MEXICO CITY — It was no spectacular wedding with carriages and elegant dresses. The couple in their late 30s both dressed in jeans and T-shirts to make their life commitment to each other and then celebrated with an egg and chili breakfast in a diner.
But the two gay men, who signed up for a same-sex civil union in the Mexican capital, said the lack of frills took nothing away from the joy they felt.
“It was an amazing day for me. We had already been living together, but it is really special to take it that step further,” said Antonio Guerrero, a 39-year-old accountant. “It was also important to show our families that we were really committed.”
Two years after Mexico City allowed same-sex civil unions, they have become a quiet and unremarkable part of the environment.
The dozens of such ceremonies celebrated each month without hullabaloo are part of a wave of social liberalization that advocates say has transformed Mexico City into a center of progressives in a continent long dogged by backwardness.
Controversial reforms in 2007 that granted terminally ill patients the right to suspend medical treatments and allowed for abortion during the first 12 weeks of any pregnancy have also become common practices.
One hospital in northern Mexico City now has a special clinic dedicated to terminating pregnancies, and hundreds of women use its services every month.
In total, more than 23,300 women have had legal abortions in Mexico City since the law was passed two years ago.
The changing social norms are also visible on the capital’s streets, with an explosion of gay shops and clubs opening in the city center, and a gay pride march whose turnout grows every year.
The transformation makes the Mexican capital stand out in Latin America, where the choice of abortion is only allowed in Cuba and Guyana and gays complain of persecution across the continent.
The new laws, advocates argue, allows liberties that were denied by governments influenced by the Roman Catholic Church.
“It is innovative legislation in Latin America that gives security and establishes rights,” said Victor Hugo Cirigo, head of the city assembly's majority leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).
However, for church officials and conservatives, the changes are anything but a step forward.
The transformation, they argue, marks a worrying decay of family values and an increase in Godless social decadence.
“People are losing the idea of what is sacred. The voice of the church does not count for what it used to in people’s lives,” said Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City. “In some cases even when they say they are Catholic, they say they are free to make their own decisions. This does worry us.”
The law changes in Mexico City were made possible by the left-dominated assembly, which has powers similar to state legislatures in the United States.
Under Cirigo’s leadership, lawmakers who took power in 2006 rapidly moved on the socially liberal agenda, breaking from the Mexican left’s tradition of focusing on “knife and fork” economic questions.
The stance appears to have won sympathy among much of the public.
Since election campaigns kicked off this month for a new set of lawmakers for the assembly, candidates have been competing over who is strongest on gay issues and women’s rights.
Meanwhile, members of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), of President Felipe Calderon, have refrained from commenting on such issues, fearing it could lose them votes.
Calderon narrowly took the presidency in 2006 thanks to the support of middle-class urban professionals, many of whom cheer on his pro-business policies but have little time for his party’s social conservatism.
Hopeful candidates promise more such reforms in Mexico City, including the possible legalization of prostitution and marijuana.
Furthermore, eying events in the capital, candidates for state legislatures and Congress seats have also been playing up their liberal credentials.
In Veracruz, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) has put out one particularly blunt poster aimed at gay voters.
“For the (conservative) PAN you are a queer, but for us you are more than a vote,” it says.
Such a spread of the socially liberal agenda plays into the worst fears of Mexico’s conservative campaigners.
In an attempt to fight back, conservative activists are lobbying state legislatures to reinforce their current abortion laws.
Twelve legislatures have already heeded this call, approving declarations that fetuses have human rights.
While such wording does not change their penal codes — which allow abortion in cases of rape — the activists hope it will be a defense against any attempt to bring in Mexico City-style laws.
“We are concerned the changes in the capital will spread to other states,” said veteran conservative campaigner Jorge Serrano Limon, of Pro Life. “But mostly we are concerned that Mexico is setting a bad example for other countries in Latin America.”
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