Modern Marriage Meets Machismo
By Nick OlleFebruary 6, 2012
When Argentina became the first country in Latin America to recognise same-sex marriage, the debate was the first time the federal legislature of this deeply conservative, largely Catholic nation had ever even discussed homosexuality. Eighteen months on, the sky hasn’t fallen in. So what’s the hang-up?
In April 2010, sexagenarians Norma Castillo and Ramona Arévalo became Latin America's first legally married lesbian couple.
The legality of the wedding owed to a judge's decision, but three months later Argentina amended its Civil Code, broadening the definition of marriage to include same-sex partners, thus extending to Norma and Ramona all the rights afforded to heterosexual married couples.
The Same Sex Marriage Fashion Show
It is a remarkable state of affairs in such an historically conservative, Catholic country, a country where Norma and almost all her social milieu — more or less the entire country — grew up "homophobic" and where the highest-ranking Archbishop describes marriage equality as the devil's work.
"We're very proud that this could happen here," Norma says.
"I grew up believing in Catholicism and practising the religion, but as I began to develop my sexuality I was unable to realise that I was a lesbian and that I was covering it up," she says, adding:
"The education they gave to our generation taught us that the heterosexual norm was what mattered and that if you were different you were a monster, a degenerate, and a disgrace to your parents."
In the 18 months since Argentina's so-called marriage equality law was enacted, more than 3,500 homosexual couples have exchanged vows. There have been same-sex weddings in each of Argentina's 23 provinces and there have been no appeals against the law.
According to Norma, there already has been a transformation in terms of public attitudes to the gay community.
"People already see [Ramona and me] as sexually inoffensive, and generally they are amazed that we're celebrating over 30 years of love," she says.
Young people are generally more accepting of sexual diversity, she says, adding that it remains understandably difficult for older generations to comprehend and accept. Both of Norma's parents died without knowing her sexual orientation, and to this day Ramona's 90-year-old mother refuses to address the issue.
"She receives us at her house and she likes it when I visit, but she keeps quiet about it," Ramona says.
"On the day of our wedding, when we were all over the television and the news, she still didn't say anything."
"You have to understand," Norma interjects. "I put myself in their position, because I was like that until I was 35."
Marriage equality appeared suddenly on the political agenda and it was supported by the popular double-act of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner. More cynical observers suggest the "K" support had less to do with altruism and more to do with the leaders' ongoing feud with the Catholic Church.
Argentina enjoys religious freedom but Catholicism is enshrined in the Constitution as the official religion. There have been clashes between church and state before, most notably in 1954 when President Juan Perón moved to end compulsory religious education in schools and to legalise divorce and prostitution.
But relations have been strained at best throughout the Kirchners' nearly nine years in power, with the Church intermittently censuring the government on social issues. The government's policies dealing with poverty have come in for particular criticism. Church leaders say the government favours handing out subsidies to the poor over providing jobs.
Opinion polls before the vote on the marriage equality bill suggested nearly 70 per cent of the population supported the law, and there has been no political cost to the 33 senators who voted in favour of it. After more than 15 hours of debate the senate passed the bill by a vote of 33 to 27 with three abstentions. Despite the Church's threats of a backlash among Catholic voters, each of these senators who stood for re-election was returned to office, and it is expected to be a non-issue in future campaigns.
The strong popular support for same-sex marriage seems incongruous considering Argentina's renowned machismo and its overwhelmingly Catholic population, but the most extraordinary thing was the process itself.
The debate on the marriage equality law was the first time the federal legislature ever discussed homosexuality.
Then, after nine months of impassioned public debate and large-scale demonstrations across the country, both for and against, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalise same-sex marriage.
The president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals (FALGBT), Esteban Paulon, describes the all-at-once process as "inverse … we've started where other countries finish."
"Generally the path to equality is gradual, which allows society to accept and incorporate a more visible gay community. Even in Uruguay, which has a lot in common with Argentina, there has been a progression from same-sex civil unions to adoption to a gender identity law and only now they are discussing marriage," Paulon says.
"[In Argentina] marriage equality is a floor and not a ceiling. That's to say, it provides equality before the law but without a cultural framework."
This raises the inevitable question of how society adapts in the absence of such a cultural context. The state can legislate to end marriage discrimination but it doesn't follow that other forms of discrimination automatically will cease with it.
According to Paulon, the law gave the gay community a mandate to help change the public dialogue, and this is the key to gaining wider acceptance and respect. Crucially, he says, gays and lesbians no longer have to speak from a victim's perspective.
"This is an important change: We now have conditions in which those who are against marriage equality know it is politically incorrect to speak out against it," he says. "Prejudices still exist, and now we need to break them down."
The fact that it is now generally accepted as politically incorrect to speak out against gay marriage doesn't cause any apparent tension in Argentina.
There is no sense that opposing voices have been muffled, no outrage at a perceived stifling of free speech.
But the ingrained prejudices that Paulon refers to endure. Any given day in Buenos Aires you'll hear the word "puto" ("fag") bandied about liberally. Obviously pejorative, it also has come to be a negative term devoid of sexual connotations, and even a dubious term of pseudo-endearment when referring to gay people. It's all in the inflection.
There is a degree of "ownership" of the word within the gay community that is not dissimilar to African-Americans's relationship with the "n" word. It's often considered fine to use the word if you are identified by it; otherwise it is offensive.
And there's another layer of complexity in Argentina: When it comes to prejudice, there are important distinctions between gay men, lesbians and transsexuals.
Homosexual men have a greater level of public acceptance than lesbians, who in turn are significantly more accepted than transsexuals.
Today in Argentina, prejudice against gay and lesbian people very rarely manifests itself in physical violence, and hate crimes based on sexual identity are virtually unheard of. In March 2010 the "lesbophobic" murder of 27-year-old Natalia Gaitán, who was shot by her girlfriend's stepfather, shook the nation. In August 2011, the killer was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Violence against transsexuals is more common and less reported. In 2011, nine murders of transsexual people were recorded in Argentina by the international Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project. According to rights groups, most attacks on transsexuals are not reported to authorities for fear of reprisals, not to mention distrust of the judicial system.
Historically, discrimination against homosexuals has spanned the political divide in Argentina. In the 1970s, the newly formed gay rights group The Homosexual Liberation Front (FLH) was rejected by left and right governments as well as by left-wing guerrilla groups. The FLH went underground in 1973 after a public humiliation at the hands of two militant left-wing groups, the Montoneros and the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR). As the FLH arrived at the inauguration of President Héctor José Cámpora, they were met with chants of "We're not fags, we're not junkies, we're soldiers of the FAR and Montoneros."
During the vicious military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, special persecution was reserved for homosexuals. Historians say that while all perceived opponents of the regime were oppressed, gays and Jews were subjected to especially sadistic forms of torture. There are no official data on the persecution of gay people during the "dirty war," but human rights groups say about 400 homosexuals were detained, tortured and even killed.
Having lost the Falklands War a year earlier, the military junta in 1983 bowed to public pressure and relinquished power. The ban on political parties was lifted and Argentina returned to democracy with the election of Raúl Alfonsín as president. The gay community began to achieve some political acknowledgment at this time, albeit only at the local level. Fundamental to this was the creation in 1984 of the Argentine Homosexual Community (CHA) and its subsequent campaigns on issues including police repression and HIV/AIDS awareness. The CHA was recognised as a legal entity by the state in 1992. In the 1990s, both Buenos Aires and Argentina's third-largest city by population, Rosario, passed legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual preference. Between 2002 and 2009, homosexual civil unions were legalised in four jurisdictions — the cities of Buenos Aires, Villa Carlos Paz and Rio Cuarto as well as in the province of Rio Negro. In 2007 Buenos Aires hosted — and Argentina won — the gay football World Cup. Today Buenos Aires is world-renowned as a gay-friendly city.
Notwithstanding these advances, the arrival of marriage equality on the political agenda was unexpected and took the nation by surprise.
The origins of the campaign for marriage equality in Argentina can be traced to February 2007 when the lesbian couple María Rachid and Claudia Castro were denied the right to marry in a Buenos Aires civil registry. Their subsequent appeal to the judiciary was the first of its kind. The case had not been resolved by the time marriage equality became law.
The issue arrived on the political agenda — and in newspaper columns — on October 27, 2009, when the lower house MPs Silvia Augsburger and Vilma Ibarra sponsored proposals to amend the Civil Code. Same sex couples continued to pursue other avenues and in December 2009, Alex Freyre and José María Bello became the first gay couple to marry in Argentina in a ceremony in Tierra del Fuego. The lower house passed the marriage equality bill by a vote of 125 to 109 on May 5, 2010, followed in July by the Senate vote.
The nine-month debate on the law was a battlefield of ideas, pitting moral and religious issues against questions of social justice and human rights.
The Catholic Church mobilised in opposition to the bill and urged Catholics not to vote for politicians who backed it. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, was caustic in his criticism, describing the law as an "attempt to destroy God's plan."
Moderate voices within the church were discouraged from talking in favour of marriage equality, and one prominent priest was suspended for supporting the law.
Nicolás Alessio decided to give up the cloth in the wake of his suspension and took aim at the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the book Five Priests, which he co-authored with four other former priests.
Father Leonardo Belderrain, who works as a priest in the city of La Plata, is also in favour of gay marriage. He works with homosexual inmates in the prison system, where the issue of inheritance is paramount. Prior to the marriage equality law, homosexual couples were denied rights to bequeath to and inherit from each other.
"It was unfair that genuine partners could not bequeath to one another, which meant by law some would end up bequeathing to families that had rejected them," Fr Belderrain says, adding:
"The biggest love is reciprocal love, not heterosexual or homosexual love. What happened with [Fr] Alessio was a shame, because he just gave an opinion," he says.
Nor was there consensus within the gay community, with some rejecting the institution of marriage but demanding the corresponding rights.
Sensing the gravity of the moment, however, many homosexuals chose this time to come out of the closet and add their weight to the marriage equality movement.
For French filmmaker Mathieu Orcel, who married his Argentine husband here three months after the law was passed, this was particularly poignant. His eight-part documentary series Emergency Exit presents coming-out stories from different industries and regions across the country.
"We really wanted to film this because it was the first time in Argentina we saw people coming out with an attitude of pride," Orcel says.
Regardless of the Kirchners's motivations in promoting the law, Orcel says the government has followed through, notably with the passage of gender identity legislation and the introduction of education programs promoting diversity.
Now the government is actively promoting the gay and lesbian sector, in conjunction with the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (CCGLAR). Yes, there is one.
According to CCGLAR co-founder Gustavo Noguera, simple economics demands that the government invest in the sector.
Together with the government the chamber produces institutional videos, online campaigns, pamphlets and events.
"We go to conferences all around the world, and everyone from corporations to politicians agrees that diversity is a great business," Noguera says.
"When the gay hotel chain Axel Hotels opened in Buenos Aires in 2007, it showed to the world that there was an investment of more than $5 million in a project exclusively for the gay community.
"Buenos Aires is now the mecca of gay tourism in Latin America, and from a business standpoint, this is a multimillion-dollar industry that the government can't ignore."
Over the past decade Buenos Aires business, especially bars and restaurants, have reacted to the commercial imperative of catering to the gay community. In many cases, according to Orcel, the proprietors put their homophobia to one side to make a buck out of the burgeoning gay tourism market.
Buenos Aires is now a choice destination for homosexuals from all over the world. Most come for a good time but couples with at least one Argentine partner are entitled to tie the knot while they're at it.
Indeed, same-sex wedding planning has emerged as a new industry. With her company, Fabulous Weddings, entrepreneur Laetitia Orsetti is embracing the creative possibilities that non-traditional weddings offer.
"We can break all the structures now," she says.
"I want to work with the new generation, be proud and make it amazing."
Gustavo Noguera says businesses that engage with the gay community are not only well-viewed in terms of corporate responsibility but also stand to profit financially.
"Working with minorities is advanced and optimistic. The more open-minded you are, the more alert you will be to business opportunities because socially you won't discriminate against different groups," he says.
"Why do we have a gay chamber of commerce? Why are there hotels specifically for gay tourism? Because homophobia still exists, and there is still the notion that [homosexuals] are different," Noguera says.
"But I think that within a few years there'll be no need for the CCGLAR because there'll be discrimination for other reasons, not sexuality."