(IPS) – Argentina is officially the first Latin American country to allow same-sex couples to marry, with the passage of a law Thursday that also permits gay couples to adopt children and to use assisted fertilisation to conceive a baby, rights that were hitherto restricted to heterosexual couples.
“Marriage will have the same requirements and effects, regardless of whether the parties are of the same or opposite sex,” says one of the main articles in the law passed by the senate in the early hours of Thursday morning.
The bill to reform the marriage clauses in the civil code was approved in the lower house of Congress in May. In the senate, there were 33 votes in favour, 27 against, and three abstentions, passing the bill by a greater majority than had been predicted before the 14-hour long debate.
Government spokespersons said that the law would be enacted promptly by President Cristina Fernández, who celebrated the parliamentary decision as “a positive step for a leading country.”
The vote in favour of the bill in the senate was supported by the pro-government Front for Victory, a centre-left wing within the Peronista or Justicialista Party (PJ), the Socialists, and some lawmakers belonging to the opposition Radical Civic Union and Civic Coalition.
“In actual fact, we felt we had won this debate, even if we didn’t succeed in getting the bill passed this year,” Marcelo Suntheim, secretary of the Argentine Homosexual Community (CHA), told IPS.
The activist recalled that 26 years ago, when CHA was founded, debates used to be about whether or not homosexuals were sick, mentally ill or perverted. “Now the debate is about rights, and the conclusion of the parliamentary vote is that we are citizens with equal rights,” he said with satisfaction.
The debate in Congress was preceded by a campaign during which a dozen same-sex couples were legally married, by bringing a suit for infringement of their constitutional rights that was upheld by a lower or appeals court.
Verónica Dessio, a 38-year-old lawyer who has lived with her female partner for nine years, got married this way before the law was passed. “We succeeded in getting married, but everyone should have the same right,” she told IPS.
Dessio said she never felt discriminated against because she is a lesbian. However, only now will she enjoy equal rights with heterosexuals in administrative procedures and daily affairs in the life of a couple, such as applying for a loan or inheritance rights.
Sexual minority organisations, led by the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals (LGBT), carried out a vigorous campaign for legal recognition of their rights in the run-up to the parliamentary vote.
They were supported by representatives of different churches, although top religious authorities generally opposed the bill; by scientific and medical societies that backed adoption by same-sex couples; and by human rights organisations, activists and journalists, among others.
An alliance of 73 human rights organisations wrote a letter to the senators, asking them to “guarantee equal rights” for all.
The senders of the letter argued that the new law needed to be adopted, in order to end the restriction of rights derived from marriage, like inheritance, the treatment of conjugal assets, custody of children, adoption, widow’s pensions and other benefits.
The organisations expressed their rejection of civil unions as an alternative. Civil unions are authorised in the city of Buenos Aires and in other Argentine districts, and confer recognition on homosexual relationships, but not of all the rights enshrined in marriage.
“Denying marriage on the grounds of sexual preferences is a form of discrimination prohibited by the national constitution, and creating a separate institution is a flagrant violation of human rights,” the letter adds.
But the bill also had its detractors, led by the Catholic Church hierarchy and laypeople who protested on the eve of the debate. Some 20,000 people demonstrated on Tuesday Jul. 13 in front of the Congress building, according to several observers.
“Children have the right to a Mom and a Dad,” was the slogan. But leaflets distributed at the rally expressed strong prejudice against sexual minorities, labelling them as sick, promiscuous, and having suicidal tendencies.
One of the most controversial measures was taken by the Archbishop of the central-western city of Córdoba, Carlos Ñáñez, who opened an ecclesiastical trial against a priest, José Alessio, and banned him from exercising the priesthood because he expressed support for gay marriage.
Estela Carlotto, the president of the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, an association that searches for the “disappeared” babies (now adults) of detainees of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, who were often adopted by military families, complained that the same Catholic authorities who were quick to remove Alessio are supporting and protecting Julio Grassi, a priest convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2009 for child sexual abuse.
Another priest still enjoying full canonical rights is Christian von Wernich, serving a life sentence for participating in torture and other crimes against humanity in collaboration with the “task groups” that carried out kidnappings and “disappearances”during the dictatorship.
Marriage between persons of the same sex is permitted in Canada, South Africa, seven European countries and six states in the United States, but is not legally available nationally in any other country of Latin America, although it was approved within the Federal District of Mexico City a few months ago.
In contrast, many countries in the region recognise civil unions, and in some cases adoption, but not marriage, which continues to be reserved for heterosexual couples.
In Argentina, one of the factors that worked in favour of the bill was the publicity given to same-sex couples who adopted children through one of the parents, or made use of assisted fertilisation.
Polls indicated that the majority of Argentine society was in favour of a law recognising the rights of same-sex couples.
“Our Families Already Exist,” was the slogan of the First National Encounter of Homoparental Families, held in June in the central-eastern city of Rosario, as part of the campaign in favour of same-sex marriage.
“For years, we have been raising babies, children and teenagers whom we conceived with or without reproductive technology, adopted, or informally took over their care,” they announced in a document. “Some of our families live in harmony, and others do not. We have joys and problems, just like other families,” they said.
Suntheim, of CHA, said the gay community agrees with critics of the law about the importance of “defending the family,” but “we do not believe in their social model, the ideal equation of ‘a man and a woman and a child’, but in the loving environment, which in fact is already much more diverse.”