The Argentine Republic’s legalization of same-sex marriage July 15 came as a complete surprise to those of us who think of Argentina as the land of machismo, meat-eaters—Argentines are the world's biggest carnivores, consuming 70 kilos (154 lbs.) of beef per person—and military coups.
According to Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia, “Argentinians endured some of the most brutal campaigns of official and unofficial persecution of lesbians and gay men anywhere in the 20th century.” After the military coup of March 24, 1976, “some 400 gay men were kidnapped, barbarically tortured, and executed… Encouraged by Roman Catholic church leaders, the dictatorship raided and closed gay bars, arresting as many as 1,400 men in a particularly brutal 1978 campaign that took place on the eve of the World Cup soccer tournament in Buenos Aires.”
In 1982 and 1983, the last two years of the dictatorship, paramilitary groups assassinated a number of gay men working in the arts. But with the re-establishment of democracy in the 1990s, “Buenos Aires emerged as the gay capital of South America, with vocal rights organizations and a lively gay and lesbian media presence.”
Argentina’s stormy past and promising present makes it uniquely qualified to lead Latin America in the field of LGBT rights and equality. Civil unions are already recognized in Buenos Aires (2002), the Province of Rio Negro (2003) and the cities of Villa Carlos Paz (2007) and Rio Cuarto (2009).
On November 12, 2009, a Buenos Aires court approved the marriage of Alex Freyre and José Maria Bello. Though the Buenos Aires government blocked the wedding, the two men were married on December 28 in Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego.
In late 2009, the Argentine Congress took up a bill to change Article 172 of the Civil Code to legalize same-sex marriage. The Chamber of Deputies approved the measure on May 5 and the Senate on July 15. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a friend of the LGBT community, ratified the measure, which took effect a few days later.
"From today onward, Argentina is a more just and democratic country," said Maria Rachid, president of the Argentine Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Federation. The law "not only recognizes the rights of our families, but also the possibility of having access to health care, to leave a pension, to leave our assets to the people with whom we have shared many years of life, including our children," she said.
It was a hard-earned victory, and Argentina’s LGBT community is right to celebrate it. But it would be a mistake to think that Argentina has become a queer paradise. For one thing, machismo is still rampant in that country.
Diego Maradona, Argentina’s soccer god, reacted the way many Argentinian men would when a reporter at the World Cup, where Maradona coached the Aregentinian Team, seemed to question Maradona’s fondness for his players. “No, I have not gone limp wristed," Maradona protested, vehemently. “But I like to acknowledge and congratulate my players when they play as well as they did today. That was a pleasing result and display. It was a job well done. I still prefer women. I am dating Veronica, who is blond and 31 years old."
Though Maradona never misses an opportunity to remind us he’s a jerk, his eyebrow-raising reaction to a reporter’s innocent question indicates that not everything is peachy-keen down Argentine way.
Nor is Argentina’s legalization of same-sex marriage approved throughout the land. What goes well in Buenos Aires might not go well in the countryside, where folks are more religious, macho, and carnivorous. The same-sex marriage bill was hotly opposed by the Roman Catholic, Mormon and evangelical churches, which organized a 60,000-person march on Congress to protest the measure.
The Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, led the fight against same-sex marriage, saying that "children need to have the right to be raised and educated by a father and a mother." Another opponent, Senator Juan Perez Alsina, called marriage between a man and a woman "essential for the preservation of the species."
Opponents tried to derail the measure by proposing a weak civil-unions law as an alternative to gay marriage, but they were blocked by astute parliamentary maneuvers. “I'm proud that we never tried for civil unions, always for complete equality," said Esteban Paulon, the LGBT Federation's general secretary.
The legalization of same-sex marriage in Argentina makes it the tenth country in the world to legalize gay marriage. (The others are Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden). It also puts to shame the United States, where the Defense of Marriage Act is on the books and a majority of states have constitutional amendments barring same-sex marriage.
“Today's historic vote shows how far Catholic Argentina has come, from dictatorship to true democratic values, and how far the freedom-to-marry movement has come, as 12 countries on four continents now embrace marriage equality," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry. “America should lead, not lag, when it comes to treating everyone equally under the law."
Perhaps it helps that Argentina’s religious lobby is not as powerful as the one in the States, or that opposition to same-sex marriage is not a cornerstone of one of its major political parties, as it is with the Republican Party in the U.S. Here we have a long way to go before we catch up to the “carnivores” of the Argentine Republic.