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The insider's guide to 'gay marriage'

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(CNN) -- South Africa has become the first African nation to give legal recognition to same-sex partnerships. The legislation passed this week was drawn up after the country's high court ruled that existing marriage legislation discriminated against same-sex couples

Isn't homosexuality a bit of a taboo subject in many Africa countries?

Yes. It's illegal in many countries and gay people run the risk of physical attack. But South Africa has a relatively liberal attitude towards gay rights. The post-apartheid constitution includes a clause making discrimination based on sexual identity illegal.

Home affairs minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, says South Africa needs to distinguish itself from its "painful past", by declaring that no South African should be discriminated against on the basis of color, creed, culture and sex. Not everyone's happy though. Kenneth Meshoe, a Christian politician, said that South Africa "was provoking God's anger."

So which country took the plunge first?

Denmark. In 1989 the country became the first to allow same sex couple to register their partnerships and grant them the same rights as married couples. However, gay couples can't marry in church.

A raft of northern European countries followed suit in the 1990s but the Netherlands became the first country to allow full civil marriage rights in 2001.

Germany has allowed same sex couples to register "life partnerships" since 2001.

British legislation allows same-sex couples to register civil partnerships and grants them the same rights as heterosexual marriages in areas such as property and pensions. In France, all co-habiting couples, regardless of sex can formalize their relationship with a civil contract but it doesn't grant the same rights as marriage.

Much controversy?

In most European countries the issue hasn't really caused much of a storm. Unsurprisingly Pope Benedict XVI is against the concept and in Italy same-sex unions are illegal. However in Spain -- another predominantly Roman Catholic country -- gay couples can marry and adopt children.

What about in the United States?

The subject is a far more emotive topic here with strong opposition from Christian groups and Republicans.

In the summer -- with an eye on the midterm elections -- President George W Bush backed a constitutional amendment that would establish marriage as a union between a man and a woman and therefore bar states from recognizing same-sex marriages.

According to polls the majority of Americans are against same-sex partnerships or marriages, but only half support a constitutional amendment.

Only the state of Massachusetts allow same-sex couples to marry. A handful of other states -- Vermont, Connecticut, Maine and Hawaii -- have established civil unions or domestic partnership laws for same sex couples.

Most attention has focused on California thanks to its merry-go-round approach to the issue and opposition from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In 2004, San Francisco's city mayor decided to defy state law and allow gay weddings before the state's Supreme Court stepped in and voided the 4,000 marriages that had taken place.

This month a California appeals court ruled that state laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples are constitutional and do not deprive gay or lesbian couples of a "vested fundamental right." This ruling overturned a 2005 ruling by a lower court judge in San Francisco that denying same-sex couples the right to marry was unconstitutional.

This latest decision likely will not be the final word. The ruling is expected to be appealed to the California Supreme Court.

And the rest of the world?

Canada, Argentina and New Zealand have all introduced some form of gay marriage laws.

Famous gay marriages?

Pop star Elton John and his long term partner David Furnish formalized their relationship in much publicized civil partnership ceremony in the UK in 2005. The ceremony was held at the Windsor Guildhall -- the same venue where the the Britain's Prince of Wales and his long term mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, married.

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