Same-sex Marriage Same-sex Civil Unions Issue under political consideration Unrecognized Constitutional ban on gay marriageThis week the final signature was put on Ireland's civil partnership bill for gay and lesbian couples. For a fervently Catholic country that only decriminalised homosexuality in 1993, this was a big step. But even more importantly, it's reflective of the sudden rapid advancement Europe is making in the area of gay rights. Well, half of Europe anyway. Yes, the fact that this advance was made despite the historic power of Catholicism over Irish government is a promising sign for proponants of same-sex marriage. But could Ireland's change of heart have more to do with geography than a cultural shift? Let's look at the map.
As you can see from the map above, Italy is now the only remaining Western European country to have no form of gay marriage. The vast swathe of what Donald Rumsfeld used to deride as "Old Europe" is now awash in various shades of blue. And some of those light blues are due to change to dark blue quite soon. David Cameron's conservative-libdem coalition has already said they will upgrade Britain's civil unions to full marriage soon. Anything to not be compared to the Irish I suppose.
But though Italy may be the only country left in Old Europe/Western Europe to not allow gay partnerships, when you look at the EU as a whole the current situation looks far less progressive. Eleven out of the 27 EU member states still have no form of gay marriage. They are: Italy, Poland, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus, Malta, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania and Bulgaria. Four of those EU states even ban gay marriage in their constitutions (see map above).
Move further East from the EU and the situation gets progressively worse for gays in Europe. Attacks on gay people in Russia have become a major concern, highlighted when they hosted the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest in Moscow. The Pew Research Centre has found that only 20% of Russians believe that homosexuality should be accepted by society. Gay activists are still actively prosecuted in Russia for, “homosexual propaganda towards minors” in one instance merely for holding a sign that said “homosexuality is normal”.
So is this month's milestone in Ireland, which follows the passage of full gay marriage in Spain and Portugal, a sign that the issue of gay rights legislation is quickly spreading from historically progressive countries to historically conservative ones? Or is this actually a case of two halves of Europe hardening their stance and moving in opposite directions?
Homosexuality illegal Large penalty Life in prison Death penaltyIf the latter were the case, it would certainly match the worldwide trend. Take a look at this map above. Following Argentina's passage of full gay marriage last week, ten countries worlwide now allow same-sex marriage. Roughly 35 countries and states have civil unions. Those are the blue areas of the map. And it doesn't take a historian to see where those blue areas are concentrated - Europe and the areas it colonised and populated. But what about the continents not colonised and populated by Europeans, Asia and Africa? There South Africa stands out as the glaring exception, the only country in Asia and Africa to have either gay marriage or civil unions. The rest of Asia and Africa are a patchwork of orange and brown - orange for countries where homosexuality is punishable with prison and brown for countries where homosexuality is punishable by death.
One need only take a quick look at this map to see what a divided world we live in. And when homosexuality is largely a criminal offense on one continent, and across the ocean it is given a government stamp of approval by allowing gay marriage, it's hard to make the argument that gay rights are on the march across the world. Clearly, that cause is only on the march in the Western world. It is an issue to which populations of non-European descent are at best unreceptive, and at worst downright hostile.
This stark difference has already caused problems on the diplomatic front. Guido Westerwelle, the openly gay foreign minister of Germany, has been forced to leave his husband at home when he makes visits to African or Middle Eastern countries. It is very likely that Belgium will soon have the second (after Iceland) openly gay prime minister in the world. What happens if he has to make a visit to Saudi Arabia? His very presence there would be punishable by death.
So what lesson does that larger world map have for Europe? It seems to me that this is not a story of gay rights being progressively spread around the world, but rather of two halves of the world pulling in different directions. But what happens when the two visions collide? In the case of the European map, isnt it inevitable that eventually the red is going to meet the blue? Is the EU going to have to step in at some point and make an EU-wide decision on the issue? So far Brussels has stayed well clear of the gay marriage debate, saying it is a competency for member states. But on the principle of free movement, if a woman is unable to move from Belgium to Poland with her wife because they would not have the same rights in Poland, isn't that inhibiting free movement? It seems to me inevitable that the EU will have to take this up at some stage.