Ten years after the Equal Marriage Law, a milestone for Latin America, was passed in Argentina, CIVICUS speaks with LGBTQI+ leader María Rachid about the strategies that the movement used and the tactics that worked best to advance the equality agenda – tactics that may well still be relevant today. María is the current head of the Institute against Discrimination at the Ombudsperson's Office of the City of Buenos Aires and a member of the Directive Commission of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People (Argentine LGBT Federation). In 1996 she founded a lesbian feminist organisation, La Fulana, and in 2006 she co-founded the Argentine LGBT Federation, which brings together various sexual diversity organisations and played a key role in getting the Equal Marriage Law approved.
What was the situation for sexual diversity organisations in Argentina when the equal marriage campaign kicked off?
It was a situation in which the organisations representing sexual diversity had a confrontational relationship with the state. It was the state where most of the discrimination, violence and harassment towards the LGBT+ community, and especially towards trans people, came from, through the security forces and through institutions more generally. Discrimination was permanent and the inability to access rights was a constant. That is why in the 1980s and 1990s we carried out escraches, or public shaming demonstrations, outside police stations, to denounce the police and the tools they used, such as misdemeanour codes and the criminal records law, and we got together with other human rights organisations that fought for the same cause. The state’s tools of discrimination were used against various groups; we were one of them, but there were others who were also harassed and persecuted with the same tools that the police used to obtain petty cash.
After the gigantic economic, social and political crisis of 2001, institutions weakened and social mobilisation became stronger. In a very timely manner, at that juncture, the Argentine Homosexual Community (CHA), one of the country’s oldest sexual diversity organisations, submitted a civil union project to the legislature of the city of Buenos Aires, the capital. The law that ended up being passed as a result was very short, less than a page long, and basically established that within the city of Buenos Aires same-sex couples should be treated in a way ‘similar’ to heterosexual marriages. Of course, the original project did not say ‘similar’, but the expression was introduced to get it passed. Nowadays this would be perceived as humiliating, but in that context, it was a huge achievement. Along with this law, other proposals were also passed that similarly reflected claims of social movements, such as the expropriation of a company that had been recovered by its workers and the establishment of norms to enable the work of cartoneros, or recyclable trash collectors.
Once the Civil Union Law was passed in Buenos Aires, we began thinking about next steps. Some organisations proposed to bring civil unions to other districts, as was later the case in the province of Río Negro and Córdoba City, and to try to extend it nationwide. But other organisations began to think about the idea of marriage, although at that time it seemed crazy, since it was recognised by only two countries in the world – Belgium and the Netherlands – which were also culturally very different from Argentina and lacked the main obstacle we faced to have our rights recognised, a politically powerful Catholic Church.
How was it that the impossible became an achievable goal?
In that context of institutional violence, in which there had been only a small step forward thanks to which we as couples would be treated in a ‘similar’ way to heterosexual couples in some districts of the country, some things began to change, both domestically and internationally, that placed the aspiration of equality within the realm of the possible.
One of those things was the fact that, in 2003, the recently inaugurated government led by Néstor Kirchner repealed the so-called ‘impunity laws’, which prevented the prosecution or the implementation of sentences against the perpetrators of crimes against humanity under the dictatorship. This was a shift in the human rights paradigm in Argentina, and at first we wondered if this time we would be included. Since the restoration of democracy, people in our country have talked about human rights a lot, but human rights never included us. Trans people continued to be persecuted, detained and tortured in police stations. But as impunity laws were repealed, we thought that things might change.
Soon after, in 2004, we were invited to participate in the development of a national plan against discrimination. It was the first time that the state called on diversity organisations to develop a public policy plan that would have a specific chapter on diversity. We attended with distrust, thinking that our proposals were going to stay in some public official’s desk drawer. We made a diagnosis and proposals, participated in a lot of meetings in various provinces and thought that everything would come to nothing. But before long, they called us again and asked if we could review the plan before it was published, because they wanted to make sure we approved its content. We started looking at it, thinking that everything we had written would surely have been erased, but it was all there, nothing was missing. Equal rights, the recognition of the gender identity of trans people, everything was there except for equal marriage, and that’s because in 2004 not even diversity organisations spoke of equal marriage in Argentina. We had never raised it in our meetings, and this is why, although it did include the objective of ‘equating the rights of same-sex couples with those of heterosexual families’, the plan did not explicitly mention equal marriage. The National Plan against Discrimination was issued through a presidential decree: thus, our historical demands translated into public policy plan and it was the president himself who told public officials what they had to do in matters of sexual diversity, which was exactly what we had demanded.
In the midst of this change in the human rights paradigm that for the first time seemed to include sexual diversity, a gigantic change took place at the international level: in 2005 equal marriage was recognised in Spain, a country that is culturally similar to ours and where there is also a strong presence of the Catholic Church. In fact, the Spanish Church had rallied 1.5 million people on the streets against equal marriage, and still, the law had passed. In such a favourable context both domestically and internationally, a group of sexual diversity organisations came together to fight for equal marriage in Argentina.
What role did the Argentine LGBT Federation play in promoting equal marriage?
The Argentine LGBT Federation was created precisely at that time, as a result of the convergence of a number of longstanding organisations based not only in the city of Buenos Aires but also in several provinces, to advocate for an agenda that initially included five points. First, equal marriage allowing for adoption; we specifically demanded the recognition of adoption rights because we saw that in other countries the right to adopt had been relinquished to achieve equal marriage. Second, a law recognising gender identity. Third, a nationwide anti-discrimination law. Fourth, the inclusion of diversity in a comprehensive sex education curriculum. And fifth, the repeal of the articles of misdemeanour codes that were still used in 16 provinces to criminalise ‘homosexuality’ and ‘transvestism’ – in their words.
The Federation brought together almost all relevant sexual diversity organisations; only two longstanding organisations stayed out, the CHA and SIGLA (Gay-Lesbian Integration Society), which were very much at odds with each other and led almost entirely by men, with very little female participation. However, SIGLA supported the Federation throughout its work towards equal marriage, while the CHA disagreed with equal marriage because it thought that in Latin America, given the strong presence of the Catholic Church, it would not be possible to achieve, which is why it continued placing their bets on civil union.
What were the main strategies and tactics that you used?
The first thing we did was call on activists active in various professions and in a variety of fields. We put together a team of lawyers and a team of journalists, we organised a journalists’ roundtable and put together a variety of teams that could contribute to the campaign in different ways.
We believed that what we had to do was go down all possible paths at the same time. We first looked at the various paths through which these laws had been passed elsewhere. For example, by the time we filed our first judicial appeal, equal marriage had already been recognised in South Africa through the Supreme Court. We also analysed the debates that had taken place in various countries around the world, not just on equal marriage, but also on other issues such as the feminine vote, civil marriage, divorce and sexual and reproductive rights. The arguments used to deny rights were always the same, and they were based on religious fundamentalism.
As a result of this analysis, we concluded that we needed to go simultaneously through the executive, legislative and judicial routes. At the same time, we needed to reach out to the media and bring out the issue to the public. This became clear to us after a meeting we had with the then-minister of the interior, who told us that we had executive backing, but that we needed to create proper conditions so we would not lose the congressional vote. Since then, we went through years of work to reach out to public opinion and thereby create the conditions to turn the scales of Congress in our favour.
In 2007 we submitted our first amparo petition for equal marriage; we came to submit more than a hundred. As a result of an injunction, in 2009 a gay couple managed to marry with judicial authorisation in Ushuaia, and in 2010 eight more couples, including a lesbian couple, were able to marry in the city and province of Buenos Aires. By then our strategy had changed: we initially litigated in the civil family jurisdiction, where the Opus Dei, a hard-line Catholic institution, had a very strong presence. Many civil family judges are Catholic Church activists, and specifically belong to Opus Dei, so it was very difficult to obtain a favourable ruling in that jurisdiction. Change occurred when we realised that, as we were making a judicial claim against the Civil Registry, dependent on the Government of the City of Buenos Aires, we could resort to the contentious, administrative and tax courts, which can be appealed to when the state is a part in the conflict. As this is a jurisdiction that mainly deals with tax-related issues, and in Argentina the Catholic Church is exempt from paying taxes, we were not going to find activist judges belonging to the Catholic Church or Opus Dei, since this jurisdiction is of no political interest to them. Following this change in strategy, we only obtained positive rulings in the city and province of Buenos Aires.
Although at first we thought of the amparos quite literally, as a way to obtain judicial support for our claims, they ended up being above all an excellent communication strategy, because each of these amparos became a story that we told the public about why equal marriage was just, necessary and timely. For that purpose, we provided a lot of coaching for the couples who were submitting amparo petitions, especially the first ones, who we knew would get a lot of media exposure. So this ended up being a communication strategy rather than a judicial one.
How did you win over public opinion?
We worked a lot with the media. We had breakfasts with journalists, at first with just a few ones that were our allies, but later these meetings expanded. We worked so much in this area that in the last months of debate you could no longer find signed op-eds against equal marriage, not even in the traditional newspaper La Nación, which only opposed it through its editorials, since all the articles signed by its journalists were also favourable to it. In other words, even in hostile media, journalists ended up being our allies. We prepared a booklet for communicators explaining what the bill was about, why it was important, what our arguments were. We also prepared advertising spots, but since we didn’t have any money to broadcast them, we asked journalists and media managers to pass them on as content in their programming, and truth be told, they did this a lot. These were amusing spots that attracted a lot of attention.
To gain further support, we needed to exhibit the support we already had in respected sectors and from well-known individuals. So we started to publish our list of supporters, which at first was very short, but ended up being a huge newsletter containing the names of all the trade union federations, countless unions, political leaders from almost all parties and personalities from the art world, the media and religions.
As the congressional debate approached, we began to hold events, generally in the Senate, to show the support we received from various sectors. These events had great media repercussions. The event ‘Culture Says Yes to Equal Marriage’ featured musicians and artists; the ‘Science Says Yes to Equal Marriage’ event included academics and scientists, and we gathered 600 signatures from academia, research and professional associations of psychology and paediatrics, among others. Unlike the other ones, the ‘Religion Says Yes to Equal Marriage’ event was held in an evangelical church in the Flores neighbourhood, and was attended by Catholic priests, rabbis – both male and female – evangelical pastors and leaders of other Protestant churches. Regardless of what we as individuals might think of religion and the separation of church and state, we wanted to show to people that they did not need to choose between their religion and equal marriage, as they could be in favour of equal marriage no matter what their religion was. Some Catholic priests were expelled from the church the next day, for having participated in this event.
How were these demonstrations of support used to help change the attitudes of legislators?
From the beginning we embraced the strategy of lobbying by exhibiting this support, as well as the support that emerged from public opinion polls. The first survey on this issue was carried out by the newspaper Página/12 and showed that in the city of Buenos Aires approval rates exceeded 60 per cent. Shortly after, the government funded a very important survey, which even included focus groups in the provinces, that allowed us not only to know if people were for or against, but also which arguments were more effective. We presented a variety of arguments in favour of equal marriage to the focus groups and we observed people’s reactions to identify the arguments that worked best.
Of course, we always showed the segments of the surveys that suited us best, because answers depended a lot on how the question was asked. For instance, when we asked people if they believed that homosexual and heterosexual people had the same rights, around 90 per cent said yes; but if we asked them if they agreed that they should be able to get married, the percentage dropped to 60 per cent, and if we asked about the right to adopt children, the approval rate would drop to 40 per cent. However, if we informed them that gay people in Argentina were in fact already legally authorised to adopt children individually, and then we asked them if they would want to take that right away from them, the majority said no. While only 40 per cent were in principle in favour of allowing adoption by same-sex couples, more than 50 per cent refused to prohibit it if it was already allowed. Therefore, part of the discussion consisted in informing people and explaining to them that children adopted by homosexual persons would enjoy half their rights, because since their parents could not marry, one of them would not be able to, say, leave them a pension. When we asked them whether they thought that these people should be able to marry so that their children would have all their rights, more than 80 per cent would say yes.
As a result of our working on the argumentation, support grew steadily throughout the campaign, to the point that we began to receive unexpected shows of support, such as from the Student Centre of a Catholic university that called to join. In the end, I would say that all public figures from art, culture, trade unions and journalism supported us. All those who continued to stand against represented some religion, but among our supporters there were also many religious figures. With the numbers of public opinion and the lists of our supporters in hand, we toured the parliamentary committees and the houses of Congress, and we operated politically during the debates until the very moment the law was passed.
I think that the strategy of going along all possible paths, maintaining a high capacity for dialogue and coalition-making and seeking out all possible allies, was very successful. Even in politically polarised times, we sat with all the parties, with youth and feminist groups within all the parties, with some LGBT+ allies of the parties, and later on, with parties’ diversity areas as they emerged. It was very difficult, but in our struggle towards equal marriage we managed to get the impossible photo of politicians from both the government and the opposition all standing for the same cause.
To change the law it was necessary to change social attitudes first. Do you think that the passage of the law resulted in further, deeper social and cultural change?
The approval of the law created a certain climate in society – I would say even a feeling of pride for being the 10th country in the world to enshrine equal marriage. The political sector that had voted against the law felt left out and did not want this to happen again; this was reflected in the 2012 approval of the Gender Identity Law, which was in fact more revolutionary than the Equal Marriage Law, but was passed practically unanimously. This is a state-of-the-art law at the global level, and even the senators who had been the biggest opponents of equal marriage defended it and voted for it.
These laws had great institutional impact, and institutional action deepened cultural change. After their approval, all the ministries, many municipalities and many provincial governments set up areas of sexual diversity. As a result, there came to be a lot of state agencies at various levels that were making public policy on diversity, which had an impact on many spheres, including schools. This resulted in an important cultural change, since it modified the perception of our families. Of course, there are pockets of resistance and acts of discrimination occur, but now these acts of discrimination are pointed out and repudiated by society, with social condemnation being amplified by journalists and through the media. Discrimination, which used to be legitimised by the state, now lacks all legitimacy. The state not only no longer upholds it but also produces public policy regarding diversity. The law was never our final goal, nor is it a magic bullet to end discrimination, but it is a tool without which ending discrimination is impossible.
Civic space in Argentina is rated as ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.