MEXICO CITY — President Barack Obama's announcement today that he supports gay marriage boosted the hopes of gay rights groups around the world that other leaders will follow his example. Vatican and other religious officials who oppose gay marriage stayed largely silent, while others denounced the president's position.
Gay groups lauded what they said was the tremendous precedent set by Obama and hoped for changes in their own countries. In Latin America, for example, governments in Argentina and Mexico City have passed laws permitting gay marriage, but most do not.
"This is incredibly important, it's excellent news. The United States is a global leader on everything, and that includes gay rights," said Julio Moreira, president of the Rio de Janeiro-based Arco-Iris gay rights group. "This will force other nations like Brazil to move forward with more progressive policies."
That message was echoed by some people in Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, who said it was about time Obama took a positive stand on the issue.
"It's a civil liberty," said 25-year-old Duncan Bruce while smoking a cigarette outside of a London pub. "This is not to do with religion — it's about two men loving each other. If you can't get a tax break for that, it's a disgrace."
Even as religious officials didn't comment, political leaders and others opposed to gay marriage were not shy about denouncing what they said was a shameless appeal by Obama for votes. In particular, politicians tied to Pentecostal and Catholic churches have spoken out strongly against same-sex marriage in Latin America.
"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."
Religion-based opposition was also strong in Egypt's conservative Muslim-dominated society, which rejects same-sex relations. 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."
In 2008, four HIV-positive Egyptians were sentenced to three years in prison after being convicted of the "habitual practice of debauchery." Human rights groups warned that the case could undermine HIV prevention efforts in Egypt.
Actions by governments worldwide have reflected that diversity of opinion.
In 2010, Argentina became Latin America's first country to approve gay marriage. The next year, Brazil's Supreme Court approved civil unions, followed by several state courts upholding the conversion of civil unions into full marriages. The nation's top appeals court then upheld those marriages in October, setting national precedent.
Gay marriage became legal in Canada in 2005 under the country's previous Liberal government in response to court rulings that gave gay people the right to marry. Thousands of gay Canadians, as well as foreign visitors, have gotten married since then. Spain has allowed gay marriage since 2005.
"This stance will shape the way the rest of the world views the U.S., and will eventually force the way Americans see things to change," said Sasha Mohammed, 30, in Toronto. "It is, after all, impossible to overtly hold onto your prejudices when everyone around you condemns you for it."
Cesar Cigliutti, president of the Gay Community of Argentina group, said Obama was only catching up to the rest of the world.
"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.
Meanwhile, voters in North Carolina approved a constitutional amendment Tuesday defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, mirroring efforts in several U.S. states.
In Brazil, the Catholic and evangelical churches and religious politicians continue to block the approval of any legislation in Congress enshrining gay marriage. Moreira noted that efforts by President Dilma Rousseff to promote anti-homophobia education in Brazilian schools were scuttled last year after it became clear religious legislators would block unrelated legislation in protest.
In France, outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy opposes gay marriage — though recent polls suggest that a majority of French voters support it. This Sunday's electoral victor, French President-elect Francois Hollande, made "the right to marry and adopt for all couples" part of his campaign platform, and has set legislative passage of a bill ensuring that right for no later than June of next year.
Spain adopted its gay marriage law when the country was ruled by the center-left Socialist Party, but the center-right Popular Party took control of the government late last year.
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has said he would prefer civil unions instead of marriages, but his administration has made no move to change the current situation. His party does have an appeal of the gay marriage law pending before the country's Constitutional Court.
Jamaica's most prominent evangelical pastor and the island's political ombudsman, Bishop Herro Blair, said late Wednesday afternoon that he was just hearing about Obama's announcement and was still taking it in.
"For now, I can say that I cannot be mad at President Obama. We are in a society where people have choices. However, my belief runs contrary to his," Blair said in Kingston, the island's capital.
In Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she won't be following Obama's lead in supporting gay marriage.
"I've made my mind up and my position on this is well known," Gillard told reporters in Canberra. "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."
In other words, the gay marriage debate promises to rage on around the world despite Obama's groundbreaking announcement. But for one day, at least, those on one side of the battle won a powerful ally.
"We're living in other times where acceptance is growing more and more," said restaurant owner Carlos Santiago in Mexico City's Pink Zone gay district. "It's impossible to hold back a wave, against something that is natural."
Anat Chen, a 20-year-old bartender in Jerusalem, said she expected more to come.
"Everyone should be allowed to marry whoever they want," she said. "It matters that Obama said it. Whatever happens in America, the rest of the world follows."