Why Latin America is beating the U.S. to marriage equality

There’s been a lot of surprise in the American media following yesterday’s ruling from the Mexican Supreme Court striking down a ban on same-sex marriage—how is it that a Catholic country in Latin America is way ahead of the United States on gay marriage?

If we paid a little more attention to our hemisphere, we really wouldn’t be that surprised: there’s been an LGBT rights revolution in Latin America that has well surpassed us.

John Aravosis, for example, voices incredulity at this fact over at AMERICAblog:

I never cease to be amazed at how many countries, and which countries, around the world are ahead of the US on this basic civil and human right. I grew up being taught that America was the greatest and freest country on earth…. I’m still blown away that in traditionally Catholic countries, and Latin countries to boot, marriage equality is proceeding ahead of the US.

To review where things stand in Latin America:

  • The first country to legalize marriage through legislative action was Argentina, which passed an Equal Marriage law in 2010. Several municipalities have started performing weddings for foreign couples, making it an engine for advancing same-sex marriage across South America. I took an in-depth look at how this was possible here, here, and here.
  • The top court in Colombia, which already established civil unions for same-sex couples, has ordered the country’s congress to grant gay partnerships equal legal status by July 2013, or the courts will do it for them. A Colombian Senate committee just passed a marriage law in response.
  • Gay couples have already won domestic partnership rights in Brazil through the country’s top court. Lower courts have begun “converting” these unions to marriages, setting the stage for establishing marriage rights at the national level.
  • Uruguay’s lower house will vote Tuesday on a bill to legalize same-sex marriage, and activists are confident that it will pass the Senate in the new year. This would be the second Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage by a vote of the legislature. Update: The marriage bill passed overwhelmingly.
  • Civil unions are available in some places where marriage rights have not yet been passed, including Ecuador and parts of Venezuela.
  • Bills that would establish national partnership rights (though not marriage) have been actively debated in some of the Latin America’s most conservative countries, including Chile and Peru. A bill to establish marriage rights has even been introduced in Bolivia‘s legislature based on the constitution’s ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

How is this possible? The dynamics are different in every country, but there is one thing that unites them: they all care a lot more about international law than the United States does. The United States’s recent failure to ratify the UN treaty on rights for the disabled is emblematic of our history of our reluctance to see human rights protected on the international scale.

As I wrote about the Mexican case at Salon and AfterMarriage, one of the key factors in making victory possible was a ruling that came from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that said sexual orientation discrimination is prohibited by the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. While many countries in the Americas recognize this court as having jurisdiction over human rights cases within their borders, the United States has not even ratified the treaty since it went into effect in 1978.

With a gay marriage case now beginning its way through the Inter-American human rights system in a lawsuit against Chile, the pace of this change could accelerate. I wonder where the United States will be when that happens.

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