Australians have voted in favour of legalising same-sex marriage — but elsewhere in the world gay people can struggle to simply stay out of jail.
Being openly gay is effectively illegal in more than 70 countries — and can result in severe punishment, sometimes even death.
See how Australia’s position on same-sex marriage compares around the world.
The state of marriage rights
Voters’ ‘yes’ response to the SSM postal survey is Australia’s latest step towards allowing same-sex couples to marry, and may prove close to the culmination of a long campaign.
Campaigners have suggested Australia is lagging behind rest of the world.
It is fair to say that most countries with similar cultural backgrounds to Australia have now legalised same-sex marriage, but based on total country numbers, Australia remains part of the majority in restricting marriage to couples made up of a man and a woman.
Out of 209 countries the ABC examined, only 24 allow same-sex couples to marry.
There is no same-sex marriage in Asia or the Middle East, and South Africa is the only country in Africa to have legalised it.
In Europe, the legal status of same-sex marriage is mixed. The Netherlands was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage in 2001, with other Western countries including the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Germany following it.
Yet more than half of European Union members have not.
Some countries in Eastern Europe have recently sought to amend their constitutions to entrench the “traditional definition” of marriage:
- Hungary brought in a new constitution in 2011 that specifically restricts marriage to heterosexual couples.
- Voters in Croatia (2013) and Slovakia (2015) voted to change the definition of marriage in their constitutions so that it applies only to a union of a man and a woman, although the Slovakian referendum was invalid due to a low turnout.
- In December 2015, Slovenian voters rejected the legalisation of same-sex marriage in a referendum.
Australia made a similar amendment to its Marriage Act in 2004, adding a definition of marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others”.
How have countries legalised same-sex marriage?
In Australia, Parliament can legalise same-sex marriage by amending the Marriage Act but the Government’s policy has been that its MPs will only be able to vote for same-sex marriage if a majority of Australians support the change via a plebiscite.
The Government’s compulsory plebiscite proposal was defeatedin the Senate. Instead, the non-compulsory Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey was run by the Australian Bureau of Statistics between September 12 and November 7.
After the survey returned a yes outcome, a private member’s bill will now be debated in Parliament to legalise marriage between people of the same sex.
Out of the countries that have legalised same-sex marriage:
- Only one country, Ireland, put the change to a people’s vote. A referendum was legally required, held in May 2015, and overwhelmingly passed.
- Parliaments legalised same-sex marriage in 20 countries.
- Court rulings prompted the change in five countries.
The highest-profile court decision was in the United States in 2013, when the Supreme Court effectively legalised same-sex marriage by finding the Defence of Marriage Act was unconstitutional.
Most recently, in April 2017, the Constitutional Court of Taiwan (Republic of China) ruled that the Taiwanese law defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman was unconstitutional. It ordered that a change in the law had to occur within two years. At the time of writing, same-sex marriage is still unavailable in Taiwan.
Where is being gay illegal?
Marriage is an important issue in Western countries but elsewhere in the world, LGBT people can struggle to simply stay out of jail.
There are more than 70 countries where homosexual acts are illegal.
The countries shaded in the map above are those where there is a law that prohibits homosexual acts in part or all of the country.
Most of these countries fall within two main categories — just over half are former colonies mostly in Africa that inherited discriminatory laws but never repealed them, while the others are majority-Muslim countries.
The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) publishes an annual report of “state-sponsored homophobia”.
What exactly is outlawed varies from country to country. Twenty-eight states only prohibit relations between men.
A common formulation is a prohibition of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”.
Sometimes gay sex is placed in the same category as bestiality.
- In India it is an offence to “voluntarily [have] carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal”.
- In Mauritius, it is a crime to commit “sodomy or bestiality”.
- In Uganda, a law provides for a seven-year jail term for anyone who conducts a same-sex marriage ceremony.
Not all the countries with these laws actually enforce them for consensual sex at home.
The Singapore Penal Code prohibits “any act of gross indecency with another male person” in “public or private”, with a maximum penalty of two years in prison.
But National University of Singapore Assistant Professor Lynette Chua says the ban has “seldom been applied in private, consensual situations and [is] typically used in non-consensual situations or cases involving minors”.
Similarly, Shakira Hussein of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne suggests that in Islam “on all sexual matters … it isn’t the act itself that is to be punished but the public commission of it”.
“Some sharia scholars say that the laws against illicit sex should basically be regarded as laws against public indecency, since they require four witnesses.”
Even if bans aren’t strictly enforced, they often still have a harmful impact on LGBT people.
Achim Hildebrandt of the University of Stuttgart says such bans “represent an ever-present threat of blackmail and public disgrace … they drive gays and lesbians out of public life and prevent them from demanding more far-reaching reforms such as the outlawing of discrimination in the workplace and the housing market”.
Where do LGBT people risk the death penalty?
The death penalty is in place for same-sex sexual acts in at least 11 countries.
According to the IGLA, the death penalty applies in Sudan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen and in parts of Nigeria and Somalia.
In theory the death penalty could also be imposed in Mauritania, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Qatar and the United Arab Emiratesthrough sharia law, but this does not appear to have occurred in practice.
Information on when the death penalty has been carried out is not readily available.
The “Erasing 76 Crimes” blog, which advocates for the repeal of anti-LGBT laws around the world, indicates that only Iran and Saudi Arabia have actually carried out executions for same-sex activity in recent times.
The blog’s founder, Colin Stewart, says that in Saudi Arabia“beheadings have been imposed for homosexual behaviour in the past, including three men in 2002, but imprisonment and lashings are a more common punishment”.
“Iran is second in the world for frequency of executions [after China], including executions for homosexual activity, although the facts about the offences being punished are often unclear or misrepresented in news accounts.”
At the same time, Dr Hussein points out the existence of established trans communities in Iran and Pakistan. She tells the ABC:
“Some same-sex male couples circumvent laws against homosexuality by getting a doctors’ certificate to say that one half of the couple is a trans woman. Supposedly, this is meant to be followed up with surgery, but that isn’t necessarily carried through.
“Pakistan has had a ‘third gender’ option on the national ID card for a few years now [and] Iran has one of the highest rates of male-to-female trans surgery in the world.”
What other forms of harassment take place?
Intimidation of LGBT people is not restricted to the threat of jail or death.
Homosexuality is legal in Russia but in recent years the Government has imposed laws that ban “promotion” of “sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality and transgenderism”.
Omar G Encarnacion of Bard College in New York suggests thatRussia’s law “is so broad that it outlaws gay pride parades, public displays of affection by same-sex couples, gay symbols such as the rainbow flag, and even a public admission of homosexuality, unless made in the way that casts homosexuality in a negative light”.
Closer to home, Singapore takes a tough line on “promotion” of LGBT issues — on paper at least.
According to Assistant Professor Chua, “Singaporean media are banned from carrying content that “promotes”, “justifies” or “glamorises” “lifestyles such as homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism, transsexualism [and] transvestism”.
In mid-2014, the National Library of Singapore announced it would pulp its copies of three children’s books with LGBT themes. According to the Government-linked Straits Times Newspaper:
“And Tango Makes Three is based on the true story of a pair of male penguins who raise a chick together; The White Swan Express features adoptive parents such as a lesbian couple; and Who’s In My Family highlights different family structures and includes same-sex parents.”
After a public outcry, two of the books were returned to the library but placed in the adults’ section.
In June 2016, the Singapore Government announced that“foreign entities should not fund, support or influence” Pinkdot, an annual LGBT event held in a Singapore park.
Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, suggests“Singapore’s demand that foreign companies stop sponsoring PinkDot encourages corporations to discriminate against LGBT people”.
Leaders in other countries freely use discriminatory language against LGBT people:
- In 2015, the mayor of Budapest in Hungary described the city’s Gay Pride rally as “repulsive”.
- In Africa, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has describedhomosexual people as “disgusting”.
The ABC has recently reported on LGBT Ugandans fleeing the country as refugees.
Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has previously said that:“Homosexuals are worse than dogs and pigs; dogs and pigs will never engage in homosexual madness,” and followed this up in 2013 by stating that LGBT people were “worse than pigs, goats and birds”.
In 2016 the ageing ruler vowed that Zimbabwe would reject any foreign aid that is “given on the basis that we accept the principle of gay marriages”.
Are things getting better for LGBT people?
With LGBT harassment and criminal penalties continuing in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and parts of Europe, the picture may seem bleak.
But veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell, who famously attempted a citizen’s arrest of Robert Mugabe in March 2001 and was then beaten by the president’s bodyguards, is more optimistic.
“There are rays of hope [in Africa], with the Seychelles, Mozambique and Sao Tome & Principe recently decriminalising homosexuality [and] in 2014, the African Commission on Human Rights and People’s Rights urged member states to protect LGBT people against discrimination and violence,” he says.
Ty Cobb from Human Rights Campaign said: “We have seen great progress with regards to global LGBTQ rights in recent years, with three countries decriminalising same-sex activity just [in 2016], 20 countries and certain jurisdictions in Mexico have marriage equality and more and more countries are taking measures to improve the lives of trans individuals.”
At the same time, Mr Cobb notes that anti-LGBT movements continue to work against the community.
“Extremists have organised marches against marriage equality efforts in Mexico, American evangelicals have resorted to exporting their dangerous messages of hate from Eastern Europe to Africa, and [Islamic State] continues to target and kill members of the LGBTQ community throughout the Arab world,” he says.
In Singapore, there are signs of increased cultural acceptance of the LGBT community, with the 2016 release of home-grown web drama People Like Us taking place with no real backlash.
Telling the stories of four gay men in Singapore, the series has been well-received by the local community.
Filmaker Leon Cheo says apart from some “thumbs-down” on YouTube, “we haven’t received flak or negative emails or comments from Singaporeans at large”.
Mr Cheo says while the situation for LGBT people in Singapore is improving, “challenges such as censorship of neutral and positive LGBT news, film and TV, and archaic anti-sodomy laws still exist”.
“One of our creative objectives was to portray Asian gay men neutrally or positively [so that the] series could play a part in changing the hearts and minds of the citizens and government of Singapore,” he says.
In the Middle East, LGBT rights remain strongest in Israel although it is unclear whether or when same-sex marriage might be legalised there.
- Pride, prejudice and punishment: Gay rights around the world, ABC News, 15 November 2017, by Paul Crossley, Colin Gourlay, and Ben Spraggon https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-04/gay-lesbian-mardi-gras-rights-around-the-world/8126828?nw=0