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How Costa Rica is battling for gay rights

Costa Rica's gay rights activists have sought a different path than those in the US.

Politicians in Costa Rica have tended to avoid the issue, often considered taboo to a population which, by some estimates, is three-quarters Roman Catholic and 15 percent other Christian denominations.

Not until former President Oscar Arias was nearing retirement from politics did he reveal his conviction that civil unions "should have legal recognition." In April, one month before leaving office, Arias took on the Church, saying, "One doesn't choose one's sexual orientation. It's given by nature or God."

However, if not by referendum, how far do the LGBTs intend to get in Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly? The movement found friends in the legislature in 2006, when lawmakers proposed a bill to recognize the rights of same-sex civil unions. But that initiative never went far.

Even if the bill finds fresh support in the Legislative Assembly, it needs to pass through two votes there and then would go to President Laura Chinchilla for final approval. That could take months.   

And in spite of her predecessor Arias’ remarks, Chinchilla, the country’s first female in the top office, has mostly sidestepped the issue since taking office in May. Following the court ruling, she gave a tepid endorsement of rights for all. “Though I may advocate to maintain the figure of matrimony the way our society constructed it, I understand that the access to rights, civil and patrimonial, is for all, no matter religion, sex or sexual preference,” Chinchilla said, according to newswire EFE.

Opposition undoubtedly will be fierce. In March, when it appeared the initiative could gain momentum, the "Observatorio Ciudadano," or Citizen Observatory, a traditional family values advocacy group, scolded politicians for abandoning Costa Rican fundamentals.

In a newspaper ad, the Observatorio said, "Legally recognizing homosexual unions would turn them into a model for society. This is contrary to the fundamental values we Costa Ricans believe in ... and that are enshrined in articles 51 and 52 of the Constitution."

Abelardo Araya, leader of Costa Rica's Diversity Movement, is heartened by what he’s seen happen in other Latin American countries — Argentina and Mexico City have legalized gay marriage — and California. “I think this international context was beneficial for the magistrates to rule favorably for our rights,” he said. “And we’re very positive that the Latin American region is advancing in this way.”

Among U.S. rights advocates, Minter said, spirits have soared after Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s ruling. “The level of anticipation and excitement in the LGBT community is the highest I have ever seen it. It is extremely intense,” he said.

And the lessons of struggles abroad are raising hopes even higher. “From the U.S. it certainly looks like a very strong emerging trend [in Latin America] and very positive and inspiring for us here in the States,” Minter said.