Same-Sex Marriage in Portugal
With minimal international attention, Portugal — tiny, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Portugal — legalized same-sex marriage last year. Although the country is hardly seen as a Scandinavian-style bastion of social progressivism, it’s one of just 10 countries where such marriages can be performed nationwide, and in this regard it finds itself ahead of a majority of wealthier, more populous European countries, like France, Germany, Italy and Britain. In the United States, only six states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. How did that happen? And what wisdom do the answers offer frustrated supporters of same-sex marriage here and elsewhere around the globe?
With a potent case of Portugal envy, I went there and talked with advocates and politicians at the center of its same-sex-marriage campaign and with gay and lesbian couples who married after the law took effect in June 2010. All were still pleasantly stunned by what Portugal had accomplished.
It was only a little more than a decade ago that a country first legalized same-sex marriage, and that happened in precisely the kind of forward-thinking, bohemian place you’d expect: the Netherlands. About two years later, Belgium followed suit.
Then things got really interesting. The eight countries that later joined the club were a mix of largely foreseeable and less predictable additions. In the first category I’d put Canada, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. In the second: South Africa, Spain, Portugal and Argentina.
Why those four countries? People who have studied the issue note that that they have something interesting and relevant in common: each spent a significant period of the late 20th century governed by a dictatorship or brutally discriminatory government, and each emerged from that determined to exhibit a modernity and concern for human rights that put the past to rest.
THAT opposition wasn’t as furious as it would be in America, partly because of differences between Portuguese Catholics and our religious right. “With Catholics here there’s a sense of, ‘Do what you want, just don’t talk too much about it,’ ” said Paulo Côrte-Real, a leading gay rights advocate in Portugal. While that didn’t incline devout Catholics toward supporting same-sex marriage, it diminished their appetite for getting into a huge sustained public fight over it.
They said that the state-sanctioned formalization of their partnerships impressed the people around them, especially older relatives who now had a traditional vocabulary and framework — vows, rings, cake — for understanding the relationships. Sara and Rita Martinho recalled the striking change in one of Rita’s grandfathers, who had resisted acknowledging her sexual orientation, once they were married. He merrily attended the wedding. ‘If there’s food involved,’ Rita said, ‘family will come.’ And he later gave them a set of espresso cups, because he’d noticed they didn’t have any.