Intro: Guest writer Jane McDevitt reviews the recent past and hopeful future for unmarried and LGBT couples in Uruguay under the new President Mujica. Uruguay was the first Latin American country to allow same-sex civil unions so human rights groups are eager to see what direction the new leader will take. His publicised liberal political ideology is awaiting actual proof.     

From: Ola Uruguay
By Jane McDevitt
December 19, 2010

Uruguay has become a trailblazer for gay rights not only amongst other Latin American countries but also when viewed in an international context. President Mujica has yet to be tested on his stance on gay rights, however his predecessor President Tabare Vazquez was known for a progressive attitude to gay rights during his five year tenure. The then president produced a sweeping tide of legislative change, making Uruguay a desirable country in which to be openly gay.

The current president’s much publicised liberal political ideology is being put to the test, as pressure increases from gay rights activists and human rights groups to legalize gay marriage, in a country where church influence on political issues has increasingly waned. Such groups encouraged by successes in neighboring Argentina want to see similar changes brought to Uruguay.

Uruguay might be lagging behind its neighbor Argentina, which introduced a right to gay marriage in July of this year, but Uruguay was actually the first Latin American country to allow same-sex civil unions on a countrywide basis. Argentina, prior to July 2010, did recognize civil unions but only in Buenos Aires and some other provinces. Argentina may have become the first Latin American country to allow gay marriage, but gay marriage was legalized in some Latin American provinces already. Mexico City in particular is a forerunner—it has allowed homosexuals to marry and adopt since March 2010.

Since January 1, 2008, unmarried couples in Uruguay, including those of the same sex who have been together for at least five years, are legally entitled to sign a registry and enter into a civil union. They then are recognized as being entitled, as part of a civil union, to receive health benefits, and inheritance, parenting, and pension rights associated with their civil partner.

Other Latin American countries are set to follow suit. Chile, is considering legal changes to recognize same sex civil unions, and Brazil has attempted to legalize civil unions on a country-wide basis, but proposals to date have failed (civil unions are recognized in some Brazilian States). Although not creating the equal rights that gay marriage would bring, this changing attitude points to a willingness to take steps toward greater equality. Uruguay’s next step will likely be watched by leaders of other Latin American countries with interest.

Civil unions are not the only measures to be taken to put Uruguay to the forefront of gay rights. Uruguay has amended its laws to allow same sex couples the same rights to adopt as heterosexual couples. Since September 2009, same-sex couples in a civil union can jointly adopt. Uruguay was the first country to allow this despite staunch opposition from the Roman Catholic Church. (Those countries and provinces now legalizing gay marriage, such as Argentina, automatically give this right.)

Uruguayan legislation was also passed to allow transgender individuals to change their name on all official documents, from birth certificates to passports, to reflect the gender of their choice. The measure authorizes sex changes starting at age 18, although earlier proposals did suggest allowing these changes from the age of 12. Initial problems encountered in the passing of this law were overcome by placing emphasis on the fact that this would not legislate for gay marriage, as fears were expressed that same-sex couples would change their name and gender officially to marry.

It is viewed as an important move forward for transgender individuals who encounter difficulties in living a life where previously tied to a gender with which they do not identify. Under the new law, documents reflecting the original gender and name will not be destroyed, but archived and amended.

The Uruguayan government under President Tabare Vazquez also lifted a ban on gay persons serving in the armed forces in May 2009. The ban was imposed by the 1973-85 military dictatorship. President Vazquez signed a decree stating that military recruitment policy would no longer discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, paving the way for homosexuals to serve openly in the military.

This is in line with the increasing global movement to lift such bans. Peru, Columbia, and Argentina have also removed bans in recent years, while the U.S. continues to be dogged by uncertainty as to openly gay recruits.