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Mexico's gay rights movement gaining ground

Despite a shift in public opinion, gay couples remain unable to marry throughout most of the country.

Last updated: 28 Jan 2014 13:25
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Martha Sandoval and Zaira de la O's wedding was the first legal gay marriage in Jalisco [EPA]

Guadalajara, Mexico - As the countdown to New Year's Day reached its climax in Guadalajara's trendy Barezzito nightclub, many of the well-dressed local couples shared a celebratory kiss. But the euphoria did not last long for two young men who partook in a modest display of affection.

"We kissed a couple of times and the security guards told us that it wasn't a gay bar and that we had to leave," Pedro Siordia Mora, a 23-year-old psychology graduate, told Al Jazeera.

"They called the police on us and the police showed up with machine guns," added his boyfriend, Michael Grendell, a 29-year-old English teacher from New York.

Intolerance of sexual diversity remains common across much of Mexico and Latin America, a strongly Catholic region where macho attitudes prevail. Yet the region has seen rapid change in recent years. Democratisation, an increased respect for human rights, the onset of globalisation and the growth of social media have all facilitated the expansion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) rights across the region.

Argentina legalised same-sex marriage in 2010, and Brazil and Uruguay followed suit in 2013. The three countries are the only ones in Latin America to be named among the top 30 most gay-friendly nations in the world, as determined by LGBT travel website Spartacus World.

Today, Argentine transgender people can even have the gender on their birth certificates altered. Elsewhere, same-sex civil unions are permitted in Colombia and Ecuador, although few notable advances have been made in Peru or Central America.

We respect people's sexual differences, but we believe that the institution of marriage should be preserved between a man and a woman.

- Gildardo Guerrero Torres, National Action Party 

Mexico's cultural divide

Mexico, meanwhile, is in the middle of a radical transformation. In 2009, Mexico City became the first Latin American jurisdiction to legalise marriage and adoption by same-sex couples, but the rest of the country is still playing catch-up with the liberal capital.

A 2010 Supreme Court ruling means marriages registered in Mexico City are recognised everywhere, but same-sex ceremonies remain outlawed in most of the country and only a limited number have been allowed in five of Mexico's 31 states.

With LGBTQ rights already established in the capital, the latest focus for campaigners has been Mexico's second-most populous metropolis, Guadalajara, in Jalisco state.

The birthplace of tequila and Mexican rodeo, Guadalajara is considered a bastion of conservatism, but this stereotype masks the fact that it is home to dozens of gay bars and a well-organised LGBTQ community.

In October 2013, the Jalisco Congress legalised civil unions - enhancing same-sex couples' inheritance rights and eligibility for social security benefits - without permitting marriage or adoption.

Resistance to the legislation was led by the right-wing National Action Party - known by its Spanish acronym, PAN - whose congressional leader Gildardo Guerrero Torres dismissed the bill as "an agenda pushed by the international gay lobby" that would end up "creating a cheap version of marriage by another name".

"We respect people's sexual differences, but we believe that the institution of marriage should be preserved between a man and a woman," Guerrero told Al Jazeera.

His comments echoed those of Bishop Leopoldo Gonzalez of the archdiocese of Guadalajara, who told Al Jazeera that "the position of the Church is never going to change... Marriage is between a man and a woman. Anything else cannot be called marriage."

Homosexuality "goes against nature" and undermines the traditional family model, Gonzalez added. "In order to grow healthily, we need a paternal figure and a maternal figure."

Such views are increasingly at odds with public opinion, which is rapidly turning in favour of the gay community. A July 2013 survey [Sp] by Mexican pollster Parametria revealed that 52 percent of Mexicans support same-sex marriage, up from 39 percent in December 2012, while 89 percent believe homosexuals should be treated like anyone else.

The Church and the PAN, meanwhile, are losing supporters. The latest government census [Sp] showed Mexico's Catholic population fell from 88 percent of the population in 2000 to 83.9 percent in 2010 - while the PAN, which had governed Mexico since 2000, slipped to third place in the 2012 presidential election.

Setting new precedents

Undeterred by the constraints of state law, which only permits civil unions, 28-year-old Zaira de la O Gomez, and Martha Sandoval Blanco, 46, made history in December 2013 by becoming the first same-sex couple to marry in Jalisco.

Pedro Siordia Mora and his boyfriend Michael Grendell were asked to leave a Guadalajara club after they shared a New Year's Eve kiss [Duncan Tucker/Al Jazeera]

Held at a Guadalajara civil registry office, the wedding was secretly brought forward by a few hours because of threats from right-wing groups. But the feared demonstrations failed to materialise when the brides reappeared later to greet family, friends and the press.

Shouts of "Yes we could!" rang out as the happy couple emerged, both dressed in white and draped in a rainbow flag, a symbol of LGBTQ pride.

"This paper symbolises the dreams of many couples like us," de la O said, triumphantly clasping the marriage certificate that marked the end of a nine-month legal battle.

The registry office had refused to marry the couple in March but they took their case to a federal judge, citing a 2001 amendment to the constitution which explicitly prohibits discrimination based on sexual preference. The judge agreed and granted an injunction obliging the registrar to marry them.

"This is a wave. Soon it will be unstoppable. All we're asking for is equal rights and this is going to happen in all of Mexico," de la O told Al Jazeera. "Jalisco was considered one of the states where it would be most difficult to achieve this - well, now we've done it. This should inspire all the couples in other states who are fighting for equality."

Yet there have been no changes to state law. Other same-sex couples will be able to wed in Jalisco because of the precedent set, but they will have to go through the same arduous process of obtaining an injunction.

Discrimination continues

A reminder that the local LGBTQ population still faces discrimination came just two weeks after the wedding when Siordia and Grendell were ejected from Barezzito. "This incident took me a little bit by surprise because I thought this bar seemed a little more upscale, where you'd have wealthy, better-educated and more open-minded patrons," Grendell told Al Jazeera.

But this was no isolated incident. "In other cases they've not let homosexual couples enter because they've been holding hands in the line," Siordia noted, while "two months ago two girls were also thrown out of a bar... for kissing and holding hands".

Angered at such flagrant violations of the constitution, Siordia filed complaints with human rights organisations and the municipal, state and federal authorities, but has yet to receive a response.

Taking matters into his own hands, he organised a peaceful protest outside Barezzito on a damp Friday night in early January. Around 30 demonstrators in their mid-twenties gathered and called on passersby to boycott the bar.

Clutching placards marked "stop homophobia", a dozen homosexual and heterosexual couples kissed simultaneously before handing out roses tagged with messages such as "respect" and "inclusion".

Relenting under the pressure, the Barezzito staff vowed to publicly apologise via the bar's social media accounts.

Yet no such apology has been issued to date. When contacted by Al Jazeera, Barezzito's manager Miguel Angel Jarra said he had not received sufficient information from the couple to proceed with the apology.

Though public opinion is shifting quickly to their side, Mexico's LGBTQ advocates realise they still have a long way to go.

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker

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Al Jazeera
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