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Argentine Congress considers same-sex marriage

By VANESSA HAND ORELLANA, Associated Press

argentina BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Is Argentina ready to become Latin America's first nation to legalize gay marriage?

Gay and lesbian activists think so - and they have a growing number of supporters in Congress, which opened debate Thursday on whether to change dozens of laws that define marriage as a union between a "man and woman."

"We can't expect social equality if the state is legitimizing inequality," said Maria Rachid, president of Argentina's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Federation. "We now have the social and political context necessary to change the law."

It remains to be seen whether they have enough votes to overcome opposition from religious groups. The Roman Catholic Church remains a driving force in Argentina, where presidents were required to be both married and Catholic until a 1994 reform.

Some Catholic and evangelical Christian groups have accused the government of trying to subvert the natural order of life, promote perversions and destroy the family as an institution.

"This should not be understood as the denial of anyone's rights," said Archbishop Jose Maria Arancedo of Santa Fe, who took a gentler tone in a recent radio address. "It's possible both to be progressive and to defend the family, founded on the institution of marriage."

Argentina's capital established its gay-friendly reputation in 2002 by becoming the first Latin American city to legalize same-sex civil unions. Four other Argentine cities later did the same, and such unions also now are recognized in Mexico City and some Mexican and Brazilian states. Uruguay alone has legalized civil unions nationwide.

Canada is the only nation in the Americas where gay marriage is now legal; in the Spanish-speaking world, only Spain has taken this additional step.

The capital's civil unions law was initially celebrated as a huge victory for gay and lesbian rights, but such partnerships don't confer many rights exclusive to married couples, such as the right to adopt children in the name of both parents, to enable a partner to gain citizenship and to inherit wealth or be included in insurance policies.

"A civil union is a link that grants certain rights, but not those available to a married couple, which only a national law can grant," the bills' co-sponsor, Rep. Vilma Ibarra, told The Associated Press. "This is the first round in a long process, but it is already a success to have it out there."

Rep. Julian Martin Obiglio is among lawmakers who would rather expand the rights that apply to civil unions than alter the definition of marriage.

"I don't think the term should be the same for a union between a man and a woman and two people of the same sex," Obiglio told The AP.

Rachid said more than 20 lawmakers have signed on as supporters of same-sex marriage, and they believe they have enough votes in committee for a full vote in the lower house. It would then go to the Senate.

Rachid and her partner, Claudia Castro, were among the first same-sex couples in Buenos Aires to form a civil union - and the first to test Argentine law by applying for a marriage license in 2007. Their suit over the denial is pending at the Supreme Court.

"The opinion of religious leaders who dictate how other people should lead their lives should apply only to those who share their creed, and not to the rest of society," Rachid said during an interview with Castro in the Buenos Aires apartment they share with their dog, Lola.

"We don't need a law to define us as a couple - we've already been a couple for more than 10 years," Castro added. "We just want to have equal rights."

If the law passes, they plan to be first in line for a marriage license.

Caption: Maria Rachid, left, president of Argentina's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Federation, caresses her dog Lolita next to her couple Claudia Castro during an interview with the Associated Press in Buenos Aires, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009. Gay and lesbian activists think Argentina is ready to become Latin America's first nation to legalize gay marriage and they've got a growing number of supporters in Congress, which opened debate Thursday on whether to change dozens of laws that define marriage as a union between a "man and woman." Natacha Pisarenko / AP Photo

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