Argentina's Senate early Thursday passed the bill 33-27 to grant same-sex couples all the legal rights of marriage that heterosexual couples enjoy.
The bill had been passed in May by Argentina's lower house, and is firmly supported by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who is expected to sign it into law when she returns later this week from a state visit to China.
The debate pitted traditional voices and the Roman Catholic Church against President Fernandez and widespread public sentiment. Nearly 70 percent of Argentines support same-sex marriage, according to a June survey by Buenos Aires-based firm Analogias. Just seven years ago, a poll found that nearly half of all Argentines opposed a law that legalized civil unions in the capital.
Local television showed thousands of protesters braving the cold wintry air of Buenos Aires to voice opposition to the bill throughout the night, while supporters held candlelight vigils. The government's National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism organized a public gathering of artists to support the bill.
In deeply Catholic Latin America, the church has taken a leading voice among opponents. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio called gay marriage in Argentina a loss for everyone, saying “children need to have the right to be raised and educated by a father and a mother.”
Ms. Fernandez, speaking from China, reiterated her support for the bill and her dissent with the Catholic Church over the issue. “It's very worrisome to hear words like 'God's war' or 'the devil's project,' things that recall the times of the Inquisition," she said this week.
Some political analysts have suggested the president's support is a political calculation to garner votes for upcoming presidential elections in 2011, in which former president Nestor Kirchner, Fernandez's husband, is widely expected to run.
But the Kirchners and their supporters are hardly outliers on the issue.
Mexico City became the first city in Latin America to approve gay marriage in December. The bill here came as civil unions between same-sex couples gained steam across Latin American cities, first in Buenos Aires in 2002 and later in cities throughout Mexico and Brazil. Uruguay in 2008 legalized civil unions nationwide. The next year, the Constitutional Court in Colombia granted same-sex couples rights such as inheritance and health insurance.
Argentina has now gone the furthest of any nation in the region, and proponents are hoping the move influences other nations.
Will other nations follow?
“I think it will have enormous impact in Argentina and South America and around the world, including in the US, because it signifies the tremendous momentum in favor of the freedom to marry,” says Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry in the US.
Twelve countries now have ended exclusions for gay marriage, he says, and the emphasis in Argentina on equal rights for all will be instructive for other nations moving forward.
“It centered on how a country like Argentina must stand for equality for all, including vulnerable minorities when it comes to civil law [issues] such as marriage licenses,” he says. “What many legislators and the president said is that it is important to shore up the rule of law and true democratic values, rather than playing favorites or imposing one group's view.”