To the cheers of a delighted crowd, Joazinho Moraes and Alcindo Sandini exchanged gold rings and cut their white wedding cake inside their beauty salon across the street from Porto Alegre's Roman Catholic cathedral. A day earlier the two men sealed their commitment by signing papers before a justice of the peace, becoming the latest gay couple to get hitched in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil's first state to permit civil unions between same-sex couples.
Now it was time to party with champagne and hors d'oeuvres, a celebration that symbolizes one of the biggest gains for gay rights in Latin America.
Unlike the controversy raging in the United States over same-sex marriages, a landmark judicial decision two months ago allowing civil unions in Brazil's southernmost state has generated little tension in Porto Alegre. It's such a nonissue in South America's largest country that many people don't even know
In the United States, same-sex couples from San Francisco to New York State raced to get married for fear that newly permitted gay marriages could soon be made illegal. But even opponents of civil unions in Rio Grande do Sul doubt the decision will be overturned. Only a few dozen gay couples have tied the knot so far in the state capital of Porto Alegre, a city of 1.4 million in a state best known for cowboys, prime cuts of beef, and hearty red wine. For others, there's no reason to rush.
Moraes and Sandini decided to joined in a civil union in March but waited because they needed time to plan their party and send out invitations. The most nerve-racking moment for Moraes came just before the couple legalized their relationship. "I was scared to death he'd back out at the last minute," Moraes said with relief after getting the civil union certificate and preparing to share a bottle of champagne with Sandini. "But he did it, and now we can be happy."
The order allowing civil unions gives same-sex couples in Rio Grande do Sul broad rights in areas such as inheritance and child custody and legal grounds to seek insurance benefits and pensions. Legislation approved last year in Buenos Aires, Argentina, was hailed as the first big victory for gay rights in Latin America. But unlike the Brazilian decree, the Argentine measure does not grant gay couples legal status for their unions nor allow them to adopt children or receive inheritances.
The Rio Grande do Sul decision came after a lesbian college professor heading on a sabbatical abroad tried to get her university to pay for her partner's costs but was refused because the two were not married. Following a request by the state's human rights commission, a panel of judges issued an opinion defending gays' right to seek the same legal protections afforded to traditional married couples. Under Brazilian law, it cannot be overturned in federal courts. "The only way to change it would be with a constitutional amendment to say, 'All Brazilians are equal except gays' and that will never happen," said Luis Gustavo Weiler, a leader of Nuances, a Porto Alegre gay group.
The order generated modest interest in Porto Alegre's newspapers, with local religious leaders condemning civil unions as condoning "sin" and "heresy." But it barely made ripples elsewhere in Brazil and didn't lead to calls by national politicians to halt civil unions. Although Brazilians often deride them in crude jokes, gays are generally tolerated. Their drag parades have long been major draws during Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro and in the northeastern city of Salvador.
Brazil is the world's largest predominantly Roman Catholic country, but most Brazilians don't think civil unions affect them, so they don't complain, said Father Ricardo Paz, a Porto Alegre priest and ecclesiastical judge. "It's a pragmatic attitude which says, 'As long as I don't suffer the
consequences, fine' without realizing that this could destroy the concept of family and confuse our children, especially teens, who will see this as an option," he said.
Moraes and Sandini have lived together for eight years. They said their life won't change much now that they're joined by a civil union. They just hope their civil union certificate will convince the bank where Sandini works that Moraes should be added to his partner's health insurance plan.
Dressed in black suits, the two greeted guests with kisses on the cheeks as they arrived for the reception in the salon, festooned with green and yellow drapes, the colors of Brazil's flag. Moraes took off one of his shoes for his secretary to carry around the room on a silver platter so people could stuff money inside, a Rio Grande do Sul wedding tradition normally reserved for the bride.
Crying and laughing, 60-year-old Sueli Vargas hugged Moraes and Sandini. After living through Brazil's 1964-1985 dictatorship, Vargas said legalizing civil unions is a small change in a country still getting used to democratically elected leaders, freedom of speech, and an uncensored press. "Before, everyone thought that relationships were just for man and woman, but that's changing," she said. "There's been so many big changes since the dictatorship that this just seems natural."
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