The 1st December 2009 should have been the happiest day of Alex Freyre and José María di Bello’s lives. They had been granted permission to become the first same-sex couple to marry in Argentina, in a landmark legal decision.
This was taken away from them one day before the ceremony however, when Judge Marta Gomez Alsina ordered the union to be suspended pending a Supreme Court hearing. The couple pressed ahead regardless and wed in a ceremony in Palermo but its legitimacy, and the future of gay rights in Argentina, remains uncertain.
Civil unions between same-sex couples have been legal in Argentina since 2002, although they are not recognised in every province. However, this ruling was the first time a couple would have been recognised as ‘husband and husband’, in an official matrimonial ceremony. Judge Gabriela Seijus, presiding over the case declared unconstitutional the parts of the civil code restricting same-sex marriages and unions. He later commented: “The law should treat everyone with the same respect according to their singularities, without the need to understand or regulate them.”
Judge Alsina however, at the request of lawyers looking to annul the judgement, found issues in the competency and procedure of the first hearing. This was sufficient motivation to overrule its’ judgement and suspend the wedding until the issue was resolved by the country’s highest authorities, in roughly two months.
Gay rights activist Bruno Bimbi represented the voice of many Argentines in expressing his outrage with Alsina’s decision, and her authority to pass it. “In a country with functioning institutions, Alsina would lose her position due to abuse of power and end up behind bars,” Bimbi fumed in the aftermath of the ruling.
Couple Freyre and Di Bello had petitioned the judiciary for permission that their union would hold the same legitimacy and legal standing as that enjoyed through heterosexual marriage. The date chosen for the ceremony was also no accident, being World Aid’s Day; both are carriers of the disease, and committed campaigners to raise awareness of it. “It is a date that forms part of our struggle against discrimination, that not only focuses on sexual diversity but also against people who have Aids,” Di Bello affirmed shortly after receiving permission to marry.
Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri sealed the fate of the couple in a dramatic u-turn. The chief had previously supported the wedding by not appealing Judge Seijus’ ruling, telling associated reporters “The world is moving in this direction. We have to live with and accept this reality. I hope that they are happy together.”
However, on 1st December after Seijus had declared the suspension illegal, Macri had the opportunity to confirm this and give the wedding final legal approval. This ruling however was subject to the mayor formally approving it. He declined to act, and the ceremony went ahead in a farcical atmosphere of confusion and dispute. Macri had come in for harsh criticism from church figures and conservative political allies in the wake of his first decision.
Buenos Aires has long held a reputation as a “gay-friendly” locale. The city contains myriad bars, clubs, restaurants and meeting groups for the homosexual community, as well as tourists from all over the world. Despite the social conservatism often associated with Catholicism, which the vast majority of porteños associate with, same-sex couples together in public are usually accepted with the minimum of trouble.
Despite this seemingly liberal appearance however, there is strong opposition to gay rights amongst the Catholic leadership in Argentina, which influences all levels of society. The strongest critic was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, who in a text signed by other senior church figures including Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, dubbed the verdict “absolutely illegal”.
The Archbishop warned that the ruling signified “a sign of grave rashness, and sets a serious precedent for our country and for all of Latin America”. The text also mentioned “the crisis of traditional values that affects our country today”, with the obvious implication that the fact of gay marriage directly challenges these values.
Despite this and other opposition, reports suggest that the Argentine public itself is open to the idea of gay marriage. In a poll commissioned by the government in November, 66% of those asked were in favour of marriage being opened up to same-sex couples.
The wider issue of gay marriage in Argentina remains in a legal grey area; a bill that would officially legalise it at a federal level remains in deadlock, with talk that it will not gain sufficient support to be passed.
Bimbi for one is adamant that the confusion over this issue is symptomatic of the wider corruption and weak will of political forces in Argentina. “In a country with brave politicians, Congress would meet to give a definitive response and stop our people being hostage to a lobby of powerful authority figures not used to the concept of democracy. The only definitive response is to approve the gay marriage law.”