LOS ANGELES, July 15 (UPI) -- The acceptance of the concept of gay marriage varies radically around the world ranging from the Netherlands, where same-sex marriages have been legal for more than two years, to China, where homosexuals are often the targets of "anti-vice" campaigns.
When it comes to social policy in Europe, there is one hard-and-fast rule: where the Netherlands innovates, the rest of the continent imitates. Having already decriminalized soft drugs and euthanasia, Holland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriages on April 1, 2001.
The Dutch government agency Statistics Netherlands reported in late 2002, "Same-sex couples do not seem to be very interested in marriage. Statistics Netherlands estimates that there are about 50,000 same-sex couples in the Netherlands, of whom less than 10 percent have married so far."
In the last nine months in 2001, 2,400 single-sex couples married. That number fell to 1,900 in 2002, compared to 85,500 male-female marriages in the Netherlands.
In 2001, Dutch marriages between gay men outnumbered marriages between lesbians by a 5-4 ratio. Sexual orientation researchers, such as J. Michael Bailey, chairman of the Northwestern University psychology department, typically assume that there are about twice as many gay men as lesbians, suggesting that marriage is more popular among female homosexuals.
In fact, under the "civil union" law in operation in the state of Vermont, two-thirds of registering couples have been lesbians, according to a survey by University of Vermont psychology professors Sondra Solomon and Esther Rothblum.
Other countries have been quick to follow in the Netherlands' footsteps.
In late March, the Belgian Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a law giving gay couples almost the same nuptial rights as heterosexuals.
Under the new law, married homosexuals will automatically have inheritance rights over the goods and property of their deceased partner. In addition, they will receive the same fiscal breaks as heterosexual couples, will be allowed to fill in only one joint tax form, will benefit from unemployment payouts should one of the partners be out of work and will have the same financial obligations in the case of divorce.
However, unlike the Netherlands, homosexual couples will not be allowed to adopt children, nor will the lesbian partner of a mother be considered the parent of the child.
"Mentalities have changed. There is no longer any reason not to open marriage to people of the same sex," Belgian Justice Minister Marc Verwilghen said during a heated debate in Parliament.
It is a view that is rapidly gaining ground.
In France, Germany and most Nordic countries, gays and lesbians have extensive civil union rights, and last month the British government sparked a storm of protest by granting gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexual ones.
There are no such plans in the predominantly Catholic countries of Southern Europe. However, the European Parliament took a potshot at established attitudes earlier this year, voting through a resolution calling on member states to recognize gay families.
In Canada, Prime Minister Jean Chretien has said he will introduce a bill legalizing gay marriage, although this may elicit a backbench revolt of members of Parliament from his own Liberal Party.
Australia and New Zealand have laws that forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation in matters of employment, education, housing, etc., but both have stopped short of legally sanctioning gay marriages. In Australia, some employers provide domestic partner benefits to gay couples, and some jurisdictions offer registration of domestic partners.
In both countries, gay and lesbian activists are pushing for legal recognition of their unions, and are closely monitoring developments elsewhere, hoping to emulate successful strategies.
Buenos Aires recently became the first Latin American capital to legalize homosexual unions.
Argentina allows a civil union that differs from marriage, although it recognizes the union of two people regardless of sex or sexual orientation. The union grants the partners rights such as collection of a pension for the surviving partner in the advent of the other's death, and rights to healthcare benefits.
While gay marriage is not recognized in Brazil, the climate for acceptance of homosexuals appears to be improving, say some members of the gay community. However, hate crimes against homosexuals are still rampant, according to the nation's largest gay rights group.
There are proposals being put forth by gay activists for a legally recognized union between same-sex couples that would provide them with the same rights -- such as taxes breaks and health benefits -- as heterosexual couple.
In Sao Paulo, the country's largest city and industrial capital, the climate of acceptance for gays has improved dramatically in the last three or four years, according to David Waller, a 37-year-old London native and English teacher who has been with his Brazilian partner for 10 years.
"Gay Brazilians come from other cities that are much more conservative to live in Sao Paulo in order to be accepted," said Waller who cites the recent increase of TV shows and films that glamorize the gay lifestyle, many of which are set in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Freelance translator Ali Rocha, 31, agrees with Waller regarding increased acceptance of homosexuals in cosmopolitan areas like Sao Paulo. Rocha says she and her live-in girlfriend are commonly thought of as a married couple by friends and even had a "wedding reception" -- though no ceremony -- once they moved in together, receiving numerous household items commonly requested by two-sex couples as wedding gifts.
"Certainly it (the gay community) is becoming more and more accepted," said Rocha "Things are getting better all over the country ... prejudices are decreasing."
While that might be the case in some sectors of Brazilian society, there still looms the specter of hate crimes against homosexuals. The Grupo Gay da Bahia -- the largest gay rights association in Brazil -- reported 132 homosexuals were killed in hate crimes in 2001 in the country.
Despite the crimes, the gay community appears undaunted in its effort to achieve greater acceptance. The recent gay pride parade in Sao Paulo drew an estimated 800,000 people, making it the third largest in the world. The city's mayor was on hand for the event and even waved a gay pride flag.
Brazil's gays are particularly optimistic about the current administration -- the left-wing Workers' Party President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva -- as he is seen as sympathetic to gay causes and their quest for greater acceptance.
"I don't necessary believe in it (gay marriage) as an institution, but it will happen," said an optimistic Rocha. "I don't know how soon, but in my lifetime."
In less Western countries, the concept of gay marriage is not at all popular, Boston University anthropologist Peter Wood, author of "Diversity: The Invention of a Concept," told United Press International.
"Most of the world's peoples would be inclined to see it as bizarre and disgusting. Think of the reaction among Anglicans in Africa to the recent attempt to promote a gay man to the position of bishop in England. Most people understand the existence of homosexuality and the existence of same-sex people who are good and lasting companions, but these two ideas are very seldom seen as overlapping except in myths and dreams," he said.
While gay and lesbian couples in the West battle for legal recognition of their unions, homosexuals in much of Asia are struggling for any kind of recognition at all.
Although small gay communities are emerging in major cities, homosexuality is still socially stigmatized in most of Asia, where marriage and family are deemed social responsibilities.
In China, Japan and Korea there are no laws prohibiting private homosexual behavior, but this is largely a tolerance of omission.
An Asian gay Web site (utopia-asia.com) warns: "Homosexuals in Korea have no established tradition of overtly discriminatory laws to struggle against ... largely because these acts have traditionally been considered utterly unmentionable in any public forum or document."
Since 2000, a few bold people have put together an annual "Korean Queer Festival." Last month, about 500 people took part in the festival's kickoff parade, but most sported red ribbons around their wrists or necks as a signal to the media that they didn't wish to be photographed.
In Korea and Japan, the spread of gay culture is curbed through measures restricting Internet content and underage access to gay bars and cafes.
In China, homosexuals have frequently been the target of "anti-vice" campaigns. Until 2001, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, making it possible for gays to be consigned to mental institutions.
Dr. Zhu Qi, vice president of the Beijing-based Sexology Association of China, told UPI, "Homosexuality is not common in China. Not a lot of people are interested in it."
Zhu intimated that persecution of gays is diminishing as international concepts of human rights are slowly impacting Chinese attitudes. "We must honor (homosexuals') human rights, but from the biological point of view, this is not a normal biological phenomenon."
Despite the official distaste for the lifestyle, dozens of gay-friendly cafes and bars have sprung up in Shanghai and Beijing and Internet sites inform foreign visitors of hot spots to meet "local boys," many of whom are from impoverished rural areas, looking to make some easy money.
Poon Kwok Sum, Hong Kong author of two books on homosexuality, pointed out that Chinese society has traditionally been permissive, unencumbered by religious or ideological moral precepts. In ancient China, it was common for noblemen to purchase boys, as well as girls, as servants and sex partners.
Nowadays, Asian homosexuals are far from attaining the status of respectability and in many places, they are still struggling for decriminalization of their sexual practices.
Hong Kong, Singapore, India and Pakistan inherited British intolerance for "buggery," and all provide for punishments up to life imprisonment for this crime. In Hong Kong, homosexual behavior between consenting males over 21 was legalized in 1991. In Singapore, it remains punishable by up to two years in prison; in India and Pakistan, up to 10 years.
Flaunting local legal, social and religious sensibilities, on July 2, 15 activists staged India's first gay pride event in Calcutta, a "Friendship Walk" to the offices of non-governmental organizations.
Islamic laws provide for flogging and imprisonment of homosexuals in Malaysia, where in 1998 the popular Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was arrested on sodomy charges and remains in prison.
Surprisingly Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, boasts Asia's first gay organization (1981) and first gay pride parade (1999). The country has no legislation pertaining to homosexuality and tolerates alternative lifestyles, especially in tourist resort areas like Bali.
In Indonesia and other traditional Asian societies, same-sex relationships are often maintained alongside obligatory heterosexual marriages.
India is a far from allowing gay marriages.
Although homosexuality is legally banned in India, small groups of gay men have cropped up in open in major metropolitan cities to assert their presence.
While homosexuals remain an invisible community in rural areas, gay men in cities like Bombay, New Delhi and Bangalore have begun having well-publicized events, parties, and get-togethers. There are regular gay parties in bars, pubs and private homes.
"Homosexuality is still unacceptable in India," Pradeep Thakur, a gay rights activist said. "Why should government tell us what we must do in our bedrooms?" Thakur asked, lambasting India's 141-year-old law that calls homosexual sex an "unnatural act."
"Sexual orientation is a very personal issue and it should be left to an individual as enshrined under the fundamental rights that laws one right to freedom of expression," Thakur told UPI.
"Homosexuality or sodomy is considered a stigma in India and is legally banned and the offense carries a punishment of up to seven years in jail," lawyer Manoj Arora said. Last month more than 150 gay men marched through the streets of Calcutta waving banners, saying, "Let us love and be loved."
A gay rights activist in India has recently released a book that deals with love between an openly gay man and a young boy who is unable to pursue his homosexual instincts. Author of "The Boyfriend," R Raj Rao, said India's gay community wants the age-old law to be repealed.
Although there are no official estimates for India's homosexual community, some gay organizations say it may be as large as 40 million people, out of the total population of 1 billion. Humsafar.org, bombay-dost.com, and gaybombay.com are the Web sites that cater to the gay community of Bombay. These organizations claim they create safe spaces for gays and are not dating sites.
It's not clear whether homosexuality even exists in all cultures. Wood noted, "Taking the evidence at face value, there are a lot of cultures in which either kind of homosexuality is either absent or so effectively censored that it has no acknowledged outlet. Homosexuality is a cultural rarity in sub-Saharan Africa, and there is little evidence for it in most of aboriginal Polynesia: the Tahitians, the Maori, the Marquesans and so forth, were licentious but straight."
On the other hand, some tribal cultures, according to Wood, have institutionalized something akin to gay marriage: "The place to find homosexual marriage is on the southern fringe of the New Guinea highlands and in other islands of southern Melanesia." For example, the hunter-gatherer Etoro tribe requires adolescent boys to perform oral sex on older males.
Wood noted that, unfashionable as it is to mention this, in most of the traditional cultures where male homosexual relationships were socially approved, the pairings consist of a man and a boy.
The classical Greeks endorsed relationships between beardless youths and older mentors, although they didn't call them marriages. Of course, many of these would be considered statutory rape in modern America, and lead to the kind of lawsuits now facing the Catholic Church. In contrast, homosexual relations between adult men were subject to derision in Greek and Roman literature.
(With contributions from Gareth Harding in Brussels; Carmen Gentile in Sao Paulo; Kathleen Hwang in Hong Kong; and Harbaksh Singh Nanda in New Delhi.)