Friday, 23 July 2010

Ireland gets civil unions: now only Italy is left

This 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.


itinerantlondoner said...

It'll be interesting to see if South East Asia joins the party soon - Thailand and some of its neighbours are far more tolerant of gays than Africa and Eastern Europe, so will be interesting to see if they will recognise civil unions at some point (and therefore show it's not just a 'western' thing).

Anonymous said...

And what about the split in the US? It's the same is it not? Some states have gay marriage, others have constitutional bans against it. And some have neither thing.

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Yes that's true, although it's pretty different than the situation in Europe. A US state having gay marriage only confers a limited number of benefits, because it only pertains to state issues. So a gay couple who is married in Massachusetts cannot file a federal tax return jointly and cannot have a spouse immigrate to the US, for example. Plus the number of states that have adopted constitutional amendments banning gay marriage far outnumbers those that have passed gay marriage. 34 states have passed bans, while only 5 have passed gay marriage.

Kallisti said...

I must have missed it in your text but I don't see where the anti-gay sentiments are rising? You give the hopeful examples of Ireland and Argentina but the examples of the opposite justifying the "two halves of the world pulling in different directions" is not apparent to me.

To me it could be either of three scenarios (of course not same across the world):
1. some parts of the world are not moving as fast as others to recognize human rights based on sexuality, making the gap widen but still going the right way;
2. some parts of the world are codifying their current and traditional unacceptance or hostility;
3. some parts of the world are backlashing, creating new obstacles to sexuality-based HR

I would, without any facts to back it up, venture to guess that Europe is mostly in the category 1. In Africa (and some parts of Asia) you can't really get much further reactionary and category 2 would be more fitting. Category 3 seems to me to fit some US states, which might (?) explain your perception of it going the wrong way in parts of the world, instead of going the right way too slowly.

Or do you see a general category 3 tendency in the world?

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Well in terms of the criminalisation of homosexuality, it's a bit of a mixed bag. Many of the orange and brown countries on the map aren't old laws that are still on the books but laws that have been enacted in the last 20 years (particularly in Africa). At the moment Uganda is in the process of adopting a new law that would punich homosexuality with death. This law was, eerily enough, the result of intervention by American evangelicals who visited these East African countries and told them they needed to do something about homosexuals.

Rather than being a natural phenomenon, these new laws are surely a backlash reaction to the liberalisation of sexuality laws in the West. The fear from the third world is that this liberalisation will spread to their countries. So those countries that didn't already criminalise homosexuality are rushing to do so, in reaction to the liberalisation of homosexuality in the west.

On the other hand, there have been several recent examples of Asian countries striking down their bans, the most prominent being the Indian supreme court decision to strike down that country's ban last year. So, it's a bit of a mixed bag. But in terms of Africa and the Middle East, the trend definitely is toward criminalisation of homosexuality, and not one of stasis.

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Here's a link to a post on the Uganda issue-