April 1st marks twenty years since the Netherlands ended the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage, becoming the first of so far 30 countries worldwide to affirm the freedom to marry for same-sex couples.
Now, two decades later, 1.2 billion people — more than 16% of the world's population — live in a country where same-sex couples can share in civil marriage. And there are efforts underway to increase that number all around the world.
"Twenty years of marriage equality has delivered a mountain of evidence, expertise, and experience from every corner of the globe proving that when marriage discrimination ends, families are helped and no one is harmed," says Evan Wolfson, who founded and led the successful Freedom to Marry campaign to win marriage for same-sex couples in the United States. "The freedom to marry has brought joy, security, inclusion, and dignity to loving and committed couples and millions of families. At the same time, the marriage conversation has also been an engine of transformation helping open hearts and minds and propelling further advances for the human rights, acceptance, and love of gay and transgender people."
Since the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the freedom to marry in 2015, nine other countries — Colombia, Malta, Germany, Australia, Austria, Taiwan, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Switzerland — have also ended marriage discrimination. The 2019 passage of marriage legislation in Taiwan marked Asia's first freedom to marry victory — while last May's win in Costa Rica was the first in Central America.
In March, a district court in Sapporo ruled that Japan's ban on marriage for same-sex couples was unconstitutional — the first pro-freedom to marry ruling in the country. Five similar cases are pending in district courts throughout the country, while campaigners are urging the National Diet to take up marriage legislation, enlisting the support of 150+ major businesses, the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations and lawmakers from across the political spectrum. A recent poll conducted by Dentsu shows that 80% of the Japanese public supports the freedom to marry. Cases challenging marriage discrimination are also pending in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand as activists simultaneously campaign to build public support. In 2014, Vietnam's National Assembly became the first in Asia to take a step toward the freedom to marry, when it passed a law ending prohibitions on personal and religious marriage ceremonies.
CENTRAL & LATIN AMERICA
Meanwhile in 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) instructed all signatory countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to update their laws to extend marriage to gay and lesbian couples. This advisory opinion — which helped to secure Ecuador and Costa Rica's victories — has prompted new cases and marriage efforts throughout the region.
In Panama, where cases seeking the freedom to marry have been pending before the Supreme Court for the past three years, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a mandate following a public hearing in 2020 that the Panamanian government must act now to extend civil marriage to gay and lesbian couples. Lawsuits in Peru may also provide a path to securing same-sex couples' freedom to marry. In Chile, marriage is under consideration in both the Senate and in the courts, with several cases before the Supreme Court of Chile and the IACHR challenging marriage discrimination, while the Cuban government announced that a revision permitting same-sex couples to marry will go to a vote later this year.
Advocates in the Czech Republic hope to secure Eastern Europe's first marriage victory, as they push for passage of freedom to marry legislation introduced three years ago that now has the backing of major businesses, faith communities, local governments and mental health professionals. While in Romania, where a proposed anti-gay constitutional amendment failed in 2018, local organizations are now advancing key cases in European courts seeking respect for same-sex couples' marriages. Late last year, advocates in Estonia succeeded in blocking a proposed constitutional amendment banning marriage for same-sex couples.
To assist advocates in these countries and others, veterans of the U.S. Freedom to Marry campaign have spent the last several years advising and coaching worldwide efforts under the banner of Freedom to Marry Global. Wolfson and former Freedom to Marry colleagues Thalia Zepatos and Cameron Tolle work closely with activists around the world to offer support and share lessons learned in all facets of campaigning and organizing. Since the U.S. victory in 2015, the team has supported marriage campaigns in Ireland, Australia, Taiwan, and Costa Rica while also working with activists to lay the groundwork for future victories throughout Asia, Latin America, and Europe.
To celebrate the 20 year anniversary of the first marriage victory, Freedom to Marry Global launched a new website this week to track the global marriage landscape and connect with leaders working on marriage in their home countries. The organization recently released an overview of the progress, track record, and the victories the freedom to marry has helped propel in the European Human Rights Law Review (see here).
"Through our many decades of campaigning, state-by-state, in the U.S., we learned — through key victories and countless losses — what works and what doesn't," says Thalia Zepatos, the former director of research and messaging for Freedom to Marry. "While each country has a unique culture and set of circumstances, Freedom to Marry Global wants to make sure that advocates are equipped with best practices and offered the support they may need as they adapt these lessons to the opportunities to make progress for more families in more places."
"Where we have won the freedom to marry, people have seen with their own eyes that it's good for families, for the economy, and for society — and support grows," said Cameron Tolle, former director of digital action for Freedom to Marry, pointing to March polling in the US showing that now a majority of even self-described Republicans favor marriage equality.