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Several nations and dozens of provincial and municipal governments around the world have enacted legislation to protect lesbian, gay, and bisexual people from discrimination in employment, housing, access to services, and other areas of public life, including registered partnerships and civil marriage.
Click here to read more on Definitions of Marriage, How Legal Institutions Discriminate, Tradition, Marriage and Human Rights, and Legal Strategies.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Same-Sex Unions:
- In which countries can same-sex couples marry?
- On April 1, 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to offer full, legal marriage to same-sex couples. The only legal right granted to opposite-sex couples but not to same-sex couples there is the right to overseas adoptions because of potential objections from countries that don't allow same-sex couples to marry. In January 2003 Belgium passed a law similar to that of the Netherlands, but disallowing any adoptions. In June and July 2003 the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia, Canada, granted full equal marriage rights to same-sex couples, and a federal provision is expected after a House of Commons vote in winter 2003-04 according to 365gay.com. Contracts made in those two provinces are expected to be honored in all of Canada, and possibly even in the US.
- What is the difference between marriage and registered partnership?
- "Registered partnership" is a model pioneered by the Scandinavian countries which reconciles marriage laws with equal protection and anti-discrimination laws, giving most but not all of the rights of heterosexual civil marriage to same-sex couples. In some cases, registered partnerships are easier to dissolve than civil marriages. In the Netherlands and elsewhere registered partnership is available to opposite-sex couples who do not wish to enter into full civil marriage. Non-marriage registered partnerships with limited rights are now available at the federal level in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark (including Greenland), Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. In the US, at the state level only, registered partnerships are available in the states of Vermont and California. Other countries offer limited rights– similar to those offered by registered partnership– based on proof of cohabitation. Hungary has opened so-called 'common-law' marriage to same-sex couples, offering most marriage rights except adoption; in this arrangement partners can claim some benefits retroactively, based on evidence of past cohabitation.
- What's the difference between a registered partnership and a domestic partnership?
- These terms are often used interchangeably, but the first implies validation by a national, provincial, or state registry. IGLHRC refers to a "registered partnership" as a same-sex partnership with national or regional validation patterned after civil heterosexual marriage, requiring some form of preliminary affirmation of the relationship before a government authority (a registry) and entailing most but not all of the same benefits. IGLHRC refers to a "domestic partnership" as a same-sex partnership validated only by local authorities, or by non-state entities, including businesses and corporations, and not always requiring state, province, or national-level registration. While cities, counties, and other local authorities around the globe recognize same-sex relationships, often through their own registries, these are without federal implications. Federal governments give most of the civil, economic, and social benefits of partnership. Thus, even though one US state, Vermont, allows the strongest variant of same-sex civil marriage ("civil unions"), full enjoyment of marriage rights still depends on the federal government, which, in the US, opposes same-sex marriage. As with cities and counties, private business or trade union policies which grant benefits to same-sex couples, while often important both materially and symbolically, have no federal implications. Even if the federal government of a country offers economic benefits to domestic partners of its employees, these government benefits do not carry the same legal weight as a federal partnership registry or civil marriage provision.
- Which countries recognize same-sex partnerships in immigration matters?
- Registered partnership laws in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands and Iceland stipulate equal treatment of registered same-sex couples and opposite-sex married couples in immigration matters. The foreign partner of a citizen of any of these countries can apply for residency and a work permit based on that partnership. Sweden and Denmark offer these privileges to foreign same-sex couples with 2 years' residency: see section on the EU below. A 1997 Belgian regulation grants residence permits to the citizen's foreign partner conditional on the citizen's commitment to support the foreign partner and 3 1/2 years' cohabitation.\tIn the UK, the foreign partner can receive a residence permit conditional on the ability to support her or himself, cohabitation of 4 years or more, and the intention to live together permanently with the citizen. Immigration regulations in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, New Zealand, and South Africa also recognize same-sex partnerships in granting entry and residency, but not necessarily on equal footing with heterosexual partners. In Spain a Colombian man was reportedly granted a residence permit based on his long-term relationship with a male citizen.
Print and Web Sources:
- The Advocate. Vermont Court Rejects Civil Union Challenge." January 4, 2002.
- BuddyBuddy.com: US-based Partners Task Force for Gay & Lesbian Couples, especially their Global Status for Legal Marriage report at http://www.buddybuddy.com/mar-repo.html
- Cahill, Sean and Kenneth T. Jones. Leaving Our Children Behind: Welfare Reform and The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community. The Policy Institute of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. New York, NY, 2001.
- EGALE: Marriage Challenge. Canada, October 2001.
- General Accounting Office, Abstracts of GAO Reports and Testimony, FY97, OGC-97-16, January 31, 1997.
- The Gateway of South Africa. News. Jan. 11, 2002.
- Jean-Benoit, Richard. "French Senate Partnership Laws." 7 Feb. 2002.
- Lambda Legal Defense. "Government Employers Offering Domestic Partner Benefits." 10 March 2002. *Click here for more on California's AB25.
- Press for Change. "New Zealand Attorney General v. The Family Court at Otahuhu, The judgment which established in New Zealand Law the principle that, for the purposes of marriage, trans people should be legally recognised in their reassigned sex." November 1994.
- Sutherlin, Janine and Julie Baker. "Gay Marriage Goes Global." Girlfriends Magazine. January 2002: 16-17.
- Stonewall Home Page. 4 Sept. 2001. Stonewall.org.uk News Headlines.
- Rice, Martin of Kaua'i. Interim Secretary of Democratic Party GLBT Caucus,Hawaii. "Re: Hawai'i's Reciprocal Beneficiary Law is almost accurate". E-mail to the author. 30 Jan.2002.
- Varona, Anthony E. "Recent Developments in Sexual Orientaion and Gender Identity Law." Human Rights Campaign Law Briefs. Vol. 4, No.3. (2001)
- Wockner, Rex. "International News #368." 14 May 2001, and "#411." 11 March 2002.
Other Useful Web Sources (US-based sites unless otherwise noted):
- ACLU Lesbian & Gay Rights Project
- Freedom to Marry
- Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders
- Gay & Lesbian International Lobby Summary of the Recognition of Gay & Lesbian Partnerships in Europe
- ILGA (Europe-based) links to important same-sex partnership laws and other texts
- Lesbian & Gay Immigration Rights Task Force
- Marriage Equality California - extensive links to US & international sites
- National Center for Lesbian Rights
- Queer Resources Directory: Family and Marriage Links
- The Transgender Law Center
Rights Conferred on Same-Sex Partners Worldwide:
Formal legal recognitions of same-sex partnerships at the national, state, and provincial levels. (Alphabetical by country.)
Argentina\t– (2003) domestic partnership laws have passed in Buenos Aires city and the Rio Negro province, providing same-sex and heterosexual couples rights in areas such as access to health care, pensions, housing, social benefits and conjugal prison visits. December 13, 2002, Buenos Aires became the first Latin American city to adopt laws allowing both same- and opposite-sex couples medical insurance, hospital visitation rights, and pension rights. The new law does not give same-sex couples the right to adoption children. The law went into effect on July 21, 2003. June 2003: a similar law was put before the Santa Fe Province legislature. Previous laws include: Pensions (1997), Medical benefits (1998)\tPartners can claim a widow/er’s pension . A union-run health care program for teachers and flight attendants has extended health coverage to domestic partners. Province of Mendoza: Medical benefits (1998) A court recognized the common-law marriage of a homosexual couple. The ruling, apparently the first of its kind in Argentina, grants health benefits.
Australia– (2002) Common Law Marriage. The state of Victoria changed their opposite-sex terminology to "spouse," "domestic partner" and "partner" in 43 statues. A Sydney Family Court ruled that a marriage between a woman and a female-to-male (FTM) transgender man was valid despite the fact that the FTM spouse's birth certificate listed him as female. September 2002 Tasmania announced that it would amend to include same-sex couples 120 pieces of legislation covering property rights, child maintenance, organ donation, guardianship, access to a partner in the hospital, pensions, funerals, wills and various parenting, family and work leave entitlements.
Belgium– (2003) Same-sex marriage became on par with the law in the Netherlands in January 2003, but without adoption rights. Previous laws: Flemish regional government's Inheritance tax (1998). Reduction in inheritance tax rate. At present, opposite-sex spouses pay a 2 percent tax while unrelated heirs pay up to 45 percent. Under the 1998 regulation, surviving same-sex partners pay 10 percent.
Brazil–\t (2002) case law was made that a partnership solemnized in France was deemed legal in Brazil for immigration purposes; also the surviving long-time partner of the late Cassia Eller was awarded child custody and inheritance rights based on their partnership. The Brazilian government, on June 8, 2000, extended de facto legal recognition to same-sex relationships by granting such couples the right to inherit each other’s pension and social security benefits. Property rights (1998): The Brazilian High Court decided February 11, 1998, to grant property rights to surviving partner of gay relationship. Businessman Milton Alves Pedrosa, from Belo Horizonte capital of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, won by unanimous decision of the Brazilian High Court the right to half of the estate of his partner who died of AIDS in 1989.
Canada– (2003) Ontario and British Columbia passed same-sex marriage laws; House of Commons to consider federal law in winter 2003-2004. Federal Government: Health and relocation benefits (1996); Job benefits; redefinition of the word 'spouse' (1998). A human rights tribunal ordered the Federal government to extend health and relocation benefits to the same-sex partners of federal employees, although the matter of pension benefits remains tied up in the courts. The Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provide anti-discrimination protections to same-sex couples. Canadian Federal Justice Andrew MacKay ruled that the federal government discriminates against gay employees with its 'separate but equal' benefits program for “same-sex partner relationships”. Instead, the word 'spouse' must be redefined so that gay employees and their partners are included in the regular benefits scheme. MacKay’s ruling also granted human rights officials the power to order the Federal Government to rework all laws, regulations and directives that discriminate against same-sex couples in the area of job benefits. Prov. of British Columbia Child custody and adoption (1997): Legislation recognizes gay and lesbian couples as legal spouses for purposes of child custody, maintenance and access. Same-sex adoption is also granted.
Colombia– (2003) the Senate discussed a same-sex union and anti-discrimination bill. Read the text of the proposed law at http://www.leyparejas.com/. However, in late August 2003, Colombia ceased discussing its plans to legalize same-sex relationships, likely a direct result of a recent Vatican declaration restating its opposition to homosexuality.
Croatia– (2003) Same-sex civil union law passed July 14, 2003, equal to heterosexual civil unions. Read the new law in English HERE.
Czech Republic– (2001) – Per the civil code "common law" (cohabitation-based law) same-sex couples have inheritance and succession rights in housing. A registered partnership law was defeated by parliament in 1999, was reintroduced and rejected in 2001, and should be reintroduced again. Read the proposed texts of the laws at http://www.lesba.cz/linky/Poradny/Zakony/index.php.
Denmark (including Greenland)– (1989, 1999) passed the first domestic partnership law in 1989 (in 1996 in Greenland), amended 1999. It includes all the rights associated with marriage--including those of property, inheritance, immigration, taxation, and social security-- it does not provide the rights to adopt children who are not related by blood; artificial insemination; or an official state church wedding. Also, one of the partners must be Danish.
European Union–\t(1997 Treaty of Amsterdam) Despite the leadership of the EU in upholding antidiscrimination laws, it ruled that job benefits can be denied to same-sex partners (1998): a lesbian sued her employer, a British railway company, because her partner was denied travel benefits, which company policy would have bestowed on an opposite-sex partner, even though unmarried. The case reached the European Court of Justice, which rules on issues under the basic treaty of the European Union. There, she argued that the denial of benefits constituted sex discrimination, since they were withheld because her partner was not male. Although European officials initially ruled in her favor, the Court ultimately held that the denial of benefits did not constitute sex discrimination. However, since that time the European Union has promulgated a new basic treaty, the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997) which includes explicit protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Similar litigation under these provisions, if successful, would be binding on all European Union member states. Note that one of the basic elements in the foundation of the European Union is the free movement of people, and, according to the Union treaties, discrimination based on nationality is prohibited (where the treaty is applicable).The citizenship requirement in partnership laws contradicts these fundamental treaty provisions. It is discrimination based on nationality if a same-sex couple from another EU state living in e.g. Sweden couldn't obtain the same rights as when one of the partners was Swedish. It is also discriminatory if a Danish registered couple cannot move to another EU state and obtain the same partnership rights as in Denmark. (Jensen, Stephen "Recognition of Gay & Lesbian Partnerships in Europe Relations to EU Treaties and Regulations." 7 Feb. 2002.)
Finland–\t(2002) Registered partnership rights were granted in 2001, and became law in 2002.
France–\t(1999) Civil Pact of Solidarity: (Pacte Civil de Solidarité, or PACS) A law sponsored by the governing Socialist Party offers a form of legal partnership to people in same- or opposite-sex relationships who cannot or do not want to marry. Immigration, inheritance, and taxation benefits are included; adoption rights are not.
Germany–\t(2001) Registered partnership. Same-sex couples have a status comparable to marriage. However, adoption and child-custody rights are withheld.
Hungary– (1996) Cohabitation law which applies to both same-sex and different-sex couples: the Constitutional Court ruled in 1995 that, while civil marriage was reserved for partners of the opposite sex, existing state recognition of "common-law" marriages--which allowed unmarried opposite-sex couples to claim most of the economic benefits of marriage--had to be extended to same-sex couples. Parliament then revised the law on cohabitation. Under it, same-sex couples can claim all marital rights except access to adoption.
Iceland– (1996) Registered partnership available to same-sex couples. Based on the Danish act. Same-sex couples are able to adopt only children who are biologically related to one of the partners.
Israel–\t(1994)\tEqual employment benefits for opposite-sex and same-sex partners: the Supreme Court ruled that the airline El Al must provide equal benefits to both the married partners and the same-sex partners of its employees. (Section 2a of Israel's Equal Employment Opportunities Law, as amended in 1992, prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their sexual orientation.) Pension rights (1997): a court ruled that the Israeli Defense Force should provide pension benefits to the gay male partner of a deceased officer. The IDF was expected to appeal this decision. Tel Aviv passed a law on October 3, 2002, that makes same-sex couples eligible for discounts and benefits at cultural facilities, libraries, swimming pools and various city events.
Italy– Pisa, Bologna, and Florence allow same-sex couples to register as domestic partners.
Liechtenstein– (2001) Approved draft legislation, awaiting approval by Parliament, that would give same-sex couples many of the rights associated with legal marriage, excepting the right to adoption.
Luxembourg– (1996) a same-sex marriage proposal was introduced in Parliament.
Mexico– (2001) A bill was proposed in Mexico City to grant common law marriage rights to same-sex couples.
Namibia– (1999) A permanent residency was granted to a German woman based on her same-sex relationship with a Namibian citizen. In that case a high court ruling on June 25, 1999, stated that same-sex couples have exactly the same rights as opposite-sex couples.
The Netherlands– (2001)\tFull civil marriage rights, minus foreign adoption right. Only citizens and legal residents of the Netherlands will be able to marry under these laws. Read the translated text of the law and its implications for foreigners HERE, translation by Kees Waaldijk of the EC Group on Combating Sexual Orientation Discrimination.
New Zealand–\t(2001) Parliament passed four bills giving some of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples, including property, inheritance, and alimony ("spousal maintenance") rights. Anti-discrimination protections do not apply to marriage (1997): Three lesbian couples who were denied marriage licenses took their cases to court on the basis of the non-discrimination clause of the country's Human Rights Act. This act specifically prohibits discrimination based upon sexual orientation. However the New Zealand Court of Appeal ruled unanimously against recognizing same-sex couples under the 1955 Marriage Act. They found that marriage is exempted from national human-rights protections. Labour laws (1998): Labour laws modified to allow leave to care for same-sex partner.
Norway– (1993, amended 2000, 2001) Registered partnerships available to same-sex couples. Based on the Danish act.
Poland– (2003) Senator Maria Szyszkowska proposed a civil union bill in late August, 2003, which would help grant same-sex couples similar rights as marriage.
Portugal–\t(2001) Registered partnership.\tGives same common law status to opposite-sex and same-sex couples couples who do not wish to marry.
South Africa– (2003) Death Benefits: On September 19, 2003, an appeal judge at the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein found that a man whose partner died in a vehicle collision will be able to claim compensation from the Road Accident Fund. In his ruling, the judge said common law only afforded opposite-sex married couples the right to action against wrongdoers who unlawfully killed their spouses. It could therefore be inferred that the common law unfairly discriminated against same-sex partners. Immigration rights: The National Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Equality (NCGLE) had an agreement (14 May 1997) with the Department of Home Affairs that they would provide temporary residence permits for bona fide same-sex couples until the law was amended. In December 1997 however, the Department of Home Affairs unilaterally broke the agreement and refused 10 couples the right to stay. Following 2 months of negotiations and submissions, the NCGLE, 6 couples and the Commission on Gender Equality made an application to the High Court to have section 25 of the Aliens Control Act declared unconstitutional and to reinstate the original agreement until the law is changed. Then, two lesbian couples were threatened with deportation. The NCGLE and the couples applied for an interdict. The Department settled out of Court and agreed that all the people who had dealt with the NCGLE on the issue and were mentioned in the Court papers were entitled to live, work and study without interference until the conclusion of the Court case. New applicants would be considered on merit. The results of the ensuing court case in 1999 have not been determined. Same-sex marriage: In 1997, South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, passed a wide-ranging resolution on gay and lesbian equality, including a call for Parliament to legalize same-sex marriage. The Constitutional Court ruled on March 17, 2003, that the same-sex partner of High Court judge Kathy Satchwell is entitled to the benefits which apply in heterosexual relationships. Parenting Rights: On March 31, 2003, two-year-old twins, who live in Durban, were registered as having two mothers.
Spain– (2000) The Parliament in the autonomous region of Navarra, Spain, passed a law on June 23, 2000, allowing all Navarra registered couples (which includes same- and-opposite-sex couples) to adopt children, enjoying the same rights and obligations as legally married couples (who can only be opposite-sex couples). (1998) Province of Catalonia passed domestic partnership law for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The new law provides inheritance and pension rights; job benefits and rights for public employees (e.g., leave to care for partner in the event of illness.) The law entails no adoption rights for same-sex couples; it also offers no shared social security or immigration rights, since these depend on the national government. Registered partnership: a registered-partnership bill narrowly failed in 1997; a parliamentary subcommission was appointed to study the issue. In 2003 about 30 cities have "civil union" registries.
Sweden– (1995) Registered partnership is available to same-sex couples. Based on the Danish act.
Switzerland– (2002) The governing cabinet proposed a law on November 28, 2002, that would allow same-sex couples to enjoy civil recognition "like married couples." The largest state in the country, the Canton of Zurich, passed a law Sept. 22, 2002, giving gay couples numerous marriage rights. In 2001 the Canton of Geneva passed a domestic partnership law providing for equal treatment of married couples and same-sex or heterosexual registered partners in dealings with the state, except in the areas of taxation, adoption and social security benefits.
Taiwan– (2003) The Taiwan government announced on October 27, 2003, that it is drafting legislation to legalize same-sex marriages. If it is approved by parliament, Taiwan will be the first in Asia to do so.
United Kingdom– (2002) A London Partnership Registry exists but carries no legal benefits. Civil union bills have been introduced and rejected in Parliament. A woman and a post-operative FTM transgender man were legally wed in 2000. In May 2002 a representative of the Prime Minister said that same-sex and other unmarried couples should have the right to adopt children. Also in May 2002, prison rules were reformed in England and Wales allowing same-sex partners to be classified as close relatives. In addition, an inmate who is in a relationship with another inmate at a different prison will be allowed to apply for an "inter-prison visit." The Ministry of Defence (MOD) said on September 15, 2003, that it will increase its pension and compensation payments, and, for the first time, include surviving partners of personnel in same-sex “substantial” relationships. In Scotland Sheriff Noel McPartlin agreed to give a lesbian couple from Edinburgh rights over each other’s children in early April 2002.
United States (including Puerto Rico)– (2003) The Massachusetts Supreme Court is expected to rule any day now (August 2003) on legalizing same-sex marriage in that state (read more at the site of GLAD: http://www.glad.org). Vermont allows "civil unions" –the strongest law of its kind in the US. California has a state registry with many of the benefits of marriage (more details on that law at http://www.nclrights.org/publications/cdpl.htm), particularly after the 2003 passage of AB205, giving California couples a status similar to Vermont’s. Also in California, on July 27, 2001, Sharon Smith was granted legal standing to sue Robert Noel and his wife Marjorie Knoller over the death of Smith’s partner, Diane Whipple, the first US same-sex wrongful death suit. Immigration Rights: Although the US grants no partnership-based rights in immigration matters, in August 2003 the Permanent Partners Immigration Act (PPIA) was introduced into Senate; a similar act has been being debated in the House of Representatives off and on since 2000. Hawaii allows reciprocal beneficiaries (1997), where partners receive a range of benefits including inheritance rights, the right to sue for wrongful death, and health and pension benefits for state employees. Oregon allows medical benefits (1998), where domestic partners of state employees are eligible for medical benefits. State of Hawaii; Civil marriage for same-sex couples: In 1993 the Supreme Court of Hawaii ruled that the state had to prove it had a compelling interest in barring couples of the same sex from receiving a marriage license; absent such proof, the ban would violate protections against sex discrimination contained in the state constitution. In 1996 a state circuit court found that no such compelling state interests exist. This decision has been appealed back to the state Supreme Court. In Alaska and Hawaii voters decided in the November 3, 1998, elections to alter their state constitutions to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman (Alaska) and to allow the legislature to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples (Hawaii). Article IV of the United States Constitution states that "Full faith and credit shall be given in each State to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other State." If same-sex marriage is legalized in Massachusetts, Vermont, Hawaii, or California, other states will certainly be sued to force them to recognize marriages performed there. Several states and the Federal Government have already passed laws to forestall this possibility. In 1996 Congress passed and the President signed the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA), declaring that states need not recognize same-sex marriages registered in other states, and that the Federal Government recognizes only opposite-sex marriages. The constitutionality of such laws remains in dispute. Transgender Marriage: Note that there have been significant strides in the US in the rights of couples where one or both of the couple are transgender: this will be covered in future editions of this fact sheet.
Uruguay– (1998) Cooperativa Bancaria workers through their collective bargaining agreement received health benefits for unmarried (including same-sex) couples.