Gay Marriage A Human Rights Issue In Argentina

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In a heated debate that lasted almost 15 hours, Argentina's Senate today approved a bill that would make the country the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez promised to sign the measure, which the Catholic Church had strongly opposed.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In a first for Latin America, Argentina's legislature voted early today to legalize same-sex marriage. The measure passed after more than 15 hours of impassioned debate.

NPR's Bob Mondello is in Buenos Aires and says passions also ran high in the square outside the Congress building.

BOB MONDELLO: In times of crisis or celebration, Argentines tend to gather. Thousands flocked to the Buenos Aires Obelisk two weeks ago when Argentina beat Mexico in a World Cup game. This week, folks have been coming to Plaza Congreso to register their sentiments on gay marriage.

On Tuesday, the Catholic Church bused thousands of schoolchildren here for a rally against a measure granting full marriage rights to same-sex couples. Yesterday, it was supporters of the bill who came to chant and sing with rainbow banners and, as always at Argentine demonstrations, drums.

(Soundbite of drums)

MONDELLO: With Argentine opinion polls showing support for legalizing same-sex marriage at 70 percent, what's known here as the marriage equality bill sailed through the legislature's lower house two months ago. But as late as yesterday afternoon, the measure was expected to fall short of a majority in the Senate. So impassioned congressional rhetoric was matched by speeches in the plaza from a stage topped by a banner saying: el mismo amor, los mismos derechos. The same love, the same rights.

(Soundbite of speech)

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking Spanish)

MONDELLO: The tipping point inside the Congreso came when a competing bill supporting civil unions rather than marriage was rejected for procedural reasons. But out in the square yesterday, just a few dozen opponents were surrounded by thousands of same-sex marriage supporters. And hours before the vote, Maria Rachid, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders, rejected the idea that there had been a sudden change in the political weather.

Ms. MARIA RACHID (President, Federacion Argentina de Lesbianas, Gays, Bisexuales y Trans): I always thought it was going to pass. So I didn't change.

MONDELLO: The marriage equality debate here has been seen less as a legal matter than as a human rights issue, an argument that resonates in a country that's experienced dictatorships and human rights abuses through the years. Nine same-sex couples have been granted marriages after petitioning Argentine courts. Some of the court decisions called the civil code requiring marriage partners to be of opposite sexes unconstitutional.

Early this morning, after most of the demonstrators had left the square, Argentina's senate voted 33 to 27 to amend that code. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner says she will sign the legislation into law, making Argentina the first nation in Latin America to put same-sex marriage on an equal footing with marriage between the sexes.

Bob Mondello, NPR News, Buenos Aires.

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