Victory for gay rights in Mexico's Catholic stronghold

Legalisation of same-sex marriages in capital is a first for Latin America

The global gay rights movement was yesterday celebrating the passage of a bill in the Mexico City legislature legalising gay marriage, making the huge and overwhelmingly Catholic megalopolis the first territory anywhere in Latin America to put same-sex couples on the same standing as heterosexuals.

The law, which is likely to be signed soon by the city's increasingly high-profile leftist Mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, was passed by a vote of 39 votes to 20 in the city assembly on Monday to loud chants from supporters in the galleries of "Yes, We could. Yes, we could" – words that will become "We do" for some couples early in the new year.

It was a victory not just for gay rights activists in Mexico and across Latin America but also for the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) which has controlled government of the sprawling Mexican capital since 1997. The bill was opposed by members of President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (PAN), which holds power nationally. Party officials have already vowed to challenge the new city law in the Supreme Court.

As in many – though not all – parts of the world, calls for marriage rights for gays and lesbians have begun to resonate more loudly in Latin America. Civil unions, which fall some way short of outright marriage, have been available to same-sex couples in Mexico City for some years as they are in all of Uruguay, Ecuador and Colombia.

Debate on the issue is raging in Argentina meanwhile. Same-sex civil unions were approved in Buenos Aires a full seven years ago. Now, however, the country is awaiting a ruling from the national Supreme Court on the marriage of two men after a lower court judge declared that the government's ban on gay marriage was unconstitutional. The couple had planned to marry late last month before the wedding was blocked.

Mexico City, which passed its law in the face of fierce opposition not just from the top ranks of the Catholic Church, joins the seven countries and five US states that offer full marriage rights to gays.

Canada, Spain, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium permit gay marriage as well as Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and New Hampshire in the US. (New Hampshire's law comes into effect in 2010).

But while gay rights advocates around the world were toasting Mexico City, none could ignore the sobering counterpoint from another continent, Africa, and specifically Uganda where parliament seems poised to pass a law not only criminalising homosexuality but threatening the death penalty in certain circumstances, for instance if one of the parties is HIV-positive or is under 18 years of age.

A law conferring same-sex marriage rights was passed this month by Washington DC. The city's Mayor, Adrian Fenty, signed it into law last week. Otherwise, however, the year 2009 has been one mostly of disappointment for the gay rights movement in the US. Lawmakers in Maine signed gay marriage into law only to see it overturned by a popular ballot in November. And efforts to push gay marriage through the New York state legislature ended in failure.

For Mayor Ebrard signing the marriage law holds some risk. Regarded as a strong steward of the capital – the population of greater Mexico City exceeds 21 million – he may be positioning himself to run for the Mexican presidency in three years' time. While recent polls showed that residents of the capital were evenly split over gay marriage, the rest of the country remains far more socially conservative and will look askance at the law.

For same-sex couples who witnessed the vote on Monday, it was a moment of pure celebration, however. "This is wonderful," commented Judith Vasquez, a gay rights activist. "Gay couples have effectively been together for years, decades, centuries. But now it is our right." The vote changed the definition of marriage in the city's civil code from being between a man and a woman to the "free uniting of two people".

"For centuries, unjust laws prohibited marriage between whites and blacks or Europeans and [indigenous] Indians," declared PRD representative Victor Romo who voted for the law. "Today all those barriers have come down."

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