What’s the history of marriage equality?
Let’s take a look at the history of marriage equality, and some of the key milestones that have been accomplished in different parts of the world.
The debate about marriage equality is generally framed as whether the existing order of things should be changed in order to accommodate the LGBTQ community. But the reality is that same-sex marriage isn’t a new thing. When you look back through history, across the centuries there have been examples of same-sex couples formalising their relationship in a wide range of cultures and countries.
Just as LGBTQ people have always existed, so has the desire the form and celebrate important relationships.
Same-sex partnerships in history
The ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia, and China, all provide numerous examples to demonstrate that it was relatively common for people of the same sex to make some sort of formal commitment to each other.
As the power of religious authorities grew over time, it was advocated that marriage should be for procreation purposes only, and should therefore be reserved for a man and a woman. However, examples of same-sex couples formally committing to each other continued throughout the Middle Ages.
Even the Pirate law of the 18th century recognised that two men could make a formal and binding commitment to each other – sharing their lives and their adventures on the high seas.
How did the fight for marriage equality begin?
It was a number of court cases in the US that demonstrated the clearest examples of LGBTQ activists seeking to challenge the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Activists brought several applications before the Supreme Court of Minnesota in the early 1970s, and these cases appear to have triggered state legislatures across the US moving to introduce statutes specifically banning same-sex marriage. It was this negative reaction by lawmakers in the US that put in place a lot of the barriers to marriage equality that subsequently had to be overcome.
The language of ‘domestic partner’ began to emerge in the early 1980s, specifically in relation to health care. This was at a time when the onset of the HIV pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of same-sex relationships not protected by law. The devastation caused by HIV highlighted the financial and emotional cost that same-sex couples had to endure because the legal protection of marriage was being denied to them.
Europe makes the first move
In 1979, The Netherlands introduced a scheme that recognised Unregistered Cohabitation. The scheme was developed to help same-sex couples navigate property rental laws, and it made The Netherlands the first country in the world where same-sex couples could apply for legal rights to protect their relationship.
It wasn’t until ten years later, in 1989, that Denmark became the first country in the world to legally recognise same-sex unions when they passed legislation that recognised Registered Partnerships.
Norway followed soon after, with similar legislation that was passed in 1993, and Sweden followed suit in 1994.
For the first time in the modern era, formal legal unions between same-sex couples were being seen as equivalent to that of a marriage between a man and a woman.
In 2001, The Netherlands passed legislation that formally recognised same-sex marriage. The Netherlands was the first country in the world to put marriage equality into place for LGBTQ people.
Where are we today?
Today, same-sex marriage is currently recognised in 28 countries around the world. That seems like we’ve made a lot of progress, however that number isn’t rock-solid – there are a number of places where legal challenges and public votes make the exact position a little uncertain, so it is sometimes a case of two steps forward, one step back.
While it is important to continue to make progress in terms of marriage equality for LGBTQ people around the world, there are still about 73 countries where it is illegal to be LGBTQ, and eight countries where you could be punished with the death penalty for revealing that you are LGBTQ.
For many LGBTQ people, marriage equality isn’t top of their priority list. As a global LGBTQ community, we need to focus our attention on helping everyone to be safe, and be free from persecution and discrimination. That’s the starting point for equality.