For other forms of same-sex unions that are different from marriages, see the articles linked in that section.
Currently, same-sex marriages are legal in only a few countries around the world. (See reference table to the right). In Belgium and the Netherlands, it is fully legal. In Canada and the United States, the degree of legality of same-sex marriage/civil union varies between provinces or states. All other countries do not recognize same-sex marriages as legally valid, nor do they allow them to occur. In the United States, the debate over whether or not to make same sex marriages legally binding remains one of the most polarizing and divisive political debates of the early 21st century and it is discussed with great passion all over the world.
The moral legitimacy of marriage between two people of the same sex hinges on how the authoritative definition of marriage is derived. If marriage is to have a religious foundation, the interpretation of religious texts and traditions will be key; if marriage is a social institution or even a purely economic coupling, pragmatic arguments will have more force, though moral issues will no doubt still arise. Gay rights advocates assert that marriage is a right which should not be limited to opposite-sex couples. Their opponents assert that same-sex marriage cannot be allowed on moral and/or religious grounds, or on the grounds that it will lead to a breakdown of society.
The debate is often perceived as being same sex marriage advocates vs. religious (e.g. fundamentalist) or moral opponents. However, corporations and other fiscally concerned parties sometimes oppose same-sex marriages not on any religious or moral grounds but instead with the aim of preserving the status quo to avoid extending benefits, such as insurance coverage, to the families (i.e. any married partners) of homosexual employees. Those in favour of same-sex marriage, however, argue that gays and lesbians contribute as much as straight people to the funding for private and public family coverage even when they have no access to it.
Competing definitions of "marriage"
Nearly all people at all times have defined "marriage" in such a way that at least one male and one female were involved. Some societies have from ancient times permitted a man to have multiple wives, but those wives had congress only with the man -- not each other. But some rare variations have appeared such as polyandry (one woman with multiple husbands) and "group marriage".
Though religions will perform marriages based on their own doctrinal definitions, these may or may not be recognized by the government depending on local laws. Governments will often provide opportunity for state-sanctioned legal marriages that are entirely secular and without religious influence (commonly called 'civil marriages'). They may or may not be recognized by certain religions. Some countries require all marriages to be civil, and expect the religious ceremony to occur at some later time. Generally, it is the government's definition of marriage that the same-sex marriage debate centers around. See marriage.
The definition of marriage proposed by gay rights advocates seeks to include both homosexual and heterosexual relationships by recognizing only the common attributes between them. They define marriage to be:
For same-sex marriage proponents, the above achieves equalization of the male-male, female-female, and male-female relationship. Being able to marry whomever they choose is seen as a civil right that should not be abridged by the government.
Some countries and states/provinces have judicial rulings that set precedence for the above definition. However, popular majorities continue to assert that the traditional concept of marriage cannot exist outside of a heterosexual relationship. To them, the male-female relationship has unique capacities and qualities that marriage was meant to recognize and foster that are not adequately acknowledged by the above definition.
Defenders of traditional marriage argue that only a heterosexual union can provide the procreative foundation of the family unit that has been a chief social building block of civilization. They argue that the definition proposed by same-gender marriage advocates changes the social importance of marriage from morality to custom. As any customary relationship may be considered "marriage" some argue that this then leads to undue legislative burden and an affront to the social value and responsibility of parenting your own children.
Some same-sex marriage proponents, such as Andrew Sullivan, argue that their definition retains enough moral underpinning to support the familial role marriage plays in society even though they are unable to directly parent children between them. Others argue that marriage no longer retains a procreative interest to the government, and that the other measures should replace marriage in ensuring parental responsibility.
Historic alterations in the customs and protocols of marriage give rise to the argument that marriage is dynamic and same-gender acceptance is the latest evolution of marriage. Some societies have from ancient times permitted spouses to have multiple concurrent marriages while many societies discourage this practice today. Having more than one marriage at the same time is called polygamy for men and polyandry for women. Marriages that involve more than two people at one time in a single act of matrimony are considered to be a "group marriage" and are even more rare.
There have been many ritual homosexual unions practiced historically that provide many of the same benefits entitled traditionally to marriages. Some cultures have considered a set of strictly defined and regulated homosexual qualities to denote a gender that trancended both male and female. As a third state of gender they were allowed to marry men or women. Some people in the position to write the law for their country indulged themselves in calling some of their same-gender relationships a marriage, though they assumed no familial attachment. Calling a heterosexual union the same legal term as a homosexual union for a whole state or society is only a recent occurrence.
In the context of same-sex marriages, and throughout this article, same-sex refers to two people of the same gender. In this context, same-sex is not synonymous with gay, lesbian, or homosexual, nor with bisexual, transgendered or transsexual, but "same-sex marriage" may, depending on the couple and the jurisdiction, refer to marriages between two adults from any of those groups. In nearly all jurisdictions, unrelated and consenting men and women can marry each other, while two men or two women cannot do so.
In this article, the inclusive term "same-sex marriage" is used throughout. Where necessary for clarity, the terms "gay", "lesbian", "bisexual," and "transsexual" are used (there are a number of reasons for this; please see the talk page for more details).
History of same-sex unions
Same-gender romantic love or sexual desire has been recorded from ancient times in the east. Such desire often took the form of same-sex unions, usually between men, and often included some difference in age (there is far less information available on relationships among women in ancient times. There are a number of possible reasons for this: an attitude that women were not important enough to write about; or that same-sex attraction between women was not valued as it was between men; or that women were not afforded equal status with men, so that, while men were free to pursue sexual and romantic pleasure both within and without marriage, women often were not).
In China, especially in the southern province of Fujian where male love was especially cultivated, men would marry youths in elaborate ceremonies. The marriages would last a number of years, at the end of which the elder partner would help the younger find a (female) wife and settle down to raise a family.
There is a long history of same-sex unions in the western world. That many early western societies tolerated, and even celebrated, same sex relationships is well-known. Evidence of same-sex marriage, however, is less clear, but there exists some evidence, often controversial, of same-sex marriages in ancient Rome and Greece, and even in medieval Europe. Same-sex unions have also been recorded among Native Americans and Africans.
In ancient Rome, for example, the Emperor Nero is reported to have married, at different times, two other men in wedding ceremonies. Other Roman Emperors are reported to have done the same thing. The increasing influence of Christianity, which promoted marriage for procreative purposes, is linked with the increasing intolerance of homosexuality in Rome.
Same-sex marriage has been documented in many societies that were not subject to Christian influence. In North America, among the Native American societies, it has taken the form of two-spirit-type relationships, in which some members of the tribe, from an early age, heed a calling to take on female gender with all its responsibilities. They are prized as wives by the other men in the tribe, who enter into formal marriages with these two-spirit men. They are also respected as being especially powerful shamans.
Finally, in Europe during Hellenic times, pederastic relationships between Greek men (erastes) and youths (eromenos) who had come of age were analogous to marriage in several aspects. The age of the youth was similar to the age at which women married (the mid-teens), and the relationship could only be undertaken with the consent of the father. This consent, just as in the case of a daughter's marriage, was contingent on the suitor's social standing. The relationship, just like a marriage, consisted of very specific social and religious responsibilities, and also had an erotic component.
Modern same-sex civil marriage
In Canadian, court rulings in the provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and Saskatchewan, as well as the Yukon Territory, have found the prohibition of same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional, thus legalizing it in those jurisdictions. The Canadian federal government has drafted amendments to the Canadian Marriage Act that would legalize same-sex marriage nationally. These amendments have been referred to the Supreme Court of Canada to determine whether they are consistent with the equality provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Swedish government is similarly preparing legislation to legalize same-sex marriage across the country  (http://www.365gay.com/newscon04/03/030304swedenMarr.htm).
Shortly after his election in June 2004 the Spanish Prime Minister confirmed his intention to push for legalization of same-sex marriage  (http://www.dailynews.com/Stories/0,1413,200~20954~2151089,00.html). On 1 October 2004, the Spanish Government approved a bill to legalise same-sex marriage. The bill now needs parliamentary approval, and is expected to come into force in 2005. For more information see Same-sex marriage in Spain
Same-sex marriage is legal in the US state of Massachusetts, following a November 2003 court ruling. The Superior Court of Washington State has also declared banning same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional and the case, Andersen v. Sims, is currently before the state Supreme Court in Olympia.  (http://www.metrokc.gov/kcsc/docs/Andersen%20v.%20Sims.pdf) Several local government bodies in the United States are also performing same-sex marriages, on various degrees of legal footing.
Recently, the term "same-sex marriage" has been displacing "gay marriage", the term being perceived as less value-laden for the union of two partners of the same sex and also being more inclusive of bisexuals and transsexual people - who in some states of the United States and in other countries, are not allowed to change their assigned gender on their birth certificates following sex reassignment surgery.
Other forms of same-sex partnership
The movement towards the legal recognition of same-sex marriages has resulted in changes in the law in many jurisdictions, though the extent of the changes have varied:
Even in jurisdictions where they are not legally recognized, many gay and lesbian couples choose to have weddings (also called "commitment ceremonies" in this context) to celebrate and affirm their relationship, fulfilling the social aspect of a marriage. Such ceremonies have no legal validity, however, and as such do not deal with issues such as inheritance, property rights or social security.
Some writers have advanced the idea that the term "marriage" should be restricted to a religious context and that state and federal governments should not be involved in a religious rite. Some regard this as a governmental intrusion into religion; they believe that all statutes involving domestic contracts should replace the word "marriage" with "domestic partnership" and thus bypass the controversy of gender. This would then allow a domestic contract between any two individuals who have attained their majority.
Legal recognition of same-sex marriage
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there has been a growing movement in a number of countries to regard marriage as a right which should be extended to same-sex couples. Legal recognition of a marital union opens up a wide range of entitlements, including social security, taxation, inheritance and other benefits unavailable to couples unmarried in the eyes of the law. Restricting legal recognition to opposite-sex couples excludes same-sex couples from gaining legal access to these benefits, and while opposite-sex unmarried couples without other legal impediments have the option of marrying in law and so gaining access to these rights, that option is unavailable to same-sex couples. Similarly, though certain rights extending from marriage can be replicated by legal means (for example, by drawing up contracts), many cannot; thus, despite the presence of legal contracts, same-sex couples may still face insecurity in areas such as inheritance, hospital visitation and immigration. Lack of legal recognition also makes it more difficult for same-sex couples to adopt children.
Use of the term Same-Sex "marriage" (versus "unions") is considered a key question in the United States for several reasons, but in terms of strict legal interpretation, previous Supreme Court rulings overturned laws against "crimes against nature" based on first an idea that such acts could not be prohibited in marriage. Using this precedent, they used reference to the idea of equal rights and that things not prohibited to some classes of people (married people) could not be prohibited from non-married people. In Loving v. Virginia, this line of argument to overturn sodomy laws was rejected. Some think that if same sex marriage were granted as a good concept by the courts, this would clearly overturn all sodomy laws once and for all.
See also Same-sex marriage in Canada
Opponents of same-sex marriage
Some opponents object to same-sex marriage on religious grounds, arguing that extending marriage to same-sex couples undercuts the conventional meaning of marriage in various traditions, does not fulfill any procreational role, or sanctions a partnership centered around "abhorrent" or "immoral" sexual acts. In countries with monogamous marriages only, some opponents also claim that allowing same-sex marriage will blur other common law precedents and lead to the legalization of polyamorous marriage, or to marriage between family members (incest), or to marriages of convenience contracted for tax or other reasons. Some object on the grounds that same-sex couples should not be allowed to have or adopt children, and that same-sex marriage would make those adoptions easier. Others simply do not recognize any pressing need for same-sex marriages.
A fundamental concern is that its legalization will lead to a direct attack via lawsuits against traditional churches to force those churches to perform marriage ceremonies that the church does not approve of. This is a realistic fear only in jurisdictions which fail to distinguish between civil and religious marriages, or have established religions. Additionally, in litigious societies, there are concerns about bankrupting established churches through these types of lawsuits.
Some libertarians object to same-sex marriage because they are opposed to any form of state-sanctioned marriage, including opposite-sex unions. They are not necessarily opposed to the idea of a same-sex wedding itself, only that the government should not have any role in the event, nor for that matter should government approval be sought for opposite-sex marriages.
Some other people object to same-sex marriage on the grounds that the purpose of marriage is a procreative partnership and that the same-sex partnership is inherently sterile. Some who hold this view see marriage as the social codification of an evolved long-term mating strategy, with economic and legal benefits to facilitate family growth and stability. These people generally do not carry over their objections to sterile heterosexual couples, often due to privacy concerns.
Many other people, while tolerant towards the sexual behaviour of others, see no reason to alter their society or government's traditional attitudes towards marriage and family.
Proponents of same-sex marriage
Unitarian Universalist Association, advocate marriage rights for gays as well as straights.
Proponents point out that traditional concepts of marriage have already given way to liberalization in other areas, such as the availability of no-fault divorce and the elimination of anti-miscegenation laws. They also suggest that many people in modern societies no longer subscribe to the religious beliefs which inform traditional limits upon marriage, and no longer wish these beliefs to constitute the law, and that their laws should be protected from religion under the principle of separation of church and state. In fact, there are some religions that celebrate same-sex weddings or commitment ceremonies already. In Canada, for example, the United Church of Canada, the country's largest Protestant denomination, has supported for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages are also performed in Unitarian churches, some Reform synagogues, Quaker (Friends General Conference) congregations, and by the Metropolitan Community Church.
In the United States, proponents of equal marriage rights for same-sex couples point out that there are over 1,049 federal laws in which marital status is a factor. A legal denial of rights or benefits afforded to others, they say, directly contradicts the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution which provides for equal protection and substantive due process under the law, meaning that rights conferred to one person cannot be denied to another. In the 2003 case before the Supreme Court titled Lawrence v. Texas, the court held that intimate consensual sexual conduct was part of the liberty protected by substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Many proponents of same-sex marriage have noted that this ruling paves the way for a subsequent decision invalidating state laws prohibiting same-sex marriage.
In June 2003, the British Government published what was described as a consultation document for England and Wales: "Civil Partnership - a framework for the legal recognition of same-sex couples" which describes a system of official registration of same-sex partnerships.
On 30 September 2003, the Scottish Executive published a consultation paper concerning a similar scheme for Scotland.
In May 2004, the largest opposition party in France, the French Socialist Party, announced its support for same-sex marriage. A poll by ELLE found that 64% of France supports same-sex marriage.  (http://www.liberation.fr/page.php?Article=204455&AG)
Some conservative proponents of equal marriage also say that the institution of marriage would be strengthened by making it available to more people, and argue further that same-sex marriage would encourage gays and lesbians to settle down with one partner and raise families.
Publicly noted Same-Sex unions
(Basic Books, 2004).
es:Matrimonio del mismo sexo fr:Mariage homosexuel zh:同性婚姻 nl:homohuwelijk ja:同性結婚