Gay-rights activists around the world hailed President Barack Obama’s support for same-sex marriage as a symbolic victory Thursday, whether they were fighting at home for similar rights or simply for the right to be themselves without being attacked or thrown in prison.
The victory may be more than symbolic in New Zealand, where Prime Minister John Key broke his long silence on gay marriage and said his government may consider allowing it “at some stage.”
There were few signs elsewhere that Obama’s announcement Wednesday would drive change abroad. Conservative Christian and Muslim leaders decried his change of heart, and even in Australia, where a gay-marriage debate similar to America’s has brewed for years, the left-leaning prime minister said she remains opposed.
Several countries, mostly in Europe but also Canada, Argentina and South Africa, already allow gay marriage. But for hundreds of millions of other people in Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere, homosexuality is rarely even discussed, let alone gay marriage rights.
In China, “the government treats homosexuality like it does not exist,” said Xiong Jing, an activist who volunteers in gay support groups in Beijing. She said legalizing gay marriage there would be “unrealistic and impossible.”
Sodomy was a crime in China until 1997, and the government considered homosexuality a mental disorder until 2001. Today gays are frequently discriminated against and ostracized in the country, which shows little tolerance for activism of any kind.
Xiong welcomed Obama’s support for gay marriage but wished he had done more. “If he, as president, was able to not just express his own personal opinion but to support policies on this, that would be even better,” she said.
Natee Teerarojjanapongs, a gay activist from Chiang Mai, Thailand, was more excited. Though Thailand is often seen as gay-friendly by tourists, Thai society is conservative and there has been little support for expanding gay rights in the Southeast Asian country.
“I was starting to lose hope in fighting for gay marriage legalization in Thailand,” Natee said, “but now Barack Obama’s endorsement is rekindling my fire and is giving me the encouragement to go on.”
Homosexuality also remains taboo in India, despite large gay pride parades recently in its big cities. Only this year, the government accepted a court ruling that struck down a colonial-era law banning gay sex, and the Supreme Court is now hearing appeals.
In Argentina, which became the first Latin American country to approve gay marriage in 2010, gay-rights activist Cesar Cigliutti said Obama was playing catch-up.
“It seems to me that by taking this position Obama is aligning himself with the entire world, with these times we’re living in, with the achievements of rights in other countries,” Cigliutti said.
In Australia, three bills in Parliament would allow same-sex couples to marry, and polls have indicated that most Australians support gay marriage. Change is unlikely, however, because both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott oppose it.
“I think it just reinforces this as a matter that people form their own views on, a deeply personal question people will think about, work their way through it; obviously President Obama has and he’s announced a decision,” Gillard said.
France also has a population largely in support of gay marriage and a head of state who opposes it, but that is about to change. Francois Hollande, who defeated President Nicolas Sarkozy in elections Sunday, campaigned for marriage rights and set legislative passage for no later than June of next year.
The Vatican did not immediately comment on Obama’s announcement, but other vocal opponents on religious grounds excoriated him.
“Barack Obama is an ethical man and a philosophically confused man,” said Peruvian congresswoman Martha Chavez of the conservative Catholic Opus Dei movement. “He knows that marriage isn’t an issue only of traditions or of religious beliefs. Marriage is a natural institution that supports the union of two people of different sexes because it has a procreative function.”
In the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines, the only country in the world apart from the Vatican where divorce is illegal, the issue of gay marriage is not even on the agenda of gay rights groups because some of their members oppose it.
“We have some members who are religious, and their belief and devotion to God is there and is the biggest hindrance for them,” said Goya Candelaria, spokesman of Pro Gay association.
The priority for many gay activists is passage of a bill that would penalize schools and companies for discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. They deny the Catholic Church’s claim that the bill would open the door for same-sex marriage.
Religion-based opposition is also strong in Muslim-dominated Egypt and Jordan. Sodomy is illegal in Jordan though rarely prosecuted so the country is not seen as curbing public freedoms. In Egypt, laws prohibiting “debauchery” or “shameless public acts” have been used to imprison gay men in recent years.
“This is unacceptable, because it is against religion, traditions and against God,” said engineer Shady Azer in Cairo. “God created Adam and Eve. He didn’t create two Adams or two Eves.”
Some gay-marriage opponents expressed concern that Obama would try to use American influence to push gay rights on their home countries.
“We want good relations with America, but America must not interfere in other countries’ policies on this issue,” said Ibrahim Ali, an independent member of Malaysia’s Parliament and leader of a rights group for the country’s majority Malay Muslims.
“They can practice this in America if they want, since it’s their right, but we are still very concerned, because whatever America practices, it often wants other countries to follow suit,” he said.
Sodomy is punishable by 20 years in prison in Malaysia - a law that has been used twice against a prominent opposition leader. Anwar Ibrahim He has said the charges were a trumped-up effort to remove him from politics.
Though the sodomy law is rarely enforced in Malaysia, gays who speak out commonly become targets of abuse. Azwan Ismail drew anonymous death threats in 2010 when he spoke about his sexuality in a Youtube video.
Azwan said Thursday that he was heartened by Obama’s comments, and that Malaysians who support gay rights should “take this as a sign to be active and brave. ... This is crucial in fighting homophobia in this country.”