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.”
Laura Alonso, an opposition member of Congress who joined the Kirchnerists in voting for the marriage law, put a finer point on it:
A political opportunity appeared to Néstor Kirchner. Néstor Kirchner was not known for defending the rights of sexual minorities, nor for defending or promoting reproductive rights or those kinds of issues…. The gay community and the [urban] middle class … became a sector of electoral interest for Kirchnerism.
This opportunity to court new voters came with an added benefit. It gave the Kirchners a chance to isolate an institution important to the conservative opposition: the Catholic Church.
“This was a direct attack on Christianity,” said Senator Liliana Negre de Alonso, who led the fight to stop the law in the Senate. Negre de Alonso, a member of Opus Dei, is one of the most devout politicians in Argentina—she’s sort of an Argentine Rick Santorum, except she has more influence. At the time of the debate, she was a vice president of the Senate and the chair of the commission with jurisdiction over the law.
From the Soy Fields to the Wedding Chapel
Why were the Kirchners gunning for the church in 2010? The answer to this question actually begins in an unexpected place: the soy fields.
In 2008, the Kirchnerists tried to impose a tax on agricultural exports. This was aimed primarily at large, wealthy soy producers, who were aligned with conservative parties.
The Kirchners got their asses handed to them—they couldn’t get the tax through the legislature, and their party lost its majority in the midterm elections during the following year.
One part of their campaign to recover from this defeat was to come after their opposition. The Kirchners managed to ram through a bill to force the break-up of the media conglomerate Clarín, which frequently wrote in opposition to them. The other was the church.
“The political interest of the government to force a discussion where it could fight a battle against certain established corporations, such as the church, the right,” said Marta Dillon, who edits the gender and sexuality supplement of the Buenos Aires newspaper Página/12.
The Soy War and the passage of the marriage law are linked in the minds of the government’s supporters as well.
Maria Rachid was the head of the Federación Argentina LGBT who helped get the marriage law passed; after its passage, she was elected to the legislature of the city of Buenos Aires on the ticket of the Kirchners’ party. She told me she said to herself after they lost the fight over the soy tax and then lost their hold on Congress: “This is the government that will try [to pass] equal marriage, because this is a government that is energized by confronting corporations with politico-economic power and putting above all the interest of its citizens.”
Knowing when to reach back
If passage of the marriage law was due to opportunism by the government, it also can be explained by a spirit of opportunism of the activists who championed the law.
Though Argentina’s oldest gay rights group, the Communidad Homosexual de Argentina, had succeeded in getting a civil union law passed in Buenos Aires, its national efforts had largely stalled. The Federación was formed by a handful of other groups that were frustrated by the CHA’s approach and wanted their own platform to push a national strategy.
But the Federación was more willing to work across party lines to move its agenda, including collaborating with the Kirchners, whom many saw as corrupt. And this ‘flexibility’ meant that the group was ready to accept the hand of a powerful ally when it suited them.
It doesn’t look like this has done much to help President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s political fortunes in Buenos Aires in the long run. While I was in Argentina, middle-class citizens took to the streets in massive “caserolas,” banging pots in protest to her policies. The economy is seriously unstable, the government is tightening access to foreign currency, and there is anxiety that she could turn herself into a dictator in the mold of Hugo Chavez if her party amends the constitution to allow her to run for a third term: she has bigger problems in Buenos Aires than the support of the LGBT community can overcome.
But it seems to be serving the agenda of the LGBT community well. Earlier this year, Congress overwhelmingly enacted the world’s most radical gender identity law, guaranteeing that the government will pay for sex changes for people who want them. And the Kirchnerists have thrown their weight behind an overhaul of the civil code that will further expand the rights of LGBT families.
The fact that this political strategy was conceivable had a lot to do with the social and religious forces at work in Argentina—I’ll talk about those in follow-up posts. But social and religious forces didn’t change the laws of Argentina; politicians did. The Argentine story goes to show how much the interests of elected leaders drive change and how much it matters that activists are savvy enough to seize a political moment when it presents itself.