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    Marriage Equality Breakthroughs from Ecuador to Northern Ireland

    By John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney–

    Last week, Michelle Avilés and Alexandra Chávez tied the knot in the Ecuadorian coastal city of Guayaquil, becoming the first same-sex couple to marry in that South American nation. The pair was able to wed because the Ecuador Supreme Court in a 5–4 decision last month did the right thing and held that the nation was bound to follow the sweeping 2018 decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights requiring all 23 signatory nations to the American Convention on Human Rights to establish marriage equality.

    The Ecuador decision is hugely significant because, although the holding of the Inter-American Human Rights Court was crystal clear, neither that Court nor any other body has the legal authority to compel member nations to comply with the order. Each nation must individually change its laws through its own legislatures or courts.

    Michelle Avilés and Alexandra Chavez

    The Costa Rican judiciary had already mandated that this Central American nation must comply with the Human Rights Court order, but delayed implementation of its decision until May 2020, unless the national legislature acts earlier, which is considered unlikely in the generally conservative country. Nevertheless, over 100,000 Costa Ricans celebrated LGBTIQ Pride last month, with one activist observing that the massive attendance was unthinkable a decade ago when just 20 courageous queer activists marched and were harassed by opponents.

    We hope that the victory in Ecuador spurs other Latin American nations to follow suit.

    The other major marriage equality breakthrough came over 5,000 miles away earlier this month in the United Kingdom. As of 2014, three of the four constituent countries of the U.K. (England, Wales and Scotland) had all achieved marriage equality, but Northern Ireland, the fourth country, has not yet. But that might change soon.

    A years-long, immensely complex political quagmire has so far prevented same-sex marriage from coming to Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly, the legislative body with the responsibility to govern Northern Ireland, has essentially been nonfunctional since early 2017 because member political parties cannot agree on a power sharing arrangement.

    Lord Hayward

    Northern Irish support for marriage equality appears strong. According to Amnesty International, 55 of the 90 members of the Assembly have publicly announced that they are in favor of the freedom to marry. A 2018 public opinion poll showed that 76 percent of the Northern Irish support marriage equality with only 18 percent opposed. The neighboring Republic of Ireland in 2015 became the first nation to pass marriage equality by popular vote, with 62 percent of voters in favor.

    A few weeks ago, the U.K. Parliament said that, with respect to marriage equality, it had had enough with the delay in Northern Ireland caused by the political stalemate. By a 383 to 73 margin, Parliament voted that unless the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored and functioning by October 21, 2019, marriage equality will become the law of Northern Ireland as of January 2020, with the proviso that a later Northern Ireland Assembly could reverse or amend the law.

    As we noted above, the political and procedural aspects of this process are enormously complex. They involve not only internal Northern Irish politics and the relationship between the U.K. Parliament and Northern Ireland governance, but also political maneuvering regarding Brexit. We must wait to see how the events unfold.

    But Lord Hayward, who is leading marriage equality efforts in the House of Lords, believes that “equal marriage for Northern Ireland is now within touching distance” and Amnesty International’s Patrick Corrigan is “looking forward to New Year wedding bells in Northern Ireland.”

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.