In his second inaugural address, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to make the United States a beacon for the world by recommitting the country to its ideals of equality. He also made history by saying those ideals demand marriage rights for same-sex couples just as they have demanded equal citizenship for women and African Americans.
But even if the Supreme Court or lawmakers soon agree with Obama's words -- "for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well" -- the United States will be a latecomer to advancing marriage rights. The world's leaders on this issue are not just from places Americans might expect -- Western Europe or Canada -- but many countries in our own hemisphere; places not usually known for progressivism on social issues. While Obama was undergoing his "evolution" on marriage rights, there has been a gay rights revolution that has stretched from Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande.
One dramatic illustration: When a broad coalition of human-rights activists brought a gay rights charter to the United Nations in 2007, the push was led not by the likes of Sweden or the Netherlands, but by Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Same-sex marriage was not legal in any of these countries then, but a lot has changed in the years since.
In 2010, Argentina's congress approved an "Equal Marriage" law, the same year same-sex marriage also became legal in Mexico City. A year later, Brazil's supreme court ruled same-sex couples were entitled to partnership rights through a kind of domestic partnership status, and some states -- including the largest, São Paulo -- are now performing full marriages for same-sex couples. The lower house of Uruguay's legislature voted in December 2012 to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, and its senate is widely expected to pass the law when it votes in April.
There were also several LGBT rights victories on issues beyond marriage. Though Bolivia's 2009 constitution bans same-sex marriage, it also bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Chile, one of South America's most conservative countries, passed a non-discrimination bill in 2012 and elected its first openly gay politician. And the government of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner built on its passage of the marriage law to enact the world's broadest legal protections for transgender people last year.
This is not to say that all of Latin America is a gay-rights paradise. Laws throughout Central America, where there is an especially strong evangelical movement, remain particularly hostile, as they do in Peru, where the mayor of Lima is currently facing a recall in part because of her attempts to pass an ordinance banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And many gay people remain closeted or face serious threats of hate crimes even in countries where the laws are very progressive -- in many places, the right to be safe is far more important than the right to marry.
But the rapid advance of same-sex partnership rights is striking, especially considering that it was only a few years ago that these governments were fighting with the Catholic Church to legalize divorce.
The specific reasons these gains have been possible differ in each country. But a major factor in all of them is that LGBT activists have managed to link their cause to broader efforts to shore up human-rights protections in countries still coping with the legacies of anti-democratic regimes that fell in the late 20th century. Additionally, the courts have embraced their role as defenders of human rights and measure themselves against international standards.