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In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there has been a growing movement in a number of countries to regard marriage as a right which should be extended to same-sex couples. Legal recognition of a marital union opens up a wide range of entitlements, including social security, taxation, inheritance and other benefits unavailable to couples not married, in the eyes of the law. Restricting legal recognition to opposite-sex couples prevents same-sex couples from gaining access to the legal benefits of marriage. Though certain rights can be replicated by legal means other than marriage (for example, by drawing-up contracts), many cannot, such as inheritance, hospital visitation and immigration. Lack of legal recognition also makes it more difficult for same-sex couples to adopt children.

The first country to legalize same-sex marriages was the Netherlands (2001), while the first marriages were performed in the Amsterdam city hall on April 1, 2001. As of June 2019, same-sex marriages are legal nationally in twenty-six countries: the Netherlands (2001), Belgium (2003), Spain and Canada (2005), South Africa (2006), Norway and Sweden (2009), PortugalIceland and Argentina (2010), Denmark (2012), BrazilFranceUruguayNew Zealand (2013), United Kingdom (without Northern Ireland—May 22, 2015), Luxembourg (2014), Ireland (2015), Colombia (2016), FinlandGermanyMalta (2017), Australia (2018) and in AustriaTaiwan and Ecuador (2019). In Mexico, same-sex marriage is recognized in all states, but performed only in Mexico City, where it became effective on March 4, 2010.

Same-sex marriage was effectively legalized in the United States on June 26, 2015 following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Prior to Obergefell, lower court decisions, state legislation, and popular referendums had already legalized same-sex marriage to some degree in 38 out of 50 U.S. states, comprising about 70% of the U.S. population. Federal benefits were previously extended to lawfully married same-sex couples following the Supreme Court's June 2013 decision in United States v. Windsor.

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