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COSTA RICA: Congress to Study Bill on Homosexual Civil Unions

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Sep 19 2006 (IPS) - The Diversity Movement in Costa Rica is sponsoring a draft law on civil unions for same-sex couples which will be presented formally to the legislature this week.

The civil unions initiative is aimed at ensuring equal rights for Costa Rican homosexuals, granting each partner in stable same-sex couples the right to social security (if they are not economically self-sufficient), and the right to inherit, among others..

More controversial issues, such as full marriage and adoption, have been left out of the bill. Abelardo Araya, president of the Diversity Movement which represents the homosexual and lesbian communities in the country, said that “these are issues that would create difficulties, rather than bring benefits.”

In any case, the possibility of homosexual couples adopting children “isn’t completely out of reach,” since Costa Rican law allows adoption by single people, he said.

Araya explained that “we have asked our lawmakers, ‘How is it possible that we should have all the obligations and none of the rights? What’s the matter? Are there two kinds of citizenship?'”

The draft law is “a first step” towards equality, towards “exercising full citizenship,” he said.

Ana Elena Chacón, a deputy for the Social Christian Unity Party, one of the congresswomen who will present the draft law in the legislature, said that “Costa Rican law says that individual and collective rights shall be respected, but that has not happened in reality. This initiative will try to fill in some of the gaps left by our laws.”

The document will go to committee, and will there be placed, as Chacón told IPS, on the chopping block, in the sense that “it will be torn to pieces by legislators until a final text is agreed, which I hope will respect the spirit and ideas of those who have drawn it up.”

According to Chacón, Costa Rica “is a very ‘machista’ (sexist) society, where people look askance at anyone who is different for any reason. They have been forgotten for many years, and we have to offer them a solution.”

She pointed out that “gays and lesbians are no less Costa Rican than the rest of us. We’re not talking about marriage or adoption, but about basic civil rights.”

“This is about respecting the rights of 10 percent of the Costa Rican population (of 4.2 million),” she said. “People have been afraid of facing up to homosexuality, there has been mockery…a number of actions that have not been at all pleasant or conducive to social harmony in this country,” she declared.

The draft law rests on a May 23 ruling by the Supreme Court in a case brought in a personal capacity by Yashin Castrillo three years ago, arguing that Article 14 of the Family Code was unconstitutional, in order to win legal backing for same-sex marriages..

Although the Supreme Court judges rejected the petition by five votes to two, the verdict opened the door for legislation on the matter.

The majority opinion included a statement to the effect that there was a vacuum of appropriate legal regulation for stable same-sex unions, and that legal security, if not the need for justice itself, made such regulation imperative. The ruling stated that legislators at other levels should make it their concern to regulate, as they saw fit, the obligations or rights deriving from unions of this kind.

Araya was optimistic as he told IPS that “so far we have presented it (the draft law) to three members of Congress belonging to different parties who have given us their support, but we also hope that the Access Without Exclusion Party, the (governing) National Liberation Party, and the Libertarian Party will add their support.”

“There’s a positive atmosphere in the legislature. We have been creating a social support network. It’s not a solitary struggle, there are many social and political organisations in favour of our rights,” Araya said.

But the gay and lesbian communities realise that “building awareness in society was neglected until just two years ago. Attitudes can’t be changed from one day to the next, although it’s true that there’s a difference in the way middle-aged people and young people see the issue. Even so, there’s a lot of work to be done,” the activist acknowledged.

The Diversity Movement will not venture to guess when the draft law might be approved, although they believe the law will be ready during the life of the current legislature. “It will take some time, because right now we’re in the middle of debating the free trade agreement with the United States. However, we’re not going to hold back on our project, because we’re tired of being told that our rights are not a priority,” Araya said.

The greatest opposition to the initiative comes from the Roman Catholic Church. Costa Rican bishops discussed the issue last week, but they sent IPS a document issued in 2003 by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons”, which condemned legal unions between persons of the same sex.

According to the document, “legal recognition of homosexual unions or placing them on the same level as marriage would mean not only the approval of deviant behaviour, with the consequence of making it a model in present-day society, but would also obscure basic values which belong to the common inheritance of humanity.”

The same text states that “men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.”

If this law is speedily approved, Costa Rica will become the most advanced country in Latin America in terms of recognising the rights of same-sex couples, but it may be pipped at the post by Uruguay, where a draft law on homosexual and heterosexual civil unions was recently approved by the Senate. It now requires passage by the Chamber of Deputies.

In Argentina, a bill on civil unions which includes adoption rights for homosexual couples is being drafted. A similar law has been in effect in the city of Buenos Aires since 2003. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet’s programme of government also includes enacting a law of civil unions.

Same sex marriage is legal, with variations, in the northeastern U.S. state of Massachusetts and in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Canada.

Meanwhile “in our region, countries like Nicaragua punish sodomy between consenting adults. The countries around us are lagging behind in this area,” Araya said.

To put pressure on politicians, the Diversity Movement will urge people not to vote for candidates “who discriminate” in the municipal elections to be held on Dec. 3.

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