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The Global Gay-Rights Revolution

Israelis participate in the annual Gay Pride parade along the streets of Tel Aviv
Israelis participate in the annual Gay Pride parade along the streets of Tel AvivPhotograph by Daniel Bar-On/backyard

As the U.S. Supreme Court held oral arguments over California’s same-sex marriage laws last week, the questions posed by the Justices suggested how far and fast the debate over gay rights had shifted. In 1971, the Supremes unanimously dismissed a same-sex marriage case, during an era when many states still criminalized homosexual sex. This time, even some of the Court’s more conservative judges gave gay marriage opponents a grilling. The changed tone reflects a dramatic evolution in U.S. popular opinion: Support for gay marriage in the U.S. has approximately doubled since 1996, reaching 53 percent in 2011. In this, Americans are hardly exceptional—in fact, compared with a number of other countries, in Europe and Latin America in particular, the U.S. is a laggard when it comes to attitudes toward gay rights. The decline of homophobia is a truly global revolution.

In the mid-1980s, no European country provided legal recognition to gay and lesbian couples. A quarter-century later, 16 countries in the region had same-sex marriage or legal partnership laws in place. Eleven other countries, including Argentina and South Africa, have legalized same-sex marriage. In Mexico and Brazil, gay marriage is legal in at least some states. The countries with larger majorities in favor of gay marriage than in the U.S. include Uruguay, Argentina, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Spain.