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Stereotypes and Dogma Dominate Colombian Senate Debate on Marriage Equality

April 24, 2013

The debate over marriage equality for same sex couples raged in the Colombian Senate yesterday for the second day in less than a week. A vote is due today. UPDATE: Colombia Senate rejects marriage equality 17-51.

On the same day the French National Assembly gave its final approval to marriage equality, and after a week that saw New Zealand, Uruguay, and Rio de Janeiro state in Brazil do the same, Colombia is going in the other direction. Supporters appear to be outnumbered by opponents, although a significant number of Senators are officially undecided from parties on both sides of the issue.

Opponents relied principally on religious principles, stereotypes, and the tradition of excluding same-sex couples from equality, while arguing that they represent the interests of children who have a right to be raised by idealized heterosexual couples, ignoring the scientific consensus of sociologists, medical, and therapeutic professionals that sexual orientation has nothing to do with the quality of parenting.

Conservative Party Senator, Alexandra Moreno Piraquive, declared that she spoke “for the little boys and girls,” in Colombia. They are traumatized and have mental health challenges because of Colombia’s unique” conditions. She did not explain who appointed her to speak for the children, or how Colombia’s violent conditions justify further discrimination against LGBT people. In response, Senator Inez Ramirez questioned how anyone who is concerned about these children would deny them the opportunity of being adopted into loving and stable homes, irrespective of their parents’ sexual orientation.

As Senator Mauricio Ospina explained, the mother-father-children family unit constitutes, according to official statistics, only 35% of the families in Colombia. Marriage exclusion cannot be explained by interest in children, only hostility to LGBT people.

In this Report I wrote, circulated by the bill’s author, Sen. Benedetti, to the Senators before their debate yesterday, the Senate was informed there is a scientific consensus that sexual orientation has nothing to do with how a parent raises a child. That consensus is not a cherry-picked argument on my part. It is the official position of the largest, most authoritative credited organizations of sociological, medical, and therapeutic professionals in the amicusbriefs they filed in the U.S. Supreme Court on February 28, 2013, backing marriage equality.

My Report identified to the Senators a 2012 decision of the Interamerican Court on Human Rights [Karen Atala v. Chile, Series C. No. 239, February 24, 2012], ruling that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited by the American Convention on Human Rights, and that, as in that case, LGBT people cannot be denied parental rights because of sexual orientation. Senators supporting marriage equality often invoked the Declaration of the Rights of Man (an antiquated name for a major early treaty guaranteeing human rights), but opponents did not hesitate to say, repeatedly, that same-sex couples are not equal.

On the basis of this debate, supporters of marriage equality are well-positioned now to file a human rights complaint at the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights. Currently, I represent a leading Chilean LGBT rights group which filed a complaint there last year against Chile for its courts’ refusal to permit same-sex couples to marry. In Chile, however, the leading Presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet announced her support for marriage equality a few days before the Colombian Senate debate began, and most of the candidates there are now in favor of marriage equality. Complaints are sure to come from other countries that deny marriage equality and refuse to grant LGBT people equality, as a growing consensus holds that such behavior is a direct violation of human rights obligations assured by international treaties.

My Report also identified all the other states and countries in the Americas who have approved marriage equality, and supporters frequently mentioned this progress. The Americas are actually in the vanguard of marriage equality, while Europe is quickly catching up with France and soon England, two large population countries. At present, 37% of the population of the Americas lives in a state, like the D.F. in Mexico or New York in the U.S., or a country, like Argentina, Canada, and Uruguay, where same-sex marriages are celebrated. Another 30% of the population of the Americas lives in countries, like Mexico and Brazil, that recognize same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. With almost 70% of the population in places where same-sex marriage is already legally acknowledged, countries like Colombia, if it refuses to grant equally, not only appear backward and uncivilized, but will maintain their presence on human rights “black lists.”

My Report also identified the multinational companies, including many that the Colombian government courts to invest in Colombia, who have called for marriage equality in their official positions in the U.S. Supreme Court.

But instead of facts, false stereotypes were repeatedly invoked by speakers.

One very influential Conservative Party Senator, Roberto Gerlein, used the occasion to echo statements he made last week that sex between men is “excremental,” saying this week it is “scatological” (he said he is less concerned with sex between women), as well as inane, and incapable of producing life. He cited several verses from the Bible. He also denounced the “violence” of the vastly-outnumbered “gay lobby,” referring to a “kiss-in” on the Plaza Bolivar in front of the Capitol building. He appeared ignorant of the homophobic murders and beatings perpetrated against LGBT people, often based on false stereotypes that they are dangerous to children that result from legal marginalization of gay couples.

He also claimed the marriage equality bill was intended to have devastating effects on Colombian women, who are “saints” – “saintly mothers, saintly wives,” and so forth. He made no attempt to explain that, one of many incoherent and vicious non-sequiturs he declared without evidence or authority.

Gerlein attacked me personally too. During my ten minute argument from the floor of the Senate last week, I introduced my Colombian husband to show my Colombian family connection. Gerlein snidely claimed my husband cannot be an “esposo” (spouse) or “marido” (husband), even though, as I reported, we have been legally married in New York and in a religious wedding at the Church of St. Bartholomew’s on Park Avenue, with both families present. Senator Fernando Tamayo Tamayo also attacked me personally, not for my argument that gay rights are human rights, as declared by Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama, but by calling me a “gringo” and an “imperialist.” We gay people are all too familiar with this kind of name-calling and bullying.

Senator Jose Dario Salazar made the unsupported claim that gays, or gay marriage, are destroying the environment. There’s nothing more to say about that.

Homophobia was not thinly-veiled for most opposing Senators. Several claimed that marriage cannot apply to mere “friends,” which is all that gay couples are or can be.

One Senator I know told me last week that I should not despair, Colombia is like Texas, referring to its backward and prejudiced majority. Another Senator yesterday said Colombia is not and never will be like Denmark or Sweden, with a derogatory tone. Those civilized Western democracies have approved marriage equality, but Colombia is in a war.

Senator Roy Barreras, who is the President of the Senate and leader of its largest party, the “U,” claims to be a supporter of equality and respect for LGBT people, while opposing marriage on the basis it would allow them to adopt children. Other Senators pointed out that the marriage equality bill does not purport to amend the Adoption provisions of the Colombian Civil Code, under which people are allowed to seek approval for adoption based upon suitability (without any reference to marital status or sexual orientation).

Barreras even apologized to me for the homophobic statements made by activist Mario Cely, and I explained that I recognize in him and many fair-minded people two conflicting impulses. First is a strong and desirable impulse to protect the institution of marriage as one that creates an environment to raise children – two parents, loyal to each other and dedicated to their children, with legal protections for the family as an economic unit. The other is an impulse, despite centuries of discrimination, to acknowledge LGBT people and that they are full and equal citizens entitled to respect, dignity, and legal equality. He promised even to support legislation for “solemn unions,” a kind of civil union that would eliminate most legal distinctions between straight and gay couples, although no concrete steps in that direction have been taken.

Even he, however, could not resist the impulse to think children suffer when they don’t have straight parents – that is to say, if gay parents try to raise children. This calumny is false on many levels, as I reported above. Many children are born without married parents, currently about 25% in Colombia, according to a recent report. Many married couples raise children very poorly, with philandering fathers who fail to pay child support or abandon their children entirely. So the image of perfect heterosexual parentage is a complete myth, yet Colombia makes no attempt to limit marriage to good procreators, only to exclude same-sex couples, no matter how good they might be as parents.

Intimidating in her repeat appearance is the Deputy Prosecutor General for Children and Families, Ilva Myriam Hoyos, who last week openly lobbied members of the Senate when she was seated next to me in the Senate. An online news source, La Silla Vacia (the Empty Seat), published a photo of her Blackberry screen showing a chat conversation in which she admitted to lobbying that that the vote was going to go her way because of what she had said to Senators.

The Prosecutor General’s office has been sharply denounced for grossly exceeding its authority and intimidating members of Congress, any one of whom can be disqualified from office by the Prosecutor if he brings charges against them. The Prosecutor General is the nation’s chief defender of human rights; however, today in Bucaramanga he is being honored for his homophobic and vitriolic opposition to marriage equality and his attempts to subvert the Constitutional Court. That body’s decision in Sentencia C577 of 2011 exhorted the Congress to legislate equality before June 20, 2013, when notaries will be authorized to grant same-sex couples the rights to contract for equal legal status.

In a debate in which many Senators wanted to participate, the Senate Vice President presiding over the proceedings allowed Gerlein to ramble on for 20 minutes, without interrupting him, while regularly interrupting proponents of marriage equality after 5 minutes and 2 minute intervals after that. Then, once the major opposing voices had been heard, he unilaterally announced that the vote would be delayed until today. This promptly cleared the chamber of a quorum as many Senators who refused to stay and hear proponents of marriage equality.

Many refused to listen to truly inspiring rhetoric from Sen. Benedetti, the bill’s sponsor, Jhon Sudarsky of the Green Party (denouncing “prejudice disguised as science”); Luis Carlos Avellaneda of the Polo Democratico Party (who compared opponents’ positions to the “separate but equal” racist doctrine in the U.S. that was rejected in Brown v. Board of Ed. in 1953); and Luis Fernando Velasco, spokesman for the Liberal Party (in a “lay state” like Colombia “dogma cannot become law”). His party members are free to vote their conscience, while the “U” Party and the “Conservatives” are strong-arming their members to adhere to party-line votes, even though many members support the bill – including the bill’s author, Sen. Benedetti.

Some Senators rather amateurishly tried their hand at legal interpretations. Many invoked the Constitution of 1991, in which Art. 42 refers to the marriage of a man and a woman. They refused to acknowledge, as I argued to them, that it nowhere limits marriage to a man a woman – it never uses words like “only” or “limited to.” They also refused to acknowledge that Art. 42 must be reconciled to the clauses in the same Constitution that require equality before the law and adherence to international treaties.

Overall the opponents were a very poor reflection on the dignity of Colombia and the kind, respectful, and courteous people of Colombia I typically meet, as a family member, neighbor, investor, and international legal advisor in the country.

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