Friday, July 16, 2010

Argentina's Gay Marriage Victory in Context

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Argentina's Senate did Bastille Day up right, celebrating the holiday with a revolutionary vote approving modifications to the law that will make same-sex marriage legal. Here's hoping that while stuffing themselves with cake and champagne, queer newlyweds tip their tiaras to all the activists that made it possible.

The LGBT Federation of Argentina (FALGBT) certainly deserves plenty of credit. Headed up by Maria Rachid, they managed an effective campaign for marriage equality despite a strong, and well-financed counter-attack by the Christian Right. For the occasion, fundamentalist Catholics like Opus Dei actually consorted with their usual enemy, fundamentalist evangelical Protestants, to get sixty thousand anti-queer demonstrators on the street.

They used buzzwords like 'God's war' or 'the devil's project,' which President Cristina Fernandez finally denounced as recalling "the times of the Inquisition." They also used the same empty, tired rhetoric against same-sex marriage as the Catholic Church used to fight the campaign to legalize divorce in the 80's. (It's an attack against families! There is only one mother! Think of the children!)

Kudos to FALGBT for turning it to their advantage in a brilliant ad campaign declaring: "If divorce didn't end the world, marriage equality won't either."

The only bone I'd have to pick with FALGBT was how their general secretary, Esteban Paulon, seemed to be claiming all the credit and slamming other LGBT groups when he declared, "I'm proud that we never tried for civil unions, always for complete equality."

In all likelihood, FALGBT didn't bother with civil unions because they didn't have to. Argentina's most populous city, Buenos Aires, had them since the end of 2002 when the city council became the first in Latin America to approve a gay civil union ordinance. That victory belongs largely to CHA (Comunidad Homosexual Argentina), which worked their asses off for a year and a half, winning the vote 29 to 10 after five hours of stormy debate and a ton of obstacles queers didn't have to face this time around.

In 2001, tens of thousands of starving Argentineans were on the streets banging pots and demonstrating against one of the worst social, economic and political crisis of the century. The economy had tanked, and just a year before, president Fernando de la Rúa had abdicated after a massive strike and "disturbances" that killed at least 22 people.

Even though CHA's campaign was on a local level, I can only imagine how often they heard, "Now's not the time. Just wait until next year." Well, they didn't wait, and set a regional example that was followed by several other civil union measures across Latin America.

CHA's very existence was an accomplishment. There had been informal gay groups in Argentina inspired in part by the May '68 revolt in Paris and Stonewall in '69. But in the 80's, just as the Catholic Church was losing its fight against the evils of divorce, CHA was fighting to be the first LGBT group to be officially incorporated by the state. Initially, they were refused as a threat to "morality and decency."

According to an open letter published by Argentinean activist Alfredo González, the tide only turned in 1991 after a campaign of support in New York. Activists picketed the consulate, wrote letters to newspapers, and finally confronted president Carlos Menem when he came to speak at Columbia University.

Instead of comfortably burnishing Argentina's democratic image in front of an adoring crowd, Menem was faced with queer hecklers demanding to know where he stood on rights for homosexuals in Argentina, and especially on CHA's legal standing. Shortly afterwards CHA was official. And they're still around and still fighting, even though in this week's articles there was no mention of their active role in Argentina's same-sex marriage victory.

In fact, a variety of Argentinean groups have been fighting for marriage equality since CHA's initial victory with civil unions. The first group was the Gay Association for Civil Rights. They didn't get much of a result, but in '98, the Society for the Integration of Gay and Lesbian Argentina actually got the deputy Laura Musa to propose a bill, though it didn't get off the ground.

Since then measures have been proposed every two years. Even CHA, which first offered a national civil union bill, eventually returned with one for same-sex marriage. Activists also pursued the issue on the judicial front. Couples like Martín Canevaro and Carlos Álvarez, and Norma Castillo and Ramona "Cachita" Arévalo got married then fought back when their cases were challenged in court.

Since debate on the victorious bill began in November, several groups, including CHA and FALGBT have been working tirelessly, along with hundreds of independent activists. Lobbying and speaking in hearings, building on long years of work, they made it happen -- together.

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