By a vote of 31 to 24 with nine abstentions, the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District, the jurisdiction to which Mexico City belongs, has passed legislation authorizing gay marriage. This action, taken on December 21, is the first of its kind in Latin America where the hold of traditional Roman Catholic social policy has been so strong that until recently, divorce was illegal in some of countries, and women’s reproductive rights are still severely restricted.

The measure also legalizes adoption by same-sex couples. In 2006, the Assembly had granted civil union rights to gay couples.

The gay marriage rights bill was introduced by legislators from the Revolutionary Democratic Party and the Labor Party, with opposition coming from the conservative National Action Party (PAN), which controls the national presidency, plus legislators from the formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the Green Ecological Party (PVEM). The Mexican Greens are a right-wing party who push for a restoration of the death penalty and other conservative positions.

The reaction from the Roman Catholic Church and smaller Evangelical churches was immediate and condemnatory. Mexico City Archbishop Norberto Rivera, the Roman Catholic Primate of all of Mexico called the action “immoral” and a disaster for society, arguing that, since the purpose of marriage is procreation, same-sex couples who, obviously, can not procreate, should not be allowed to marry.

Angry PAN, PRI and PVEM legislators have called on the Executive of the Federal District (approximately, Mayor of Mexico City), the PRD’s Marcelo Ebrard, to veto the decision but it appears he will not. A constitutional challenge is also being prepared, similar to one that was threatened when the Legislative Assembly legalized abortion.

In spite of the opposition, some national figures of both the PAN and the PRI have said they see it as a positive move for equal rights among all Mexicans. And the federal Minister of Health, Jose Angel Cordova, was quoted by the Mexico City daily La Jornada as saying “How great that there is respect for all persons.”

The history of the church’s involvement in social policy in Mexico is long and conflicted. After the initial Spanish conquest, the church, while denouncing some of the worst violence of the conquistadores, tried to establish a monopoly over all belief, employing the Holy Inquisition to go after dissenters and heretics. After independence, major conflicts developed between the feudal-minded church hierarchy and modernizing political forces such as president Benito Juarez. In 1856 the Ley Lerdo (“Lerdo’s Law”) promoted by liberal secularist politician Miguel Lerdo de Tejada, tried to restrict the church’s economic activities (it was a major landowner). In a bloody civil war, conservatives allied with the church drove President Juarez into internal exile and, in alliance with Napoleon III of France, brought in Archduke Maximilian, the younger brother of Emperor Franz Josef of Austria, as “Emperor of Mexico”. But Juarez returned to power and renewed enforcement of anti-clerical legislation. After the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, anti-clerical laws were strengthened. Church properties were confiscated, and clergy forbidden from voting, holding office or even going out in public in clerical garb. In the 1920s, repression of the church was followed by a Catholic rebellion in West-Central Mexico, called the Cristiada or Cristero movement. Atrocities were committed by both sides, with followers of “Christ the King” burning secular schoolteachers to death, and the army devastating the affected areas.

This bloody history has ingrained a strong anti-clerical and secularist tendency in Mexican political culture, while the Church has retained a strong influence over social customs. The PAN, to which President Felipe Calderon belongs, was founded in 1939 by people who wanted to reverse this tendency. It includes on its right fringe people who can be classified as clerical fascists. Some PAN state governors and local leaders have shown an inclination to impose church-based sexual morality by legislation or decree, which has been criticized as an infraction of the separation of church and state.

So, while the vote of the Legislative Assembly was a big victory for Mexico’s gay and lesbian community, there is a long struggle ahead.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.