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Across the gay marriage spectrum

Same-sex marriage is currently legal in 11 countries including Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands and Argentina. In the United States, nine states and the District of Columbia have passed laws legalizing gay marriage.

Today, England and Wales are joining the list.

Gay activists chant slogans during a protest outside Britain's Conservatives party headquarters in central London, Sunday, April 11, 2010. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The BBC reports the Commons voted in favor of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill by 400 to 175 after debating the measure for nearly a full day. Prior to the vote, the AP reported that Conservative Party members in the United Kingdom had urged Prime Minister David Cameron to delay the parliamentary vote over concern that the party would suffer setbacks in the 2015 election if the bill passed.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Paris are considering a same-sex marriage bill that has spawned a varied reaction among the French public. In “The French Debate Gay Marriage, in Their Fashion,” Elaine Sciolino describes how public discourse in Paris is more complicated than simply ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ gay marriage; questions of parenting, artificial insemination and surrogacy are all part of the ongoing debate.

And in Uganda, the “Kill the Gays” bill is set to become law, possibly within days. The bill would make a “serial offender” of homosexual acts punishable by death in the East African country.

In Uganda, as is the case across much of the African continent, homosexuality is deeply taboo and homosexual acts are often against the law. As an unnamed 23-year-old Ugandan transsexual told the Guardian:

We don’t dare to live here any more. We have felt unsafe for a long time and it only gets worse. It’s all the talk about that law that agitates people. If it is passed I am sure they will burn down the house.

With such a vast spectrum of global opinion on homosexuality and same-sex marriage to consider, I spoke with Judith Stacey, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at New York University and author of Unhitched: Love, Marriage and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China to try to unpack some of the complex issues at play.

As part of her recent ethnographic research, Stacey has looked at contemporary and historic family diversity in Los Angeles, South Africa and China. In her book, she posits no single form of family has ever been universal.

Where do you see the trend moving in terms of gay marriage and gay rights on a global scale?

There’s no question that in the relatively advanced industrial societies and especially societies with an ostensible democratic form of government — and even many without — there’s a trend toward recognition and acceptance of homosexuality in general, and of different forms of family recognition of same-sex couples.

In this July 2, 2009 file photo, a gay rights activist in Calcutta, India, participates in a rally celebrating the groundbreaking ruling by the Delhi High Court decriminalizing homosexuality. (AP Photo/Sucheta Das)

It’s been very dramatic, and happened very suddenly – the last election in the U.S. for example, has been historic for finally shifting the balance in the other direction.

We’re sort of on that curve and it’s very similar to the 100-year-march to overturning bans on interracial marriage. I don’t think anyone serious has any doubt that same-sex marriage will be regarded as a same-sex right, or rather bans on it will soon be seen as unconstitutional in the United States, possibly as early as this year.

I predict that most of Europe will also move this way very soon. You’re seeing a trend even in Latin America. It’s a topic of conversation in surprising places.

Where are some of those surprising places?

The fact that several Catholic countries have legalized same-sex marriage before most Protestant countries is interesting – Spain and Portugal, for example. But also it was especially surprising that Argentina legalized same-sex marriage, and I think it’s likely that Uruguay will as well.

Mexico City did, too, and it will be a harder sell in the country — but there are pockets there that were long thought to be deeply macho and very heterosexual. And of course South Africa was one of the first countries to ever legalize same-sex marriage…

I think Taiwan is also an example of a place where you’re also seeing rapid liberalization… And in Mainland China you have open gay bars and tea dances and there’s a creeping acceptance even there. So I do think that you’re seeing a global spread in a direction that is probably unstoppable.

With any progressive social movement, there is often a cultural backlash that fuels more conservative movements or policies. What are you seeing on the global level?

There’s no question that there’s a global trend in the direction of acceptance. But as you point out, there’s also a virulent backlash phenomenon — an extreme opposition to homosexuality. It’s especially very virulent in Africa, although you get a certain amount of it in the Middle East and to some extent in certain parts of Asia and Latin America.

Most scholars believe that it’s a political tool, that it’s a weapon. The framing of anti-gay in any parts of the world — that somehow [the concept of gay rights] is being imposed, that it’s a form of colonialism.

Many traditional African leaders and political leaders have picked up on this and they portray “gay” as a Western form of corruption, deviation, sin. And they say that the practice is not indigenous to Africa and that this is a Western corruption that was brought by colonialism.

This idea is can be a very instrumental form of politics for a lot of leaders. It’s a way to generate a lot of emotional support and fuse agendas that work for their political interests. But there’s a lot of interesting scholarship on that issue. One study argues that what was really not indigenous to Africa was homophobia, and that was brought by the British and the Dutch — brought by Christianity.

Editor’s note: Q&A has been edited down for length and readability.