With same-sex marriage law, Mexico City becomes battleground in culture wars

By Anne-Marie O'Connor
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 3, 2010; A08

MEXICO CITY -- The Mexican wedding may never be the same.

On Thursday, this sprawling megalopolis will catapult to the front lines of gay rights in Latin America when a city law legalizing same-sex marriage and adoption goes into effect.

The prospect of gay marriage has sent tremors through the Catholic Church, drawn the opposition of President Felipe Calderón and his conservative National Action Party (PAN), and spotlighted the power of Mexico City's center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) leaders to advance a liberal agenda that contrasts with provincial traditionalism.

Mexico allows the federal district of Mexico City to pass its own laws, and the metropolis of more than 20 million people has become a major battleground in the culture wars playing out across the Americas.

In recent years, the city's PRD-dominated Legislative Assembly has recognized civil unions and no-fault divorce, legalized abortion in the first trimester and given terminally ill patients the right to refuse treatment.

Now, as conservatives protest, gay couples from Xochimilco to Polanco are making plans to tie the knot.

Mexican actress Jesusa Rodríguez will marry her partner, Liliana Felipe, after 30 years together. "The important thing is that this law grants equality," Rodríguez said.

Many marriage-minded gay couples are preoccupied by concerns about the security of their loved ones.

Reyna Barrera, 70, had a breast removed two months ago, and although she is weak from chemotherapy, she is busy planning her wedding to her partner of 36 years, Sandra Ponce.

"This way, she is protected. She will get my pension, our house, everything from the life we built together," said Barrera, a literature professor at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

The Legislative Assembly passed the gay marriage act by a broad majority in December, as activists cheered and PAN representatives looked on in dismay. Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a PRD leader, signed the bill into law -- a first in Latin America.

"The family is under attack," warned Mexico City Cardinal Norberto Rivera, saying that the "perverse" measure would inflict psychological damage on "innocent children."

With the news, same-sex couples across the region began to demand equal access to the altar.

"Homosexual Marriage is Approved in Mexico. And in Chile, When?" read a headline in Chilean news Web site El Paradiario 14.

On Feb. 23, Buenos Aires judge Elena Liberatori told a gay couple to set a wedding date, despite policies that are "not in line with the times." In late December, two men whose wedding plans were derailed by a Buenos Aires court married in Tierra del Fuego -- home to a tolerant governor -- becoming the first gay couple in Latin America to legally wed.

Mexico City legalized same-sex civil unions in 2007; they also are recognized in Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, Ecuador and Argentina, but advocates for gay rights say only marriage can protect the rights of families in such matters as property and custody.

Mexico's ruling party does not want the Mexico City law to be the catalyst for a domino effect.

The attorney general filed a challenge with the Supreme Court, arguing that the law violates the constitution.

"The constitution of the republic speaks explicitly of marriage between a man and a woman," Calderón, a devout Catholic, said in early February.

According to the constitution, "men and women are equal under the law," and "this protects the organization and development of the family."

Advocates said there has been no popular backlash to the law.

"I don't understand why a president would invent a constitution that concerns itself with weddings," said Mexican intellectual Carlos Monsiváis. "There has been a campaign by the church and the right, but not by the people. There is still a lot of machismo, but not as much as there used to be -- and not nearly as much as people believed."

An opinion poll by El Universal newspaper in November found that 50 percent of Mexico City respondents accepted gay marriage and 38 percent opposed it. Residents ages 18 to 39 were more likely to be supporters.

A survey by Calderón's party found that more than half of those polled opposed same-sex marriage and that 74 percent opposed adoption by gay couples. "Marriage, as it was originally conceived, as a union between a man and a woman, guarantees the future of the state and of Mexican society," Mariana Gómez del Campo, PAN's leader in Mexico City, told a radio interviewer.

"Just because something has become common, should it be legally recognized?" said an editorial in El Semanario, a publication of the Catholic Archdiocese of Guadalajara. "If so, we should legalize all of the murders, narcotics traffic or whatever other activity that has become common."

Gay rights activist Mariana Pérez Ocaña said she fears conservative provincial leaders will chip away at same-sex marriage.

After abortion was legalized, she noted, states altered their constitutions to say life begins at conception. Governors affiliated with PAN have promised to challenge same-sex marriage.

"Many activists in gay groups fear there will be a backlash," Pérez said.

Binational couples will add to the legal complications, she said. If Pérez weds, the marriage will not be recognized in her partner's native California. Mexicans who marry partners from countries that recognize same-sex marriage, such as Spain and Canada, could ask for citizenship, but their spouses would not be eligible for the same in Mexico, she said.

"If a heterosexual couple gets married, they're automatically eligible for citizenship," she said.

Still, "marriage is a significant milestone," Pérez said. "This law is a very important step forward."

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