Montevideo – Lawmakers in taboo-breaking Uruguay voted to legalize gay marriage early Wednesday, approving a single law for both heterosexuals and homosexuals that regulates all kinds of family issues, from divorce to adoption to in-vitro fertilization and how parents can name their children.
The proposal now goes to the Senate, where the ruling coalition has enough votes for passage. President José Mujica plans to sign it into law early next year.
"I respect those who think that marriage is between a man and a woman. It's respectable. But the reality is something else. If this law isn't adopted, the only thing we'll be doing is what the ostrich does: Deny reality and stick our heads under the ground," said Aníbal Pereyra, a lawmaker who co-sponsored the proposal for the ruling Broad Front coalition.
At the end, 81 of the 87 lawmakers participating in more than eight hours of debate voted in favor of the proposal.
Pablo Abdala of the center-right National Party was among the opponents, saying gays and straights shouldn't be put under the same law.
"Without a doubt there are gaps in the laws (governing gay and lesbian couples) and the political system must provide solutions. Now, is this necessarily the answer? No. Diversity, by definition, means being different," he said.
Among other things, the law would let all couples, gay or straight, decide whose surname goes first when they name their children.
That breaks with a tradition that has held for centuries across Latin America, where in nearly every country, laws require people to give their children two last names, and the father's comes first.
But Martha Montaner, a lawmaker of the right-wing Colorado Party, called the naming provision "an achievement for women" that helped win her vote in favor.
The "Marriage Equality Law" also would replace Uruguay's 1912 divorce law, which gave only women, and not their husbands, the right to renounce marriage vows without cause. In the early 20th Century, Uruguay's lawmakers saw this as an equalizer, since men at the time held all the economic and social power in a marriage, historian Gerardo Caetano said.
"A hundred years later, with all the changes that have occurred in Uruguayan society, this argument has fallen of its own accord," Caetano said Tuesday. "It's absolutely logical now that divorces can happen if either party wants it. And I really think it won't have much of an impact."
Uruguay became the first Latin American country to legalize abortion this year, and its Congress is debating a plan to put the government in charge of marijuana sales as a way to attack illegal marijuana traffickers.
The new proposal would make Uruguay the second nation in Latin America and the 12th in the world to legalize gay marriage, after The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina and Denmark.
The bill also would clarify rules for adoption and in-vitro fertilization, and eliminate the words "marido y mujer" (husband and woman) in marriage contracts, refering instead to the gender neutral "contrayentes" (contracting parties).
The Roman Catholic Church is opposed to the proposal, but the church has little political influence in secular Uruguay.
Judging from the congressional debate so far, giving gays and lesbians all the same rights and responsibilities of married straight couples seems to have been the easy part for most lawmakers. The naming change seemed to cause the most controversy as the measure came through legislative committees.
In the end, the legislators proposed to let all couples choose which surname comes first for their children. And if they can't decide, the proposed law says a "sorteo," such as the flip of a coin, in the civil registry office should decide the issue.
The law also sets out naming rules for adoptees and people born outside marriage. A child registered by a single parent would take that parent's name as a first surname. And one whose parents are unknown altogether would be given "two commonly used names" selected by the civil registry office.
In the United States and many other countries, couples are free to decide what surnames to give their children. Even in many Latin American nations, some people already shun convention and use a mother's name if family circumstances make use of the paternal name inconvenient or impossible.
Uruguay's neighbor Argentina has been more rigid: When it became the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriage in 2010, its lawmakers said last names would go in alphabetical order for the children of same-sex couples, and they left the naming traditions of heterosexuals unchanged.
While Uruguayans seem broadly in favor of legalizing gay marriage, the naming issue has led to some confusion.
"I really can't understand the point of letting heterosexual couples choose the order of their surnames. In reality, I think it's for political correctness, and the price is to lose information: Today when someone is presented, we know clearly who the father is and who the mother is. Not so in the future," said office worker Daniel Alvarez.
Anibal Gloodtdofsky, a lawmaker of the right-wing Colorado Party, who voted in favor, said non-gays may not have realized yet why these changes are necessary, "but the reality is that gays have been living as couples for years, generating rights. These rights must be recognized and attention must be paid to this new version of marriage."
Uruguay has had a civil unions law that covers gay couples, and Bishop Jaime Fuentes of the Roman Catholic Church's Episcopal Conference of Uruguay said "It seems logical that two people of the same sex who care for each other and want to share their lives can have some kind of civil recognition, but it can't be the same as what governs marriage."
But Federico Grana of the Black Sheep Collective, a gay rights group that presented a first draft of the bill, said "society is much broader than just heterosexuals, so the law should reflect this, with everyone included, and no discrimination."