Opposition Fails to Slow Gay Wedding March
Despite often fierce opposition, the legalization of gay marriage is gaining ground in the West, with France and Britain now expected to join a dozen countries where homosexual couples can legally wed.
For opponents, especially religious conservatives, increasing legal recognition of gay couples is a troubling trend that signals the breakdown of traditional families. Extreme critics have claimed it will open the door to sexual deviance.
But for supporters, the extension of marriage rights to homosexuals is only the logical next step in the West's long tradition of expanding democratic rights, a move "to consider homosexuals as people like any other", said French sociologist Irene Thery.
In countries like Spain, where Catholic opposition to legalization in 2005 was adamant, "gay marriage has become a normal thing," former prime minister Jose Luis Zapatero, who introduced the reform, said this month.
Twenty-three years after Denmark became the first country to recognize same-sex unions, Europe has led the way on the issue, with countries as diverse as Belgium, Sweden and Portugal all recognizing gay marriages.
Now two of Europe's largest countries, France and Britain, are on track to join them.
French President Francois Hollande vowed to legalize same-sex marriages in the election campaign that saw him defeat right-wing incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in May.
His government has moved quickly to keep the promise, sending a "marriage for all" bill to parliament that would grant marriage and adoption rights to gay couples.
In Britain, the Conservative government of Prime Minister David Cameron is committed to allowing same-sex couples to marry and has vowed to introduce legislation before the next election, expected in 2015.
The established Churches of England and Wales will not be allowed to perform such ceremonies but other religious institutions will be permitted to choose whether to wed homosexual couples or not.
Outside Europe, efforts to legalize gay marriage have been making similar headway.
On Wednesday, lawmakers in Uruguay's lower house voted by an overwhelming majority for a bill backed by the ruling leftists legalizing same-sex marriage.
If the law is backed by the Senate, Uruguay will become the second Latin American country to approve gay marriage, after Argentina.
In North America, Canada legalized gay marriage nationwide in 2005, and in the United States polls show more and more Americans supporting the idea.
President Barack Obama has come out in favor of gay marriage, which has now been legalized in nine of 50 states, and the Supreme Court agreed this month to take up the sensitive issue.
The debate remains fierce in many parts of Europe.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union recently failed to reach agreement on putting same-sex couples on a similar tax footing as married ones, following a heated debate.
Germany introduced registered partnerships of same-sex couples in 2001, granting them similar rights to those of married couples, apart from in tax matters and adoption.
In conservative Switzerland, gay couples have been granted the right to enter into registered same-sex partnerships, but without the full rights given to heterosexual couples.
Switzerland's lower house took a tentative step on Thursday by voting to allow gays to adopt biological or adopted children that their partner had before the start of their relationship, but the move must still be approved by the upper house.
For French sociologist Eric Fassin, the growing acceptance of same-sex marriages in the West is simply "an extension of democratic logic to sexual matters".
In France, the gay marriage bill is up for debate in late January and, with Hollande's Socialists enjoying a strong majority, is expected to pass despite vehement opposition from the right and religious groups.
Tens of thousands took to the streets last month to denounce the bill, and opponents, including some prominent Church leaders, have said gay marriage will open the door to polygamy and incest.
Supporters have called for counter-demonstrations on Sunday, with a group of prominent activists, politicians and academics urging people to turn out.
"We must move forward toward equality, but also toward freedom," they said in a statement. "This is about offering each and every person more choice about how to live their lives."