Chile Weighs Same-Sex Marriage OptionsSeptember 13, 2010
Argentina’s groundbreaking decision last month to legalize gay marriage had immediate reverberations across the Andes mountain range, in traditionally more conservative Chile, where the issue – already a subject of growing interest – has suddenly turned into a raging national debate with both political and religious overtones.
Chilean gay rights advocates joined their counterparts the world over in celebrating the historic move, which made Argentina the first and only Latin America country to allow marriage between homosexuals. In at least one high profile instance Chileans also took direct advantage of the law. Giorgio Nocentino and Jaime Zapata, legal residents in Argentina, were among the first gay couples to wed under the new rules, tying the knot July 31 in the western city of Mendoza. Argentina’s senate approved the gay marriage law, which also gives homosexuals adoption rights, July 15 by a tight 33-27 vote.
Chilean Church leaders, in contrast, responded with outrage. On Aug. 1, one day after Nocentino and Zapata walked the proverbial aisle, Cardinal Francisco Javier Errazuriz, the Archbishop of Santiago, slammed the Argentine senate decision as an “aberration.” Chile would do well not to repeat the “mistake,” he said, since gay marriage could spark a population decline.
“Maybe two people, two men or two women, want to live together and share their lives, but to call that ‘marriage’ is an aberration that some countries are falling into. It is sad Argentina has fallen into that,” the Church leader said following Sunday mass. “History is repeating itself. That is, something new comes along and becomes the fad that everyone applauds. After a while, after a few years, people see that it was a mistake,” he added.
Cardinal Jorge Medina Estévez was even more forthcoming in his criticisms, targeting not only gay marriage, but homosexuality as a whole. The Church, Medina explained in statements broadcast by Radio Bio Bio, distinguishes between homosexual “tendency” and “practice.” “If a person has a homosexual tendency it is a defect, as if one lacked an eye, a hand, a foot,” he said. Homosexual practice, the Cardinal went on to say, is simply “immoral.”
“As a priest, I have dealt with many people with this problem,” Medina said. “I’ve known some who like alcoholics have corrected themselves through discipline, education or reeducation.”
Statements of this kind are not uncommon in Chile, where traditional Catholic social mores are also echoed in politics, particularly through members of the conservative Alianza coalition, which ties together the center-right Renovación Nacional (RN) party and hard-right Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). This past March Chile the Alianza assumed control of the government for the first time (see NotiSur, 2010-03-26). The new president, former RN Senator Sebastián Piñera, was preceded by four successive leaders from the center-left Concertación coalition. He is Chile’s first conservative head of state since Dictator Augusto Pinochet, who led a 17-year military regime (1973-1990).
While Piñera, a billionaire businessman, has made efforts to appeal to homosexuals by, for example, appearing with a gay couple in one of his campaign ads, the president of his party, Carlos Larraín, has shown himself to be a downright homophobe. This past May, the RN leader caused a minor uproar when he asked reporters: “Why do we have to support the homosexual community?”
“Next we’ll have to support groups that are for inappropriate sexual relations with children, or groups that are in favor of euthanasia. When it comes to sexual orientations, there’s real variety. I understand there are people who like to have sex with animals,” he added.
The Times They Are A Changin’
Yet in recent years, as Chile continues to connect more and more with the rest of the globalized western world, general attitudes toward homosexuality have begun to shift toward greater acceptance (see NotiSur). The popular satirical weekly “The Clinic” lambasted Larraín for his comments, which were received critically even by the conservative main stream press. The RN president later issued a mea culpa. Other signs of the changing times are Chile’s popular nightly soaps, which occasionally feature gay characters, and Santiago’s openly gay Bellas Artes neighborhood, now one of the city’s most chic barrios.
Chilean political leaders are often slow to pick up on such general attitude changes. The Chilean government didn’t legalize divorce, for example, until just six years ago (see NotiSur, 2004-12-17). Even so, a growing number of politicians – including President Piñera himself – are finally, albeit to varying degrees, realizing it does makes sense to support the country’s homosexuals.
A case in point is Sen. Fluvio Rossi, a 39-year-old senator who currently presides over the Partido Socialista (PS). Inspired by both the recent Argentine vote and the Chilean Catholic Church’s virulent reaction, Rossi decided three weeks ago to submit his own gay marriage bill. The bill calls for changing article 102 of the Código Civil, which currently defines marriage as between a man and woman. Rossi submitted the bill Aug. 3.
“It’s a question of rights and equality before the law,” explained Rossi, who like the PS’ most popular figure, former President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), is a trained medical doctor. “If the state offers benefits to people who form a marriage contract, then it goes against our constitution to exclude certain citizens… sexual orientation cannot be a reason to deny benefits and rights that are established for all citizens.”
A handful of fellow senators, including Guido Girardi of the Partido por la Democrácia (PPD), PS veteran Isabel Allende, daughter of deposed President Salvador Allende (1970-1973), and Ricardo Lagos Weber, the son of ex-President Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), have already pledged support for the measure. In addition, Rossi’s ex-wife, former Bachelet minister and current PPD President Carolina Tohá said her party as a whole is likely to back the initiative.
Civil Unions, A Likely Compromise
Still, most analysts agree Rossi’s gay marriage bill is unlikely to fly in Congress, and not just because of resistance by the RN and UDI parties. The Concertación as a whole appears divided on the issue. The center-left coalition ties together the PS, PPD, Partido Demócrata Cristiano (DC) and Partido Radical Social Demócrata (PRSD).
Concertación members who have raised objections to Rossi’s proposal argue that Chile “isn’t ready” for such a radical step, that the government should first pass legislation allowing for same-sex civil unions, a compromise position that falls short of defining “marriage” to include gays.
“First things first,” said Senate President Jorge Pizarro of the DC. “We have de facto unions up and down this country that don’t have the necessary [legal] guarantees. Their rights aren’t recognized. Right there is the more important debate, which already includes very conflicting opinions.”
Rossi himself admits the gay marriage bill is a long shot, insisting his real goal in rushing the proposal forward was to fast-forward a pending national debate on issue. In that regard he has been successful, although proposals for extending rights to same sex couples have actually be kicking around in Chile for a while now.
Independent candidate Marco Enriquez-Ominami came out in favor of gay marriage during last year’s presidential campaign. Although the then-deputy went on to finish third in the general election (see NotiSur, 2009-12-18), his better-than-expected run helped push the issue, at least briefly, to the forefront of the election contest. Piñera, the eventual winner, played to his conservative base by insisting marriage can only exist between a man and a woman. But to the surprise of many, he did promise to support civil union legislation that would benefit both hetero and homosexual couples.
President Piñera support for such unions has pushed the idea into the mainstream in a way the political left never could. Inadvertently, Rossi’s recent maneuverings – from the other side of the political spectrum – could end up having the same the same effect, by making the once radical notion look more and more like a safe middle ground approach.
According to Rolando Jiménez, head of the gay rights advocacy group Movimiento de Integración y Liberación Homosexual (MOVILH), conditions are finally right for Congress to pass such a bill. And while Chile is unlikely in the short term to follow Argentina’s lead and legalize full gay marriage, such a law will pass “sooner or later,” he said.
“We’ll keep pushing until we achieve full equality…That means marriage with the right to adopt children,” said the MOVILH president. “We’re certain things will change as our representation in Congress improves.”