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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.

Yet despite the remaining stigma, there are a few cracks in traditional Argentine culture that may help in the struggle for equality.

The majority of the country — 92 percent — is nominally Roman Catholic, but only 20 percent practice, according to the CIA Factbook.

And while the cowboys of the pampas and strong-man caudillo politics in the 19th century give Argentina a reputation for machismo — a male-dominated culture intolerant of homosexuality — in practice gender and power roles are more complex. Today, Argentina has a female president and ranks highest among Latin American countries in gender empowerment, according to the United Nations Human Development Index.

And traditional culture aside, parts of Argentine history help explain what makes the country so special when it comes to the gay rights movement. During the military dictatorship, between 1976 and 1983, being openly gay was an invitation for arrest or harassment. But a strong cultural respect for human rights developed in the years following the violence.

"Those political experiences strengthened the organizations and the social movements," said Maria Rashid, president of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transsexuals (LGBT)." It's allowed us to go further in our struggles for rights. Not only for the gay, lesbian and transsexual movement but for other movements too."

The near-success of Freyre and Di Bello speaks to the strength of civil society in Argentina. Freyre and Di Bello secretly planned their legal strategy for more than two years along with Rashid and other couples in the Argentine Federation of LGBT. Each couple pursued a different legal approach through the courts as part of an orchestrated campaign to pressure the judiciary and convince lawmakers to change the civil code.

And Freyre and Di Bello have come the closest. After being denied a marriage license, the couple sued the city of Buenos Aires for denying them their constitutional rights. Last month a city judge ruled in their favor. At the time, the mayor of Buenos Aires said he wouldn't appeal. But after a second federal judge opposed the license, the mayor opted to wait and let the Supreme Court decide.

So instead of a wedding march last week, protest songs broke out at the civil registry. The rose petals on the streets became covered in fliers. And Freyre and Di Bello led a protest, bouquets in hand, to the mayor's office.

"We're going to continue fighting," Rashid said visibly saddened by the mayor's decision. Rashid and her partner were the first couple to bring a lawsuit for marriage rights to the Supreme Court. Her case is among seven cases in various stages of litigation. Nobody is sure exactly which judge has jurisdiction over Freyre and Di Bello's case, but Rashid is sure of one thing: "We'll fight them all — each case — right through the justice system."