral defeats for the measure in 32 states. A fourth state rejected a proposed ban. In Catholic France the new Socialist government has just approved a bill to permit same-sex marriage. New Zealand is preparing to pass similar legislation next year. Governments in England and Scotland have also pledged to do so soon. And in Spain a gay-marriage law passed seven years ago has finally been given a seal of approval by the Constitutional Court.
Just a dozen years after the Netherlands became the world’s first country to legalise gay nuptials, the global trend toward giving homosexuals full marriage rights seems to have gained unstoppable momentum. Same-sex marriage is now legal nationwide in 11 countries (see map), including Argentina and South Africa, as well as in parts of a further two. In Mexico it is allowed in the capital. In America nine states along with the capital have legalised it, mostly as a result of court challenges.
That said, in 78 countries—mostly in the Muslim world, Africa and other developing states—gay sex is still a crime, punishable by long prison terms and even death. Opposition against gay marriage remains fierce, particularly from churches, conservatives and some politicians. Rick Santorum, a former Republican presidential candidate, has described the legalisation of gay marriage as “a turning-point in American history”, saying it would do more to destroy the church and the family than any other movement. Others have gone further, talking of a “slippery slope” leading to a generalised acceptance of incest, bestiality, paedophilia and other horrors.
But attitudes are changing—and fast. Fifty years ago homosexuality itself was still a crime throughout most of the world. Britain decriminalised it only in 1967 and it was not until 2003 that America’s Supreme Court struck down the remaining sodomy laws in 14 states. Now, across most of the West, polls show a majority of public opinion in favour of equality for gays, including allowing them to marry and adopt children. Ten years ago two-thirds of Americans were opposed to gay marriage; now more than half, including most Catholics, are in favour. Similar trends can be seen in other Western countries.
As attitudes have shifted, laws have changed. When Denmark became the first country to allow “registered partnerships” for gays, in 1989, it was seen as revolutionary. Now most Western countries allow some kind of “civil union” giving homosexuals most of, if not all, the same rights as married straight couples or else full-blown marriage, with the former usually preceding the latter.