Mexico City's Revolutionary First: Gay Marriage

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Daniel Aguilar / Reuters

Rafael Ramirez (left) and his partner Sebastian Becerril enjoy an evening at a gay bar in Mexico City.

As the final vote count of the city assembly was announced — 39 in favor to 20 against — the crowd of gay and lesbian activists in Mexico City exploded into cheers, hugs and kisses. With a resounding majority, the Mexican capital had become the first city in Latin America to allow same-sex couples to marry and to have the same rights as heterosexual unions. A separate motion confirmed that the couples would be able to adopt children. "This is a huge triumph that has followed so many years of struggle," said campaigner Kin Castañeda, who stood next to her partner in the assembly gallery, the two women wearing identical white Mexican folk dresses. "It is a recognition of our basic rights. And that is a cause for celebration today."

The effect of the landmark vote on Monday was rapidly felt across the continent, from Patagonia to the Rio Grande, where other groups have been campaigning for gay marriage rights. On Wednesday, 10 same-sex couples filed legal motions in a court in Rosario, Argentina, demanding their right to marry. In neighboring Chile, a column in the newspaper Paradiario was headlined, "Gay Marriage Approved in Mexico. In Chile When?" In the swampy Mexican state of Tabasco, 20 gay couples sent a motion to the state legislature asking to allow them to tie the knot. Mexico City's precedent, the activists hope, will have a domino effect across the hemisphere.

But while the ruling has encouraged campaigners, it has sparked some of the most hostile comments toward gays in recent years from social conservatives and church officials. Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Mexico City, described the law as immoral and abhorrent: "It has opened the doors to the perverse possibility that these couples will adopt innocent children and not respect their right to a mother and father with the consequent psychological damaged provoked by this injustice." In the neighboring city of Ecatepec, Bishop Onesimo Cespeda said bluntly that the idea of gay marriage was "stupidity." And Armando Martinez, head of Mexico's Catholic Lawyers College said the law would provoke a backlash against gays that the assembly would be responsible for. "The promoters of this law are promoters of homophobia," he said. "Why? Because Mexican culture is not ready for these things and they can release a level of homophobia that no one will be able to stop."

The clashing rhetoric is a symptom of Latin America's ongoing culture wars. For a long time, a virtual feudal domain of conservative Roman Catholicism, the region has also spawned some of the most influential leftist movements on the planet — and ideas that are now in a contest with the Church for dominion over Latin America. The leftist Democratic Revolution Party or PRD has controlled Mexico City since 1997, and passed a wave of other reforms, making the capital into what advocates say is a beacon of social progressiveness. The changes have been possible because of Mexico's federal system, which gives the capital's assembly the power to pass local laws. In 2007, the assembly approved same-sex civil unions as well as allowing abortion in the first 12 weeks of any pregnancy. The following year, it approved a limited form of euthanasia. The gay marriage law may have been a surprise in much of the world, but to Mexico City residents it was the latest in a reformist agenda they have become accustomed to.

However, while the so-called capitalinos have encountered little opposition to most of their other reforms, there does appear to be a higher level of grumbling about gay marriage. Provoking the most objections is the question of gay couples adopting children. A discussion bulletin on the website of the city's best-selling newspaper El Universal rapidly accumulated more than 1,000 comments, the majority negative to the idea. Similar objections can be heard on the capital's streets. "If two men want to be together, that is their decision. But adopting children is a different story," says taxi driver Isaac Villa, 35. "The couple may seem okay, but they could always have that seed of badness." Engineer Hector Cruz, 59, said he voted for the leftist PRD but didn't like the new ruling. "Children growing up in a gay marriage would be traumatized," he said.

Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard — a PRD member — has signaled that he will sign the bill into law, ignoring calls from for him to veto it. However, lawmakers from the conservative National Action Party of President Felipe Calderón say they will challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court, claiming it contravenes constitutional articles on marriage. Indeed, benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples under Mexico's federal constitution (including social security, pension and inheritance rights) will still not apply to same-sex couples who marry in Mexico City.

Those who approved the bill dismiss the constitutional challenges to the Mexico City statute as baseless. The law, says assemblyman Victor Romo, one of its advocates, is the culmination of a struggle for better marriage rights over hundreds of years. "For centuries unjust laws banned marriage between blacks and whites or Indians and Europeans," he said. "Today all barriers have disappeared."