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Leading Latin America in the push for gay rights

Why Argentina might become the first Latin American country to legalize gay marriage.

Jose Maria Di Bello, right, and his partner Alex Freyre kiss at a hotel bar in Buenos Aires, Nov. 25, 2009. (Marcos Brindicci/Reuters)

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — There were rose petals and rice on the ground in front of the civil registry in Buenos Aires. But in the end they weren't for Alex Freyre and Jose Maria Di Bello, the gay couple hoping to achieve Latin America's first same-sex marriage.

On the eve of their wedding day last week, a national judge overturned a city court decision to issue them a marriage license. The couple came to the registry anyway, vowing not to leave until they were wed.

Protesters quietly mingled among the crowd of supporters. Roxanna Olivera, 33, wore a tie-dye rainbow shirt that said, "Jesus is Your Alternative." "What will we tell our children," she said watching the gay rights supporters waving flags and chanting for Alex and Jose. "There's a law of God we need to follow."

Tim Thomas, host of the gay radio program "Tal Como Somos," politely interrupted Olivera. "It's not just about children. We don't have the same rights that you do. It's a question of civil rights."

The issue of gay marriage is being discussed all over Argentina lately with the prospective wedding of Freyre and Di Bello. So how is it that Argentina — a country that strongly identifies with the Catholic Church and machismo culture — continues to lead Latin America in the push for gay rights?

"We historically come from European countries here," Thomas said. "There's so many Spanish, so many Italians. It's a total mix of Europe and that might make Argentina more progressive than other places."

That's a common refrain. Argentines, and the portenos of Buenos Aires in particular, are proud of their European roots. Spain is one of only seven countries in the world to allow gay marriage, but Italy with strong ties to the Catholic Church does not.

The other six countries to legalize same sex marriage include European countries such as Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as Canada and South Africa.

In 2002, Buenos Aires legalized same-sex civil unions. Four other Argentine cities, Mexico City and parts of Brazil soon followed. Uruguay legalized civil unions nationwide, but Buenos Aires was still the first city in Latin America ready to take the first step.

"Buenos Aires is a gay-friendly city," said groom-to be Di Bello, holding Freyre's hand. A few days before the planned wedding the couple held court with the press at the Axel Hotel, Latin America's first luxury hotel built exclusively for gay clientele. The hotel, along with gay wine shops, gay tango clubs, gay friendly shops and restaurants, and even hosting the Gay World Cup in 2007 have helped the city promote this reputation.

But Andrea Lopez says that reputation doesn't hold true for the average Argentine. "It's all a show for tourists," the 46-year-old said while waiting with family to support DiBello and Freyre at the civil registry. Lopez says Argentina's gay culture is not as open as Brazil's. Lopez's girlfriend and most people she knows are only openly gay to a select few. "It doesn't matter if tourists are seen, but Argentines have to worry about losing their jobs."