The Road to Recognition: A Global Perspective on Gay Marriage

By Fish, Eric | Harvard International Review, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

The Road to Recognition: A Global Perspective on Gay Marriage


Fish, Eric, Harvard International Review


In the previous half century the world witnessed dramatic cultural upheavals. Factions of the right and left fought many political battles pitting traditionalism against progressivism, each side arguing for its vision of a virtuous society in the changing cultural landscape. The emerging struggle in many regions of the world over legal recognition of homosexual unions is one of the latest manifestations of this conflict. It pits liberal coalitions against their socially conservative and frequently religious opponents in the latest theater of what might be called a global culture war.

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In the United States, the debate over gay marriage and the methods employed in pushing for and resisting its realization were major factors in the 2004 presidential election. The issue has played a substantial role in the national political life of many other countries as well. While homosexual unions have been realized without substantial controversy in some nations, they are a topic of frequent and heated debate in many others. Few countries have fully incorporated homosexual unions into their marital laws, while a larger number have established a more limited menu of partner benefits for same-sex couples. Some countries have uniform national policies while others have differences between regional substates. In other countries, homosexuality is still treated as a mental illness or even as a crime.

This wide range of attitudes and policies toward homosexual partnerships reveals a great deal about social and cultural differences among regions of the world and about the conflict between tradition and modernity that shapes global politics. The persistence of the movements for partnership rights and the political forces that resist them within and across various societies demonstrate that this struggle is not one that will be resolved easily or soon. It is thus important to examine the dynamics of the conflict in different regions of the world in order to understand whether and, if so, how gay marriage is politically feasible.

Scandinavia: The Beginning

Denmark was the first country to establish a partnership law for same-sex couples. Axel and Eigil Axgil, two Danish activists, became the world's first legally recognized gay couple in Copenhagen on October 1, 1989. Called "registered partnerships," their enactment represented a major shift in Danish attitudes toward homosexuality and the first real victory in the struggle for the recognition of gay unions. The law was known as the "Danish Registered Partnership Act" and provided almost all of the same benefits as standard marriage, or as the law puts it "the same legal effects as the contracting of marriage." However, there were notable differences: same-sex couples were not allowed to adopt children or to receive artificial insemination, nor could they have their commitment ceremony held in a church. Denmark has since legalized gay adoption, but several of the other differences between registered partnerships and heterosexual marriages persist.

The controversy in Denmark over church recognition of these partnerships is an interesting one, and it reveals much about the religious element of the conflict over same-sex unions. Denmark has an official state church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, which receives support from the Danish government. The country is split into 12 dioceses, each managed by a bishop. In 1997, in response to the expressed desires of many of the church's gay members, the bishops established a commission to study whether homosexual partnerships should receive the church's blessing. The commission found that there are no "theological or moral objections to homosexual practice that are tenable," and the bishops decided to allow pastors to bless unions, but did not create a standard ritual or mandate such blessings. There was substantial disagreement from conservative theologians about this decision. …

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