Latin America’s gay marriage revolution

Published by Foreign Policy Magazine.

In his second inaugural address, U.S. President Barack Obama pledged to make the United States a beacon for the world by recommitting the country to its ideals of equality. He also made history by saying those ideals demand marriage rights for same-sex couples just as they have demanded equal citizenship for women and African Americans.

But even if the Supreme Court or lawmakers soon agree with Obama’s words — “for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well” — the United States will be a latecomer to advancing marriage rights. The world’s leaders on this issue are not just from places Americans might expect — Western Europe or Canada — but many countries in our own hemisphere; places not usually known for progressivism on social issues. While Obama was undergoing his “evolution” on marriage rights, there has been a gay rights revolution that has stretched from Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande.

One dramatic illustration: When a broad coalition of human-rights activists brought a gay rights charter to the United Nations in 2007, the push was led not by the likes of Sweden or the Netherlands, but by Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Same-sex marriage was not legal in any of these countries then, but a lot has changed in the years since. Continue reading

Argentine president honored by International Gay and Lesbian Organization

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who pushed through Argentina’s gay marriage law in 2010 and its landmark gender identity law earlier this year, is the first person to receive a newly created award from the International Gay and Lesbian Association. According to Argentine newspaper Pagina/12, her selection was unanimous by the award committee for her “personal and infatigable commitment” to LGBT rights. She’ll be receiving the award this Wednesday at ILGA’s world meeting in Stockholm.

It’s interesting to note that Argentine political observers and activists who saw Fernández and her late husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, embrace LGBT rights believe they took it on as a matter of political convenience, not conviction. (Though Kirchner was openly emotional in a ceremony for the new gender identity law…) I have a little bit of the history here.

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. Continue reading

How Argentina Did It 3, or the Power of Cities

This is the third in a series of posts examining the forces that made it possible to pass a same-sex marriage law in Argentina. The first, on the political factors, is available here; the second, on religion, is here.

One of the most surprising things I heard during my reporting in Argentina came when I asked Patricia Kolesnicov—an editor at one of the major daily papers who wrote a moving piece about her marriage to her wife–what she thought a project looking at gay marriage should address.

Look into the economic changes that made it possible, she told me.

The fact that this caught me by surprise is a sure sign that it’s been too long since I’ve read Marx. But a social change like the reorganization of the family can’t help but be affected by the kind of work people do and the places they live to labor.

If it’s not the force driving the change—as Marx would see it—even a really crude demographic analysis shows how important these structural factors are in determining the course of the gay marriage debate.

By these measures, it should be no surprise that Argentina was the first to legalize gay marriage. It’s among the wealthiest countries in the region with some of the highest education rates.

This is the primary explanation offered for the LGBT movement’s victory offered by Deputy Laura Alonso, who represents Buenos Aires in Argentina’s Congress.

“I think that this is a process that has to do with the economic, social, and educational development of this country,” she told me in an interview in her office next to the Congress.

But perhaps especially important is the fact that it’s such an urban country. It turns out there’s a pretty strong correlation between urbanization and legal victories for same-sex couples in Latin America. Continue reading

Fifty foreign couples to wed in Argentina

Argentina’s becoming quite the host spot for same-sex weddings, according to the Federación Argentina LGBT.

An article published last week by La Nación quotes FALGBT President Esteban Paulón, who says that most of these couples are from Latin America and the United States, though there’s also a number of Italians waiting their turn.

The story was focused on the recent marriage of Peruvian Edgar Ayala and American Ralph Zakheim. Their wedding followed one in September by two Russians, Natalya Gavrilova and Irina Niemelainen.

Though Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, it was only this year that some municipalities (most importantly Buenos Aires and Rosario) passed laws that allowed foreigners to take advantage of the law.

How Argentina Did It: The Religious Answer

This is the second in a series of posts examining the forces that made it possible to pass a same-sex marriage law in Argentina. The first, on the political factors, is available here.

When I first started reporting in Argentina, I repeatedly had the same conversation. Every time, it made my head want to explode.

“Why was it possible to legalize gay marriage?” I’d ask.

“Because Argentina isn’t very religious.”

“Then why is abortion so illegal?” I’d reply.

“Because the Catholic Church is so powerful.”

The fact that the same people can simultaneously believe both of these things to be true shows that the religious politics of sexuality in Argentina are not straightforward. Religion operates in the country’s politics very differently than in the United States. And, unlike in the US, attitudes towards same-sex marriage and abortion don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

Continue reading

How Argentina Did It: The Political Answer

Gay marriage would never have been legalized in Argentina if the couple who’ve dominated the country’s politics for the past decade hadn’t found it in their political interests. And it wasn’t until I understood this that I could make sense of how LGBT activists made Argentina the first country in Latin America to allow gay marriage.

President Cristina Fernández of the party Frente para la Victoria has been in office since 2007, and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, was president from 2003 to 2007 and a member of Congress after leaving the Casa Rosada. (He died in 2010.) Their brand of leftist populism has never made them popular in Buenos Aires, which is much wealthier than the rest of the country.

The gay marriage issue presented them, they hoped, with a way to establish a beachhead in the city, where polls showed overwhelming support for marriage legalization well before the law passed.

Diana Maffia, a former Buenos Aires city lawmaker and an academic who studies sexuality and gender, said, “This was a way to capture a progressive vote. [The Kirchners were], of course, thinking that, ‘If I give them equal marriage, all the gays are going to vote for me.’ That’s a little primitive …. but I think there was opportunism.” Continue reading

NJ Archbishop: Support gay marriage, skip communion

I don’t know if Newark Archbishop John J. Myers is the first bishop to say supporters of gay marriage shouldn’t take communion, but it certainly took me by surprise. In a statement to be made public today, Myers is telling New Jersey Catholics who disagree with the church’s teachings on gay marriage to “refrain from receiving Holy Communion,” according to the North Jersey Record.

During all my time in Argentina–the 80 percent Catholic country where gay marriage has now been legal for two years–I never heard about a political litmus test for receiving communion. I also never heard about priests denying communion to the politicians who voted in favor of the gay marriage bill, the way some American Catholic leaders have advocated for politicians who support abortion rights.

I actually asked about this during my interview with Father Alberto Bochatey, head of the University Catolica Argentina’s Marriage and Family Institute. Continue reading

The Argentine Catholic Church responds

After Argentina’s top bishop ran away from me, he sent in Nicolás Lafferriere to speak for him. Lafferriere is a member of the Conferencia Episcopal Argentina’s Life team and directs the church-sponsored Center for Bioethics, Personhood, and Family.

I asked him whether the fact that the gay marriage law’s passage in Argentina–and that it had a good deal of popular support nationwide–meant for the church in this overwhelmingly Catholic country. Did this reflect a loss of power or moral authority for the church?

“I don’t think it’s only an equation of power,” he said. It is, he explained, about faith and salvation, not about politics.

The church knows that its message isn’t purely about morality…. The church’s goal isn’t that you live morally well. The object of the church is that you love Jesus Christ and you know salvation… So, in a sense, it’s a problem shared in the world and the Argentine church is no exception. Continue reading

Argentina’s top bishop runs away from me–literally

I’ve never had an archbishop run away from me before.

I had to come half way around the world to have that experience. And this wasn’t just any archbishop, but the one elected president by all the bishops of an entire nation.

What made the experience even stranger is that he had actually invited me to his office to interview him. At some point between when his secretary scheduled the interview two weeks ago and when I showed up at four o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, Monseñor José María Arancedo, archbishop of Santa Fe and president of the Conferencia Episcopal Argentina, decided he was not safe in the same room with me.

After I arrived in Argentina at the end of August, I sent an email to the CEA’s press office. Figuring my chances of getting an interview were about as good as good as being ordained a priest myself, I wasn’t even coy about what I wanted to talk about. Continue reading