A Den of Sin or a Beacon of Liberty?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Tomas Bravo / Reuters

Diana and Mario, a transgender couple, cut the wedding cake after getting married in a public ceremony in Mexico City.

The serenading mariachis, the vast pots of tacos and the drunken salsa dancing made the May wedding look like any other Mexican nuptial celebration. What was different, of course, were the genders of the happy couple. Her glamorous white dress and towering high heels notwithstading, the bride Diana, 45, had actually been born Jose Guerrero — a man. Her tuxedo-clad groom, Mario Sanchez, 53, had been born Maria. Both had undergone sex-change operations. Mexico City judge Gustavo Lugo signed off on Mexico's first transgender marriage, ruling it a perfectly legal union between a registered male and a registered female. "It's a normal wedding. I'm marrying a man and a woman and I don't care what they look like," Lugo told a huddle of reporters after the ceremony. "We live in the 21st century and differences have been overcome."

Splashed over Mexican newspapers and TV shows, the wedding became the latest symbol of Mexico City's transformation over the last two years into the socially liberal capital of a conservative Catholic country. Since 2006, the city's leftist-dominated assembly — which has powers equivalent to a state legislature — has approved same-sex civil unions; the right to an abortion during the first 12 weeks of any pregnancy; and the right of terminally ill patients to suspend medical treatment. Some city legislators were present at the transgender wedding, and praised Judge Lugo as a brave jurist who has set a valuable precedent. By the fall, assembly representatives also plan to have approved laws allowing transgender people to change their sex on government registers and legalizing prostitution. The changing social norms are visible on the streets of capital, with an explosion of gay shops and clubs opening in the city center, and a gay pride march whose turnout grows every year.

Advocates of the social liberalization say it has turned the Mexican capital into a beacon of progressiveness in a sea of backwardness that has long dogged Latin America. The new laws give residents rights long denied by socially conservative governments heavily influenced by the Catholic Church, they argue. "People here are tired of repressive values," says Victor Hugo Cirigo, leader of the city assembly's majority leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). "They want to live in a modern age and have their rights. We are giving our constituents concrete gains."

But the Church and the leaders of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) of President Felipe Calderon, the changes are anything but progressive. Clerics and traditionalists complain that the capital is becoming a den of social decadence, in which family values are disappearing. "Allowing gay unions and transgender marriages does not help anyone; it just leaves confused people even more confused,"says Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Catholic archdiocese of Mexico City. "These city legislators do not speak for most Mexicans. They are just a dangerous minority."

Conservatives were particularly incensed by the abortion law, which drew criticism from Pope Benedict XVI himself. After a series of pro-life marches and harsh criticism from television celebrities, the Federal attorney general challenged the law in the Supreme Court, saying it violates the right to life. The court has yet to rule.

Still, Mexico's leftists currently appear to have the upper hand over conservatives in the nation's culture wars. PAN politicians, including President Calderon himself, often refrain from commenting on issues such as gay marriage, fearing it will lose them votes. While 88% of Mexicans identified themselves as Roman Catholic in the last population census, few tell pollsters that they will vote on the basis of pro-life beliefs on abortion. Many of PAN's key supporters are young urban professionals, who support the ruling party's free-market economic policies but are socially liberal.

At the other end of the political spectrum, the PRD is using gay- and women rights as a banner around which to rebuild support after the infighting that followed the party's narrow defeat in the 2006 presidential election. PRD legislators have taken the same package of laws passed in Mexico City, including legalized abortion and same sex unions, to the federal congress. The reforms are unlikely to pass in the national legislature, where the PRD lacks a majority. But the party leaders hope that the publicity generated by the move will win them support among the young, educated and upwardly mobile, alongside the party's traditional base among the poor. "The conservatives run scared from these issues because they are afraid voters will see their true intolerance," said PRD leglislator David Sanchez Camacho, the only openly gay lawmaker in Congress. "Mexico is changing little by little and the capital is at the forefront of that change. People visit from the provinces and see it is better to live with rights and tolerance. And they want to take those rights home with them."