Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Gay Marriage That Wasn't (yet)

It was the historic wedding that wasn’t. Jose Maria Di Bello (l) and Alex Freyre (r) were set to become Latin America’s first same-sex married couple on December 1st in Buenos Aires, but an 11th-hour ruling by a federal judge in Argentina halted the ceremony. That wasn’t going to stop them from a good fight, however. The couple -- decked out in black suits, matching silver ties and wearing bright red sashes over their shoulders -- showed up at the Civil Registry in Palermo on Tuesday intent on getting hitched. Hundreds of others were there as well: friends, family and scores of journalists, including myself. Argentina’s gay community was out in force, carrying banners, waving rainbow flags and chanting “Equality, Equality!”

A small group of police in riot gear were also on hand, but wisely stayed a half-block away. A friend told me the police had originally set-up right in front of the courthouse entrance, but a city official yelled at them to get the hell away. The way she saw it, there was no reason for them to be there; it would only cause problems. And there weren’t any problems, save for two young men that yelled “putos” (“homos”) at the crowd, and those two were quickly arrested.

Despite noisy protests and many, many, many speeches by supporters inside the sweltering lobby of the courthouse, Alex and Jose Maria were not permitted to marry. The city of Buenos Aires decided not to challenge the challenge to the earlier ruling, which brought jeers and boos for Buenos Aires Mayor Mauricio Macri, despite the fact that he was the man who had essentially opened the door for the marriage (see below) in the first place. It’s scary how quickly a politician can go from hero to enemy, and on that day Macri was called every name in the book. I think the criticism was undeserved, though, because at that point it really was out of his hands, legally speaking.

On the morning of the planned ceremony, I did several live shots for CNN International talking about the issue, including this one with CNN anchor Natalie Allen.

In the week leading up to Tuesday’s scheduled ceremony, it seemed that every media in the world wanted to speak with Freyre, 39 and Di Bello, 41. They had to send phone calls straight to voicemail, ignore emails and leave texts unanswered. Such is the territory that comes with making history.

The proposed marriage came about because Freyre and Di Bello challenged Argentina’s constitutional ban on same-sex matrimony. When a Buenos Aires city court judge agreed with their claim last month, it allowed them to request a marriage license. Soon after, Macri decided not to appeal the decision, and the ceremony was quickly scheduled for December 1st -- World AIDS Day, a symbolic day for the two HIV-positive men to become husband and husband.

“This is very important for people in general, not only gay, lesbian and transgender people….it’s a human rights question,” Di Bello told me.

I had arranged for CNN to have the first interview with the couple on the day they spoke to media outlets from around the globe. When I was done, the Associated Press interviewed them, followed by media from Brazil, Germany, Spain and the U.K. Originally, I wanted to interview Alex and Jose Maria at their home, and we had arranged to do that, but after receiving literally dozens of international interview requests (in addition to non-stop appearances on local TV and radio programs) they thought it best to do them all in one place, at one time. I could hardly blame them. They chose the Axel Hotel Buenos Aires, the city’s first gay hotel, which also has locations in Barcelona and Berlin. The Axel Hotel markets itself as “hetero-friendly” but it caters almost exclusively to gay men. When we arrived at the hotel, their press handler tried to persuade us to do the interview in front of the Axel Hotel logo; I declined, I wasn’t looking to promote a hotel; I just wanted to interview them. You can see some “Backstory” material on that here.

Needless to say, the proposed gay marriage caused quite a stir, not only in Argentina, but throughout Latin America, where the Catholic Church is still highly influential. Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio criticized the development, and had especially harsh words for Macri, who he said “failed gravely at governing.” Macri had announced his decision not to appeal the verdict via a 1:45 video posted on YouTube, a move that angered many, even his staunchest supporters.

“We have to live together, accept this reality, and recognize that the world is moving in this direction,” Macri says in the video.

I spoke to one congressman from Macri’s conservative PRO party, who was furious that the mayor didn’t alert his party members about the decision.

“He took everyone by surprise with that one, and many our constituents are not happy,” he told me.

And indeed, despite Buenos Aires’ reputation as a progressive Latin American capitol – it was the first city in the region to legalize same-sex civil unions in 2002 – there are still many people here who are angered with this development. All across the city this past week, there have been bright yellow posters plastered on walls with an image of two men kissing and the words, “Did you vote for Macri for this?”

When the first gay civil-union took place in Buenos Aires in July 2003, I was there, covering it for various media outlets. In the days prior, I had filed several reports, including this one for NPR and this one for the Christian Science Monitor. On the day of the civil unions ceremony, scores of journalists were trying to cram into the small room in the downtown government building where it was taking place. When it was complete, the two men, Marcelo Suntheim and Cesar Cigliuitti, exited the building in a raucous hail of rice, confetti and music. I had my microphone and MiniDisc recorder and -- like every journalist there -- was trying to get some words from the men. In the chaos, a television cameraman from a local news station kept chopping me in the back and accusing me of getting in his shot. Truth is, the pandemonium was the problem, not me, but he chose to take his frustration out on an easy target: a young foreign journalist. After he smashed his lens into the back of my skull, I shoved him, and started cursing at him in Spanish with words that I didn’t even knew that I knew. I think this surprised him more than intimidated him, but he looked ready for a fight, and frankly, so was I. That was until two of his co-workers got in my face too and I realized that this was a losing battle. So I quickly peeled away from the scrum, and got some words from the couple from another angle. That’s the only physical altercation I’ve ever had as a journalist. At a huge street party surrounded by men in dresses. Go figure.

Thankfully, there was no violence this week. But the issue is still a raw one. There was a palpable sense of anger from the gay activists I met on Tuesday. I think the fact that they came so close to having the first gay marriage only to have it snatched away at the last minute really pissed them off. And I can understand why. Despite the legal limbo, I think the writing is on the wall. The Argentine Supreme Court is now examining the case, and I suspect they will rule in favor of it soon.

Photos by Brian Byrnes

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