The public debate over a law proposal in the Venezuelan National Assembly (AN) that would legalize same-sex civil unions intensified this week, as Venezuela’s Episcopal Church publicly condemned the proposal, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) activists responded.
The proposed Organic Law for Gender Equity and Equality has passed through one round of discussion in the National Assembly and will now face a second round of discussions and a final vote, according to National Assembly Legislator Romelia Matute.
Matute is a proponent of the controversial Article 8 of the law proposal, which, if included in the final draft, will establish that "every person has the right to exercise their preferred sexual orientation and identity freely and without any form of discrimination, and as a consequence, the state will recognize co-living associations [civil unions] constituted between two people of the same sex by mutual agreement."
The article also states that people who "change gender by surgical or other means have the right to be recognized by their identity and to obtain or modify the documents associated with their identification," and obligates the state to create the conditions for their integration into society "under equal conditions."
The law’s passage would have positive implications for the rights of the children of either member of the same sex couple, and for the couple’s social security, inheritance, rent, and taxes, although the details of these rights are not spelled out in this law.
Yolanda Saldarriaga, a member of the gender equity committee of the Ezequiel Zamora National Farmers Front, one of the groups that have united in support of the law, said the law proposal is part of the revolutionary process underway in Venezuela.
"You have to realize we are in a revolution, and that means we must struggle against hegemony and demand changes that respect different lifestyles," said Saldarriaga in an interview with Venezuelanalysis.com.
Several other LGBT and feminist activists estimate that 10% or less of the AN legislators support Article 8, and they say the president of the AN Committee for Family, Women, and Youth, Marelis Pérez Marcano, is "openly opposed to the article."
So far no political parties have taken a public stance on the law proposal, but a commission of the Zulia state Legislature publicly denounced it. Also, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference released a statement over the weekend expressing their "great preoccupation."
"The new legislative project for gender equality gravely attacks the sacred rights protected by our National Constitution, concretely the institutions of marriage and the family, and the rights of children and adolescents consecrated in Articles 75, 76, 77, and 78 [of the Constitution]," the Church declared.
Article 75 of the Constitution says the state "shall protect families as the natural association in society." Article 76 establishes that the father and mother of a child have a "shared and inescapable obligation" to raise the child. Article 77 says marriage is protected, but it does not specify the gender of those who are married. It also says that "a stable de facto union between a man and a woman which meets the requirements established by law shall have the same effects as marriage." Article 78 obligates the state to protect children and adolescents.
LGBT rights activists argue that the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit same sex civil unions. They cite a Supreme Court interpretation issued on February 28th 2008 which established that "the constitutional norm does not prohibit or condemn the union between people of the same sex" and "the constitution does not deny any right to union between people of the same sex."
According to the pro-LGBT rights NGO Affirmative Union of Venezuela (UNAF), the Church’s recent statements run against the constitution’s prohibition of discrimination and religious intolerance, and violate the constitutional right to privacy.
Hisvet Fernández of the Venezuelan Observatory for the Human Rights of Women said that as a secular state, Venezuela must not institutionalize the discriminatory practices of any particular religion.
"Equality, freedom, and brotherhood, ethical and just values, will not be possible in societies where some groups wish to impose their values, moral beliefs, or customs on other groups," said Fernández.
This is not the first time LGBT activists have seen their rights on the table in the National Assembly. The constitutional reform of 2007, which was proposed by the National Assembly but later voted down by a slim margin in a nation-wide referendum, would have prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.
However, a series of proposals that a mixed group of LGBT and feminist activists had presented to the constitutional reform committee of the AN in 2007, including the de-penalization of abortion, same-sex civil unions, and a series of economic benefits for women, were explicitly rejected for their controversial nature.
Since the election of President Hugo Chávez in 1998, government programs to promote women’s rights have grown significantly. The Chavez government has created a Women’s Bank, provided support to low income women, passed laws to promote gender equality in elected offices, converted the 15 year-old National Institute for Women into a national ministry, and passed the Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence in 2007. However, institutional and cultural opposition to LGBT and women’s rights remains widespread, and the 2007 law is weakly enforced.
"If the legislators of the National Assembly take this article [Article 8] out or leave it on the side," said Marianela Tovar Núñez of the Contranatura Historian Organization in an interview with Venezuelanalysis.com, "it will be a tremendous blow against one of the most discriminated against groups, and for the creation of a truly socialist society."
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