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Last month, Canada's Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 that same-sex partners must count as "spouses" for the purposes of family law and Canada's federal and provincial governments all agreed to rewrite their rules to comply. In June, New South Wales Australia's largest and most populous state rewrote its De Facto Relationships Act to cover same-sex couples in everything from pensions to wrongful-death benefits to "divorce." In the past several months, South Africa's courts, parliament, and administrators relying on their new constitution's ban against discrimination based on sexual orientation have been insisting that same-sex partners must be counted as "spouses" for such things as health insurance, pensions, immigration, and family law. Meanwhile, South Africa and the Netherlands are running neck and neck to be first in the world to define marriage the full form, including the veil-trailing, garter-stealing M-word as gender neutral.
Surprised? That's because the American news media rarely looks up from its navel, leaving parochial Americans to believe we're the only country considering wedding bells for me and my gal. But the movement toward recognizing same-sex partners is simmering in every country with some Western history including countries with extremely different cultures, constitutions, and startlingly different civil and religious incarnations of marriage. That variety makes the steady Western movement toward legal same-sex marriage even more impressive and the U.S.'s laggard status more appalling.
The world's approaches to same-sex marriage can be divided into three models: the de factos, the Registered Partnerships, and the peculiars. The most recent breakthroughs came from the de factos countries that already recognize heterosexual couples who've never strolled down the aisle. In the 1970s and 1980s, Canadian and Australian feminists passed laws that would protect a woman from a man who used her as breeder/housemaid and then skipped out. Under these laws, couples who live together for a year or two are automatically recognized for everything from pension and inheritance rights to alimony.
Those laws are now being extended to same-sex pairs. This month's New South Wales bill may be the world's most creative: some of its provisions cover any two willing people, whether coupled or cohabiting or not. Meanwhile, the entire nation of Canada managed to get there just a few weeks earlier. "Certainly same-sex couples will often form long, lasting, loving, and intimate relationships," wrote the Supreme Court, adding a spectacular (and in high-court verbiage, nearly unique) sentence to the West's collective juridical conscience. Given Canada's constitutional guarantee of human dignity, the court concluded that same-sex partners had to be considered "spouses" under the country's "common law" marriage rules. The court insisted that this was not "marriage." Nevertheless, Canadian lesbian and gay couples like unmarried heterosexual couples have dozens more legal protections and benefits than any American unmarried couple, whether different- or same-sex, could hope to gain with notarized documents.
After the de factos come the peculiars: countries whose cultural and legal situations are so unique that their strategies can't be applied to the U.S. Of these, South Africa is the crown jewel. Based on its new constitution, judges, administrators, and the parliament have been counting same-sex partners as "spouses" for everything from health insurance to immigration rights to in a breakthrough decision just this month pensions. Activists are flatly confident that they will win full same-sex marriage before long along with a mid-tier domestic partnership status for those who prefer not to wed. "Most people in South Africa have been discriminated against in family law," says Zackie Achmat of the Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Equality whether through apartheid's ban on interracial marriage or its refusal to recognize Hindu, Muslim, or tribal marriages. They are, therefore, prepared to support the African National Congress's exhaustive update of marriage law, including a gender-neutral marriage definition.
Inspiring in a different way is Israel, where there's no civil marriage at all. Heterosexual couples who don't want to marry under a synagogue's, mosque's, or church's rules have to leave the country to tie the knot, which means there's no legal framework at all for same-sex pairs. Yet in 1992 the Knesset passed an act banning employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, which the Israeli Supreme Court has interpreted to grant same-sex spouses a host of recognitions, from military pensions to free spousal airfare.
Many Americans have heard that Scandinavia has "gay marriage." What they don't know is how Registered Partnerships are spreading like kudzu throughout Europe. The first RP law, which Denmark passed in 1989, is breathtakingly simple: it says that (except for adoption or church weddings) every law that mentions marriage or spouses will apply equally to same-sex registration and partners. It thus hands over all marriage rights, while ducking any fights about the alarming M-word. Next came Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, and, momentarily, Finland.
And most of Europe is following suit. This May, the Czech Republic's lower house passed an RP proposal, which gay-friendly prez Vaclav Havel pledges to sign. Two Spanish states, Catalonia and Aragon, have RP laws, lacking only the rights controlled by the federal government. To the utter surprise of Spanish activists, this past May Spain's lower house of parliament passed an RP bill against the ruling coalition's furious objections though it's been buried deep in committee for "study." Germany's Red/Green coalition will introduce its RP bill this fall. And despite ferocious conservative opposition, the French pacte civil de solidarité, or PACS (the most watered-down version of RP in Europe), will soon almost certainly become law.
So what's wrong here in the U.S.? Activists worldwide are shocked at American fundamentalists' political power, comparable only to what exists in Islamic countries power that our religious right has used to block even the most toothless domestic-partnership laws. Meanwhile, the rest of the West has a more socialist (remember that word?) commitment to caring for all citizens. National health care and recognition of de facto relationships seem to go hand in hand.
On the other hand, the U.S. is still a contender. A number of American states far in advance of the rest of the world recognize lesbian and gay couples as joint parents. And any moment now, either the Hawaii or Vermont supreme courts could offer same-sex couples the M-word. Some day, we may be as advanced as Johannesburg!
E.J. Graff is the author of What Is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution.