Wary of Past Abuses, Argentine Capital Approves Gay Rights ; Starting Friday, Gay Couples in Buenos Aires Can Form Civil Unions

Article excerpt

Emilia Korenberg and Maria Laura Olivier sit together on an oversized sofa, holding hands and smiling as they recall the day seven months ago when they say they finally felt accepted by their own society.

"I never thought that day would arrive," says Ms. Korenberg.

That day happened last December, when after a grueling 18-hour debate, city lawmakers in Argentina's capital voted 29-10 to allow civil unions for same-sex couples, becoming the first city in Latin America to officially recognize such partnerships. The law goes into effect Friday, and Korenberg and Ms. Olivier plan on completing a civil union sometime soon.

That Buenos Aires, in the heart of this Catholic country, would adopt such a policy may be surprising, especially because of the culture of machismo that still reigns here. But this cosmopolitan capital has long prided itself on its European-style sophistication and status as a cultural beacon of the region. Some experts say this open-mindedness is a natural development for a country trying to redeem itself following years of authoritarian rule and severe civil rights abuses.

After seven years of a brutal military regime, democracy was restored in 1983, and the following year, gay Argentines began to speak out publicly and demand equal treatment for the first time. During that same era, more and more citizens began to reflect on the horror of what had passed during the "Dirty War" - when an estimated 30,000 people "disappeared" - and began to rethink their attitudes.

"After the dictatorship ended in 1983 ... people became aware of the importance of being respectful about human rights and being tolerant toward different ideas, ideologies, sexual orientation, and ethnic and racial differences," Beatriz Gurevich, a sociologist in Buenos Aires.

Resistance from church

Still, not everyone here is in favor of Civil Unions Law No. 1004. A poll conducted on an Argentine website shows 44 percent oppose the new legislation, and some institutions, most notably the Catholic Church, have denounced it as well.

"We are opposed to this kind of law," says the Rev. Alberto Bochatey, a professor of Bioethics at Catholic University in Buenos Aires. "It doesn't mean that we are opposed to ... homosexual people at all as persons, as human beings, but we don't agree with this kind of legislation."

Father Bochatey says Argentina's Catholic Church offers solutions and assistance to gay couples who have demanded more say in their partners' medical and financial decisions, but that having an established law guaranteeing these rights is causing many gay Catholics to equate civil unions with the holy sacrament of matrimony.

"For us a marriage is a male and female forever," he says. …