Two decades since the world's first legal same-sex marriages, where do we stand now?

The Associated Press

By David Crary and Mike Corder

Twenty years ago, just after the stroke of midnight on 1 April, the mayor of Amsterdam married four couples in City Hall as the Netherlands became the first country in the world with legalised same-sex marriages.

"There are two reasons to rejoice," Mayor Job Cohen told the newlyweds before pink champagne and pink cake were served. "You are celebrating your marriage, and you are also celebrating your right to be married."

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Above: Peter Wittebrood-Lemke, from left, Frank Wittebrood, Ton Jansen, Louis Rogmans, Helene Faasen and Anne-Marie Thus cut the wedding cake after exchanging vows at Amsterdam's City Hall early Sunday, on 1 April, 2001. The pairs were among four couples to get married under a new law which took effect April 1, 2001, the world's first such law allowing same-sex marriages with equal rights. Photo via The Associated Press/Peter Dejong

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Above: Frank Wittebrood, left, and Peter Wittebrood-Lemke, show their tattooed rings to Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen, right, after exchanging vows at Amsterdam's City Hall, on 1 April, 2001. Photo via The Associated Press/Peter Dejong

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Above: Helene Faasen, left, and Anne-Marie Thus arrive at Amsterdam's City Hall, on 1 April, 2001. Photo via The Associated Press/Peter Dejong

Same-sex marriage is now legal in 28 countries worldwide, as well as the self-governing island of Taiwan. That includes most of Western Europe. Yet its spread has been uneven €" Taiwan is the only place in Asia to take the step; South Africa is the only African country to do so.

"If you had told me 20 years ago that today same-sex marriage would be a reality in 29 countries, I would not have believed you," said Jessica Stern, executive director of the global LGBTQ-rights group OutRight Action International.

But she noted how polarised the world is regarding LGBTQ acceptance, with nearly 70 countries continuing to criminalise same-sex relations.

"The progress has been great, no doubt. But we have a long road ahead," Stern said.

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Above: Couple Bathini Dambuza, left, and Lindiwe Radebe, right, show off their engagement rings as they pose for a photograph on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, on 14 November, 2006. Dambuza and Radebe, who have been engaged for a year, want to take their relationship to the natural next step and get married after the South African parliament approved new legislation recognizing same-sex marriages. Photo via The Associated Press/Denis Farrell

In many countries, even outside of Asia and Africa, opposition to marriage equality remains vehement. In Guatemala, some lawmakers have proposed a bill that would explicitly ban same-sex marriage. In Poland, President Andrzej Duda was re-elected last year after a campaign depicting the LGBTQ rights movement as more harmful than communism.

Poland is among a solid bloc of Eastern European countries that have resisted same-sex marriage, while 16 countries in Western Europe have legalised it.

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Above: Rodrigo Borda, left, and his partner Sergio Miranda watch a Civil Registry worker take down their information to apply to get married in Montevideo, Uruguay on 5 August, 2013. Photo via The Associated Press/Matilde Campodonico

Switzerland is on track to become the 17th €" its parliament approved the legalisation of same-sex marriage in December. But the law hasn't taken effect, and opponents are trying to collect enough signatures to require a referendum on whether to overturn it.

Elsewhere, same-sex marriage is legal in the United States, Canada and Costa Rica; five South American countries; a majority of Mexico's 32 states; Australia and New Zealand.

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Above: Supporters of gay marriage celebrate under the gay flag outside the Spanish parliament in Madrid in June 2005. The parliament has legalized same-sex marriage, defying conservatives and clergy who opposed making traditionally Roman Catholic Spain the third nation to take this step. Photo via The Associated Press/Jasper Juinen

Added together, those countries are home to about 1.2 billion people, roughly 15 percent of the world's population. Legalisation came in various ways: through court rulings, legislation and €" in the case of Ireland €" a resounding endorsement by voters in a 2015 national referendum.

Several countries in Europe €" including Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic €" provide civil unions for same-sex couples. But even if these arrangements offer many of the protections of marriage, many LGBTQ activists consider them a demeaning second-tier status.

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Above: Partners Adrian, left and Shane, arrive to vote at a polling station in Drogheda, Ireland on 22 May, 2015. Photo via The Associated Press/Peter Morrison

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Above: Belgians Marion Huibrechts, right, and Christel Verswyvelen leave the town hall of Kappelen, north Belgium on 6 June, 2003. The two women became the first gay couple to marry in Belgium on Friday under laws passed earlier this year. Huibrechts and Verswyvelen celebrated 16 years of partnership with official vows at a civil ceremony. Photo via The Associated Press/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

Just two weeks ago, the Vatican's orthodoxy office declared that the Catholic Church won't bless same-sex unions since God "cannot bless sin."

In the Netherlands, there have been more than 18,000 same-sex marriages since 2001 €" about 53 percent of them between two women, according to the Dutch Central Bureau of Statistics. Each year about 400 same-sex marriages break up, the bureau says.

Amsterdam will be celebrating the 1 April anniversary with an online symposium and a "rainbow walk" route along 20 sites considered important in the struggle for LGBTQ rights.

"There are still causes for concern," the city said. "Because equal rights don't automatically lead to everybody being treated the same."

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Above: Gert Kasteel, left, and Dolf Pasker, right, one of the first four couples who tied the knot when same-sex marriage was legalized in the Netherlands, react during an interview at their home in Weesp, near Amsterdam, Netherlands, on 31 March, 2021. Photo via The Associated Press/Peter Dejong

One of the couples married 20 years ago, Gert Kasteel and Dolf Pasker, told The Associated Press they'd been warmly accepted by their neighbours and associates, though they're aware that anti-LGBTQ sentiment persists elsewhere.

"For most people, it is no issue any more," Pasker said. "Oh, happy day."

In contrast to the Netherlands, there was an 11-year gap in the United States between the first legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts in 2004 and the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that extended legalisation nationwide. According to the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law that specialises in research on LGBTQ issues, there were 513,000 married same-sex couples in the US in 2020.

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Above: John Lewis, left, and Stuart Gaffney embrace outside San Francisco's City Hall shortly before the US Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for same-sex marriage in California on 26 June, 2013. Photo via The Associated Press/Noah Berger

As in other countries legalising same-sex marriage, popular support for the concept has risen steadily in the US since 2004. Back then, 42 percent of Americans thought same-sex marriage should be legalised, according to the Gallup Poll. By last year that figure had reached 67 percent.

In Africa, where religious and cultural traditions often frown on homosexuality, no country appears on track to soon join South Africa in legalising same-sex marriage.

The situation is more fluid in Asia. A same-sex partnership bill has been proposed in Thailand's parliament. In Japan, where some local governments recognise same-sex unions, a court recently ruled that same-sex marriage should be allowed under the constitution. The ruling has no immediate legal effect, but activists say it could influence other court cases and boost their quest for a parliamentary debate on allowing same-sex marriage.

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Above: LGBT rights activists Sandra Rojas, left, and Adriana Gonzalez celebrate a Constitutional Court decision to give same-sex couples marriage rights, in front of the Justice Palace in Bogota, Colombia, on 7 April, 2016. Photo via The Associated Press/Fernando Vergara

India struck down a colonial-era law in 2018 that made gay sex punishable by up to 10 years in prison, and there are some openly gay celebrities. But same-sex marriage remains illegal; the government says gay and lesbian couples don't warrant the status of "family unit."

As the marriage equality movement took shape in Europe and the Americas over the past 20 years, opponents worldwide offered some basic counter-arguments.

One common warning related to religious freedom, with some faith leaders predicting repercussions for religions that disapprove of same-sex relationships.

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For the most part, faiths in the same-sex marriage countries have been able to maintain their own rites of marriage. There have been some highly publicised legal cases, however, such as one that reached the US Supreme Court involving in a conservative Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple.

Another argument was that legalising same-sex marriage would undermine the institution of marriage itself.

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Above: Betty Lynch, left, Carmel, Ind., and Annette Gross of Indianapolis, hug during a press conference in the Indiana Statehouse Rotunda in Indianapolis, on 26 June, 2015, after the Supreme Court declared that same-sex couples have a right to marry anywhere in the US. Photo via The Associated Press/Michael Conroy

Lawyer Evan Wolfson, who helped orchestrate the US marriage equality movement as head of the advocacy group Freedom to Marry, assessed this argument in a recent article in the European Human Rights Law Review.

"The history of marriage is a history of change and expanding inclusion... The sky has not fallen when marriage has embraced same-sex couples," he wrote. "There is enough marriage to share."

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Bleed image: Lesbian couples Chen Ying-hsuan, right, holds Li Li-chen's hand during a military mass weddings ceremony in Taoyuan city, northern Taiwan, on Friday, 30 October, 2020. Photo by The Associated Press/Chiang Ying-ying

€" Crary reported from New York. Associated Press reporters Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Krutika Pathi in New Delhi contributed to this report.

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