International Gay Marriage

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Natacha Pisarenko / AP

A gay couple kisses outside Argentina's Congress during a rally in Buenos Aires on July 14 to support a proposal to legalize same-sex marriage

On the evening of July 21, the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, convened a ceremony at the Casa Rosada government house in downtown Buenos Aires to formally sign into law a bill legalizing gay marriage. The measure, narrowly passed by the Argentine Congress on July 15, was no small leap for the land of the laconic gaucho, a place whose constitution required the head of the Argentine state to be Catholic until a 1994 reform. "In a few years, this debate will be absolutely anachronistic," said Kirchner to a room filled with activists chanting "Igualdad" (Equality). In signing the law, Kirchner made the South American country the 10th in the world — and the first in Latin America — to codify gay marriage.

Argentina's breakthrough has already sent shock waves through the Americas. Several conservative magistrates in Argentina have said they would refuse to conduct same-sex marriages, even in the face of warnings from officials that such a move would be grounds for dismissal. In a sign of solidarity, the tourism board of Mexico City, where gay marriage has been legal since last year, has offered an all-expenses-paid vacation to the first wedded Argentine gay couple. (That marriage is scheduled to take place on Aug. 13 in the trendy Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo.) For a region in the thrall of progressive leadership, left-leaning legislators have even conceded in interviews with the local press that Argentina's legalization of gay marriage could make their countries appear "conservative" by comparison.

The legalization draws on a rich history of international contributions to the gay-rights movement. When the modern concept of being gay began to take root in the 19th century, the lifestyle soon became the target of governments the world over, including Germany in the 1870s. The notorious Paragraph 175 of the German penal code criminalized sexual relations between men, but its draconian nature inspired first-of-their-kind gay-rights protests, literature and research institutes. And while the horrors of fascism wiped out any progress, the tactics used in Berlin, London and Paris through the 1920s became a blueprint for activism in the U.S. in the 1960s.

"Nobody was talking about gay marriage then," says Scott Gunther, a professor at Wellesley College and the author of The Elastic Closet. "They were not about assimilating or copying a model of heterosexual relationship but rather creating their own model. The global experience with AIDS, and the importance it placed on inheritance rights, helped change all that." Activists throughout the world look to the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall bar in New York City as the seminal moment in the modern struggle for gay rights, but experts say there should be little surprise that countries like Argentina are out ahead of the U.S. (five states and the District of Columbia have legalized marriage).

"Beyond the current power clash between the Kirchners and the church, this law fits exactly into a tradition of anticlerical republicanism," says Thomas Laqueur, a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, referring to the Argentine President and her husband Néstor, a member of the Argentine legislature, who preceded her in office. "Latin American countries grew out of a rebellion against conservative Spanish clerical governments. This keeps coming up again and again. Something is always the new issue."

The push to assert the supremacy of secular civil law over a religious authority that once held legal sway has also fueled the legalization of gay marriage in Portugal (2010) and Spain (2005). Both measures came at the behest of left-of-center governments looking to entrench civil authority in countries just three decades removed from Catholic dictatorships.

"The aggressive action of the Catholic Church during the current debate [in Argentina] has only exacerbated a loathing that already exists within the population towards the Catholic hierarchy," said Marcelo Ernesto Ferreyra, the Latin America/Caribbean coordinator for the International Gay & Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC), based in Buenos Aires, in an e-mail. He went on to highlight other moments when the church has lost prestige in Argentina, like during the debate in the 1980s over divorce, which was made legal in the country in 1987.

The passage of gay marriage around the world has also been facilitated by the traditions of the civil legal system, says Laqueur. Unlike the U.S. and Britain, which abide by the common-law system, nine of the 10 countries that have legalized gay marriage operate under the civil-law system. That tradition, which has its roots in the Roman Empire and places less emphasis on legal precedence, was the basis of the Napoleonic Code, created by the French leader to subvert the church.

And in countries like Argentina that trace their tradition directly to Napoleon's writ, civil marriages, even for heterosexuals, reign supreme. To this day, weddings in these countries administered by a religious authority have no legitimacy, and many people have two weddings, with a religious one accompanying the civil ceremony. "That history, along with the rise of something like birth control, is part of a tradition that says that marriage is for something other than just pure reproduction," says Laqueur. "Once you do that, you give away the store. So what's wrong then with gay marriage?"

Nations That Have Legalized Gay Marriage

• The Netherlands (2000)
• Belgium (2003)
• Spain (2005)
• Canada (2005)
• South Africa (2006)
• Norway (2008)
• Sweden (2009)
• Portugal (2010)
• Iceland (2010)
• Argentina (2010)