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3 min

At a distance

Canada's same-sex marriage bill ignored abroad

Although can-ada’s same-sex marriage bill has sparked debate here and in the US, beyond North America it’s barely made a ripple according to queer activists in South Africa, India, China and the European Union.

“The Canadian experience has had little impact on our marriage struggle,” says Olamide with The Lesbian And Gay Equality Project in Johannesburg, South Africa. “The only similarity is that we had antidiscriminatory laws entrenched in our constitution also.”

South Africa is in a very similar situation to Canada. Its Supreme Court ruled in late November 2004 that prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, opening the door for the legislative reforms from the government, led by the African National Congress (ANC).

However, Justice Farham, who ruled on the South African appeal, stipulated that the decision be suspended for two years so that the reform can take place. Although the idea of same-sex marriage is controversial in South Africa, the ANC seems to support it and activists at Equality Project are hopeful that legislation will be introduced in the near future.

In India, Prime Minister Paul Martin’s Bill C-38 is more visible thanks to Martin’s recent visit to South Asia. Sikh religious leaders have issued an edict against same-sex marriage and are calling for Canada’s six Sikh MPs to take a stand against it. The story was picked up in most major newspapers like the Hindustan, The Tribune India, The Hindu and The Times Of India.

“Gay rights and subsequent fact that gay/lesbian marriages are a necessity are very widely discussed in the press,” says Ashok Row Kavi, chair of Hum-safar Trust, a male sexual health agency in Mumbai.

“Mostly they are discussed as a spate of lesbian suicides have started hitting headlines in states like Kerala in South India where literacy is the highest and conservative ideas prominent,” says Kavi. “Though same-sex bonds are becoming visible, it is extremely difficult to get same-sex marriages without decriminalizing the sodomy laws in the country.”

He says that in India non-procreative sex is illegal and penetration is enough evidence to be sentenced to imprisonment for life.

“No gay or lesbian rights are recognizable,” says Kavi.

The only two countries in the world that currently recognize same-sex marriages in their legislative law are Belgium and the Netherlands, both in the European Union. Nine other countries in the EU have some form of recognition of same-sex unions that fall short of marriage, and Spain and Sweden plan to legalize same-sex marriage within the year.

“The Canadian same-sex marriage debate is not very prominent in Europe,” says Juris Lavrikovs, the communications officer for the European region of the International Lesbian And Gay Association (ILGA-Europe).

While same-sex marriage is controversial in North America, concepts of marriage differ in other parts of the world. In some African tribes – like the Zande in the Congo region where a male warrior may marry a boy until he comes of age – same-sex marriage has long been accepted.

In China, while homosexuality is not illegal and same-sex unions exist, there are still reports of homosexuals being imprisoned on the grounds of other sections of law such as China’s Article 106 on “hooliganism.”

“We do know that the press in large cities such as Shanghai do have some discussion on gay lifestyles,” says Pornsak, who works on Dragoncastle.net, a website serving queers in Asia and Thailand in particular. “From our perspective, gay marriage is not an issue among Asian gays, except where it may assist a mixed-race gay couple to live together.”

He says that the lifestyles and cultures in Asia differ radically from those in Western countries so while marriage may appeal to some, “it is contrary to tradition and culture even in countries like Thailand where gays are an accepted part of daily life.”

On the wesbite, Dragon-castle.net states that gay activity is tolerated in a few places, mainly large cities, but adds that the political climate in China means that rapid changes in official attitudes are possible.

While the mainstream media in China covers important gay events abroad, such as Pride parades or legalizing same-sex marriage, some queer critics charge that the purpose of the media is mostly to smear homosexuality.