Though American social laws are often significantly more conservative than in other developed countries, this issue is a bit more progressive.
Proponents of equal rights for gay Americans seemed to generally greet President Barack Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage rights with one of two responses: great news or about time. After all, if it's the right thing to do, why wait? And why decline to make it a federal issue, leaving the decision to individual states? Why not do more, and do it sooner?
The U.S. is, famously, more socially conservative than much of the developed world. Until Congress repealed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in September, the U.S. was almost entirely alone, outside of Africa, the Muslim world, and China, in banning gays from the military. America's continued use of the death penalty puts it in a relatively small club, one heavily populated by dictatorships, war zones, and Muslim-majority countries. The U.S. has the highest rate of prisoners per capita of any country in the world.
So, it would follow that U.S. same-sex marriage rights would be similarly conservative. This is, after all, how we're accustomed to thinking of American social politics: a standard narrative in which Europe adopts some progressive new legislation, then the rest of the developed world follows, and the U.S. Congress finally passes its own version right just as Latin America's implementation rate nears 75 or so percent. But it turns out that this is one issue where, so far, the U.S. is more progressive than usual.
Below is a map of the world's countries divided by same-sex marriage rights, as well as by countries that criminalize homosexuality. The shades of blue represent gay rights: dark blue countries allow same-sex marriages, regular blue for same-sex civil unions or other legal partnerships, and the light blue countries recognize foreign unions. The more alarming colors mark countries that punish homosexuality: yellow for what the map-makers call a "minor" punishment, light orange for a harsher punishment, dark orange for life in prison, and red for the death penalty. Grey countries have no laws either punishing gay citizens or granting them partnership rights.
As is so often the case, Western Europe leans more progressive on this issue, with some form of same-sex partnerships almost uniform. But Italy's absence is a major one -- it's the fourth most populous country in the European Union -- and almost all of eastern Europe is dark. And, even in Western Europe, most countries stop short of marriage.
Outside of Western Europe and the usual liberal havens (Australia, New Zealand, Greenland, Canada, Iceland), the lack of blue on this map is striking. Gay marriage is legal in Argentina and South Africa, though the latter is a complicated case, and former U.S. Ambassador John Campbell says it's seen as mostly a "white issue" there, with homophobia "widespread among other racial groups." Civil unions are permitted in four other Latin American states: Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Uruguay.
And then there's the one other outlier on the map: select American states. Same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, the District of Columbia, and soon in Washington and Maryland. Same-sex civil unions are allowed in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. These are big swathes of land, and they encompass lots of people who now have more equal marriage rights.
The U.S. states that allow same-sex marriage have a total population of about 48 million. If those states banded together to form an independent country, it would be the 27th largest in the world, bigger than Colombia or Spain. For comparison, the total population of all sovereign countries that allow same-sex marriages -- those dark blue pieces on the map -- is 224 million. Including the U.S. states, this means that there are 272 million people in the world who have access to same-sex marriage, and 18% of those people are American citizens. That's not bad. Civil unions are tougher to compare across countries -- standards and implementation vary widely -- but the U.S. states that allow some form of same-sex partnership have a combined population of 137 million. That's more people than live in Japan, the tenth largest country in the world, which has granted zero same-sex unions.
In the U.S., we might think of this mostly in terms of the states that are still left grey, that still do not grant equal or near-equal marriage rights. This isn't wrong, and is probably the natural perspective for an activist or someone who cares passionately about the case, but it's worth remembering that gay marriage rights are still unusual in the world. So while the U.S. still has a long ways to go before it accomplishes Obama's hope for national same-sex marriage rights, we're closer than most countries, and some U.S. states are already more progressive than even the most liberal bastions of Europe.