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

Brazilian state of São Paulo to legalize same-sex marriage

Within 60 days, same-sex couples in Brazil’s São Paulo state will be able to legally marry simply by going to a notary. That’s thanks to a new rule issued yesterday by the state judiciary.

The legal status of same-sex unions in Brazil has been a little confusing. The country’s top court recently ruled that same-sex couples have the same domestic partnership rights as heterosexual couples. Couples that have registered their domestic partnerships have since successfully gone to court to “convert” these unions into marriages.

The new rule means same-sex couples can skip the court phase in order to marry. It is also another major boost for the same-sex marriage movement in Latin America. Forty-one million people live in São Paulo state, making it the most populous state in the largest country in Latin America. It also has a population several times larger than Uruguay, which is on the cusp of legalizing same-sex marriage.

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

Mass same-sex wedding in Brazil

The government of  São Paulo sponsored a marriage ceremony for 47 same-sex couples last week, pushing the boundaries of the marriage debate in Brazil.

The ceremony was free for participants so that “same-sex couples from needy parents of the city can formalize their stable unions,” the city government said in a statement reported by Milenio.

Brazil’s marriage debate is in something of a state of chaos. Some couples have gotten lucky before judges that will grant them permission to wed, while other judges still turn couples away.

The power of cities

I’ve finally gotten settled in Buenos Aires, capitol of one of the world’s most progressive countries on LGBT rights. In addition to becoming the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage a couple years ago, it passed a landmark gender identity law earlier this year that even its supporters describe as “radical.” Its progressive laws are having a spill-over effect on its northern neighbor, Uruguay, which is poised to pass its own marriage law sometime this fall.

When I’ve asked LGBT activists in these two countries how they’ve gained so much ground so quickly, I get one answer that surprises me: the power of cities. In both countries, they tell me, about half the population lives within the capitol’s metro area. And the media is heavily concentrated in the capitol, too, so if they can win sympathetic coverage on the airwaves they can shape the impressions of much of the rest of population.

Of course there are other factors that shape the evolution of the gay marriage debate. But it’s interesting to ask whether there’s a larger structural effect here–is there a strong correlation between urbanization and LGBT-friendly laws? What does this mean in countries like Brazil, where activists are close to winning full marriage rights but are facing much more successful pushback than activists experienced in Argentina?

Marriage Symposium in Rio tomorrow

If it wasn’t bad enough that I still have a month to go before we fly to Rio de Janeiro, the city will host an international seminar on marriage rights tomorrow. Here’s a blurb from the program, (somewhat amusingly) translated from Portuguese with help from Google.

The Federal Court of the 2nd Region, the Federal Justice Cultural Center (CCJF), the Consulates General of the United States and Argentina in Rio de Janeiro and the office of Rep. Jean Wyllys (PSOL-RJ) boost on Friday, 13 July, from 9am, the international seminar “equal civil marriage, equal rights with the same names,” the headquarters of CCJF in Cinelandia.

Among the highlights of the program of the seminar will be Magna Lecture “Equal Marriage: a question of law”, which will be delivered by Minister Eugenio Raul Zaffaroni of the Supreme Court of Argentina. Zaffaroni is one of the most renowned lawyers in the world with over 20 law books published in Argentina and many others published elsewhere. Current vice president of the International Association of Penal Law and professor at the University of Buenos Aires, he is an honorary doctor of UERJ, Catholic University of Brasilia and dozens of universities from different countries. His theories are widely distributed in Brazil and has published several books in Portuguese, including those who had co-authored with Joseph Henry Pierangeli and Nilo Batista. Zaffaroni was also conventional federal constituency in 1994 and chairman of the drafting committee of the constitution of Buenos Aires in 1996 and currently chairs the committee responsible for the reform of the Argentine Criminal Code. During the political and social process that led to the legalization of civil marriage between same sex in the country, he wrote the sentence that could have been issued by the Supreme Court, declaring unconstitutional the prohibition of marriage to homosexuals, if Congress had not approved before the new law in 2010. The draft decision of the Minister was published in a book published in Argentina.

After the lecture Magna Zaffaroni, the seminar will continue with the panel “Equal Marriage: multidisciplinary perspectives”, in the presence of U.S. Dagmar Herzog, professor of history at the Center for Graduate Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY) . Also participating as speakers the coordinator of the Special Coordinator of the Sexual Diversity Municipality of Rio de Janeiro, Carlos Tufvesson; Prof. Dr. Socrates Nolasco (UFRJ), the / the judges / the federal Liliane Roriz Calmon and Guilherme da Gama, the federal judge Fernanda Duarte, and journalist Christina Grillo, the Folha de Sao Paulo.

The opening event will be made by the federal judge federal Helen Swan, chairman of the Federal Court of the 2nd Region, by Consul Alfred Boll, director of the section of political and economic issues of the American Consulate, the Consul General of Argentina in Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Bertoldi, and by Rep. Jean Wyllys.

Wyllys is author and prime mover of a proposed constitutional amendment that seeks the legalization of civil marriage between same sex in Brazil.