Last Friday Norma Castillo and Ramona Arévalo celebrated Argentina’s first lesbian wedding. For the couple, both of who are 67 years old and who have been together for over 30 years, the change was a long time coming. However, after years of inequality, it seemed like a turning point had arrived, not just in Argentina, but in several countries across the continent.
In December 2009 Mexico City became the first Latin American jurisdiction to legalise gay marriage and last month the first same-sex weddings were held in the country’s Federal District. On 7th April an international court ruling in favour of a lesbian judge in Chile has been hailed as an important step in the fight for equality. Positive reactions from across Latin America to Ricky Martin officially announcing his homosexuality are also widely seen as progressive.
However, there is still long way to go before total equality is achieved. In Argentina, it was announced today that Castillo and Arévalo’s wedding has been annulled, and the legality of the other gay weddings in the country are being disputed. In a continent dominated by the Catholic Church, whose staunch opposition to homosexuality is well known, this is just one of a number of challenges to be faced. With high-profile cases of violence against homosexuals being reported in Mexico and Argentina, and the expulsion of a gay officer from the Brazilian military, the fight is certainly not over yet.
On the 12th March this year, Mexico City became the first Latin American jurisdiction to fully legalise gay marriage and adoption. Three pairs of women and two of men were married under a new law, which, according to the judge who performed the ceremony, meant that “two people, regardless of sexual orientation, or gender identity could get married, simply because they are people.” The new legislation, passed by the Federal District’s predominantly left-leaning parliament, also give gay couples full rights to adopt children.
Shortly after the ceremonies in Mexico, a number of gay weddings were performed in Argentina. However, same-sex marriage in the country is still on shaky ground as, unlike Mexico, there are still no binding, state-wide laws, and the unions depend individual, and often contradictory, court rulings. The initial judgement legalising the first same-sex marriage in Argentina last year was disputed, and a wedding between two men was called off on 1st December 2009. The legality of gay marriage in Argentina continues to be challenged, and on Wednesday it was reported that a judge from Tierra del Fuego had officially annulled the marriage between Alex Freyre y José María Di Bello, which took place in Ushuaia on 28th December. Two other same-sex marriages that took place in Buenos Aires have also been annulled.
Nevertheless, the legality of the annulments is also strongly disputed by gay rights groups. María Rachid, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians. Gays, Bisexuals and Trans-sexuals (FALGBT) commented to The Argentina Independent: “In reality, all the weddings that were celebrated are valid. None of them have been annulled, as is written in the press. It’s not true.”
What is clear is that the maze of court rulings is so complex that the current status of gay marriage in Argentina is difficult to decipher. However, an important advance was made last Thursday to clarify the situation, as a proposal was submitted to parliament to introduce a law, legalising gay marriage nationwide. Despite setbacks, Rachid remains upbeat about the progress of gay marriage in Argentina “the media is in favour, most civil servants and politicians are in favour, people are in favour.” She believes that the only real obstacle to same-sex weddings are “religious fundamentalists from the Catholic Church”. For this reason, she thinks legislation will be passed guaranteeing homosexuals equal rights to marry “very soon. If not this year, then the next.”
There are now several countries across Latin America that offer some form of gay marriage or same-sex union. Rachid suggests that the movement was very much inspired by gay marriage being legalised in Spain 2005: “we learned so much from their experience,” she confirms. In 2008 Uruguay became the first Latin American country to pass a law legalising civil unions for homosexual couples. In 2009 it was followed by legislation in Colombia and Ecuador. Moreover, last week was the seven-month anniversary of a ruling in Uruguay, which opened the way for gay couples to adopt children.
However, even in countries where gay marriage or civil unions available, there are still important economic and social rights that are lacking. For example, while the Colombian civil unions offer multiple benefits, including full inheritance rights, health benefits, immigration rights and recognition in court, gay couples are still not allowed to adopt children. The same is true in Ecuador and in the regions of Argentina where civil unions, but not gay marriages, are legal. Carlos Franco, the 38-year-old owner of two gay cafes in Buenos Aires is of the opinion that the legalisation of gay marriage in some areas is positive, “but what will be more interesting is whether other rights follow, economic rights, inheritance…”
Progress in Chile
This was also an important month for gay rights in Chile, as it saw a ruling by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights (CIDH), which stated that lesbian judge Karen Atala, had suffered discrimination when she lost custody of her three children in 2004 for being in a relationship with another woman. The CIDH, which is part of the Organisation of American States, ordered for Atala to be fully compensated. It also recommended that Chile adopt “legislation, public policies, programs and directives to prohibit and eradicate discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in every aspect of the exercise of public power.” In response, Chile’s new president Sebastián Piñera, said that he would establish a panel to take important measures against discrimination and he announced that he wanted to “protect the rights of all people, without discrimination, regardless of their sexual orientation.”
Nevertheless, other members of the government were considerably more vague in their support of gay rights, for example minister Ena von Baer, who stated “the government is not going to discriminate against anyone for their ethnic origin, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, and at the same time we are concerned with protecting the rights of children.”
The ruling of the CIDH has yet to bring any concrete results, but it was nevertheless hailed by Atala’s partner, Emma de Ramón, as a “generally vindicating judgement for lesbians, for lesbian mothers and for the whole community.” It is certainly a progressive step for a country with one of the most conservative government in the continent, where homosexual acts were not legalised until 1998.
Violence against Homosexuals
However, while progress is being made in some sectors, homophobia is still a persistent problem in countries across Latin America. One recent case in Argentina was the murder of the 27-year-old Natalia Noemí Gaitán by her lover’s stepfather in Córdoba last month. Gaitán was shot dead by Daniel Toledo, who objected to his stepdaughter leaving home to live with Gaitán and who is said to have accused the 27-year-old of “perverting” the younger girl. In the aftermath of the murder, Gaitán’s mother commented to Argentine daily Página 12 “we are used to discrimination, but we never imagined that an animal could commit such a horrible act…they killed her like a dog.”
The lawyer Natalia Milisenda, who participated in the Conference for Diversity in Córdoba assured the Argentine paper Clarín: “this is a case of gender violence, which is not recognised in public policies, but which victimises many lesbian women, simply for the fact that they are women and that they are freely exercising their sexuality.”
Similar homophobic violence has been recently recorded in Mexico. At the end of last month, 500 lesbians marched through the Mexican capital, protesting about violence against homosexual women. The news agency Púlsar recorded that in 2009, 115 women were killed and 16 disappeared in the city of Juárez alone.
Rachid talks about other examples of difficulties faced by homosexuals in everyday life in Argentina: “First of all with education at school when girls and boys are discovering their sexuality or their gender identity. In the family…in work, in institutions, with respect to the attitude of the police in some provinces, there’s a lot of discrimination.”
As well as homophobic individuals, a more formidable obstacle to gay rights is institutional resistance. The most significant opposition to homosexual rights comes from conservative groups and the Catholic Church. One of the most vocal opponents to gay marriage in Mexico was the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), of which the Meixcan President Felipe Calderón is a member. PAN and other right-of-centre organisations presented a case to the Supreme Court to overturn the bill which legalised gay marriage in the capital, arguing that it violated the rights of the family, which are guaranteed by the constitution. Likewise, Enrique Anaya, a member of the ‘Group for the Defence of the Family and Values’ carried out a protest against gay marriage because he believed that it “broke the concept of a family.”
Criticism of gay marriage from religious and Catholic groups has in some cases been even more hyperbolic: after the first gay marriage took place in Argentina, the bishop of the city Río Gallegos, in Tierra del Fuego, described the ceremony as an “attempt against the survival of the human race.”
Opposition to gay rights can also be found in the armies of many Latin American nations: last month in Brazil Lieutenant Cornel Osvaldo Brandao Sayd was discharged from the military for having a relationship with another man. According to the Superior Military Tribunal (STM), his relationship, “caused negative reactions” in public opinion, that were “incompatible with military decorum.” Despite the fact the judgement was condemned by the Attorney General of Military Justice as “discriminatory”, it has not been overturned.
However, even in conservative areas there are some hints of progress. After the Puerto Rican singer Ricky Martin formally announced his homosexuality last week, the Archbishop of his native San Juan, Roberto González, made a statement saying that he respected the singer’s decision to come out. The Catholic leader asserted that the dignity of a human being did not depend on his “particular characteristics” but on the fact that he was a child of God. Moreover a judgement passed in Colombia granting the partners of gay officers serving in the military all the benefits that were previously limited to heterosexuals is more tangible evidence of progress.
Nevertheless, despite some progressive developments, there are still doubts about how far conservative forces will ever really change their attitude to gay rights. Carlos Franco doubts that the Catholic Church as a whole would ever adopt a pro-gay attitude “because they would have to change a whole system that, for them, is a good business model.” He asserts: “Maybe some things will change here and there, but the central pillar of the religion is not going to say anything at all.” María Rachid is equally doubtful of the church’s ability to change: “They’ll end up saying sorry for the things they are doing 500 years later…while they are taking their time to change, they claim a lot of lives.”
However, while some institutions remain stubbornly opposed to gay rights, there is plenty of evidence to show that, on a grassroots level, the attitude of society towards homosexuality is changing. A recent telephone survey by BGC Excélsior in Mexico showed that since the first gay marriages were celebrated in the capital, 52% of the population would support their legalisation across the country, a number eight points higher than last January. Moreover, only 38% of the population was completely opposed to same-sex unions, 24 points lower than in December 2000, and eight lower than January. Likewise, in Argentina, statistics of those in support of gay marriage are rising steadily.
Further evidence of this progressive change is the general public’s response to Ricky Martin publicising his homosexuality. Among congratulations and positive feedback, one typical reader’s comment on the bbc mundo article about Ricky Martin was “It’s not really a big deal.” For Carlos Franco, this very much reflects the attitude of the younger generation in Latin America: “now it doesn’t attract so much attention, there’s not so much interest in the fact that you’re homosexual.” Contrary to Rachid’s description of widespread homophobia in Argentina, Franco says that he personally has never encountered any significant discrimination. He attributes this partly to changes in the media: “We are the product of so much communication, so much information…so much internet and so everything’s much more open.” In his opinion, this makes younger members of society much more accepting of other people’s identity. When describing the gay rights movement, he states that everything is progressing naturally: “It really doesn’t seem like a fight to me…Everything’s just moving forward.”