Gay rights activists celebrate Argentine vote for same-sex marriage

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 16, 2010; A08

It was 4:05 a.m. and frigid outside the Congress building in Buenos Aires as Argentine lawmakers voted Thursday to legalize same-sex marriage, but Marcelo Marquez was still there. He had waited through 14 hours of debate for the moment that would make his country the first in overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America to grant gay couples the same rights as heterosexual ones.

"For me, it was incredible," said Marquez, 41, a philosophy teacher who now plans to marry his partner, Mariano Tissone, 37. "Everyone exploded -- screaming, dancing, hugging, some singing the national anthem."

The Senate voted 33 to 27 in favor of the bill, which the lower house had approved in May with strong backing from President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The vote -- which also made Argentina the second country in the Americas, after Canada, to approve marriage for gay men and lesbians -- prompted thousands of supporters to whoop in the streets and shout, "We made history!"

Among them was Marquez, who recounted a long fight for what he called equal rights. "We now have legal recognition, given by the state," he said. "We are so happy that the state did not stop our fight for equality."

Gay rights activists in the region and beyond said Argentina's action would serve as an example. Already, advocates of gay marriage in Chile and Paraguay have said they hope their lawmakers will be spurred to approve similar proposals.

Dan Hawes of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in Washington said the vote in Argentina also gives momentum to gay rights advocates in the United States.

"The victory in Argentina shows those of us in the U.S. who are working for the freedom to marry that with persistence, engaging the public, in making the case why same-sex couples need and deserve the right to marry, that we can continue to advance the freedom to marry," he said by phone Thursday afternoon. "Even in places where the odds are stacked against us."

In Argentina, the Catholic Church had mounted a vigorous campaign to stop the bill. Posters plastered on walls featured a man and a woman cuddling a baby and the admonition, "Kids have a right to a dad and mom." As the debate in the country's ornate, 104-year-old Congress began Wednesday, tens of thousands of people opposed to the legislation prayed and rallied outside.

They were led by Argentina's highest cleric, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who had warned that approving the bill amounted to an "intention to destroy God's plan."

A step for minorities

But what observers had predicted would be a tight vote in the upper house turned out to be not so close.

Sen. Gerardo Morales told other lawmakers that the bill would remedy "a situation of injustice and discrimination toward sectors of the Argentine society who really do not have the guarantee of equal rights as our constitution establishes."

Fernández de Kirchner, speaking from China where she was on a state visit, said she was "very satisfied with the vote."

"To think that 50 years ago women could not vote and that not long ago there was no interracial marriage in the United States," she said in comments carried by La Nación, a Buenos Aires newspaper. "All that has changed. We can think this has been a positive step in defending minority rights."

In Latin America, which is uniformly Catholic and where the church hierarchy is often consulted on major decisions, only Mexico's capital city has approved same-sex marriages. But gay activists have made progress: Colombia's highest court last year gave same-sex partners nearly all the rights found in common-law unions. Uruguay's Congress also recognized same-sex civil unions.

"In some northern countries, they said these advances could never happen in our region," said Marcela Sanchez of Colombia Diversa, an advocacy group on gay issues in the Colombian capital, Bogota. "But now we are seeing movement forward in a number of places."

For American gay rights advocates, the vote in Argentina puts that country of 41 million people ahead of the United States, where voters in California and other states have approved propositions blocking gay unions. Only the District and five states, four of them in New England, have legalized gay marriage.

The right place

In some ways, Argentina seemed a logical choice for the approval of gay marriage.

Though influential, the Catholic Church is not omnipresent in the country, which has long been a magnet for immigrants from around the world, including Jews, Muslims and, a century ago, anarchists who rejected the Vatican.

The Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, is also among the world's most cosmopolitan cities, with numerous bars and hotels catering to gays. The city legalized same-sex unions in 2002, though gays have faced legal obstacles to getting married and only a handful had taken vows.

Nearly 70 percent of Argentines thought it was time to legalize gay marriage, according to a recent poll by the Analogías polling firm. Analía del Franco, the firm's general director, said the country's strong human rights tradition, a product of the fight against a military dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983, had helped propel the gay marriage bill.

"This is something that comes from way back," del Franco said.

Special correspondent Silvina Frydlewsky in Buenos Aires contributed to this report.

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