Gay marriage: a tale of two cities

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In an unusual example of synchronicity, in mid-December the semi-autonomous capital cities of both the United States and Mexico altered their laws to allow same-sex marriage.

In neither case was the vote even close.

In Mexico City’s legislative assembly, the vote was 39-20. In the Washington, D.C., City Council, the vote was 11-2. In both cases the new law was a modest change from an existing civil unions law. The new Mexico City law, for example, defines marriage as “a free union between two people” instead of “a free union between a man and woman.”

Both offer possible lessons for efforts elsewhere. The Washington law is a tribute to two decades of sustained efforts by the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance and other groups, which lobbied legislators and spoke regularly at churches and community events. They worked on an incremental approach, adding one element after another to a narrow civil unions law until there was little difference from marriage except the highly symbolic name.

The Mexico City law affects far more people. Washington has a population of less than 700,000 while Mexico City has a population of nearly 9 million, making it the largest city in Latin America.

The Washington law has the advantage of the precedents of five U.S. states, which have adopted gay marriage. By contrast, Mexico City is the first jurisdiction in Latin America to adopt gay marriage. Both Uruguay and Colombia have adopted civil unions but not gay marriage.

The Latin American precedent provided by Mexico City is considerable, much as the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts constituted an impressive precedent for courts and legislatures in other New England states. It provides a model of what Mexican states should do if they want to be equal to the federal district, and it implicitly constitutes a reminder to social democratic parties in other countries that they have no grounds for denying equality for gays.

Although Mexico is a conservative Catholic country, Mexico City’s legislature is controlled by the left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party, which has long existed in tension with the Catholic Church. It has evolved a position of supporting comprehensive equality for gays as part of its social democratic agenda. A spokesman for the Catholic Church deplored the new law and said that gays and transsexuals would “never enter into the kingdom of heaven”; but the DRP was not intimidated by medieval theology and silly costumes and gave the new law 100-percent support.

Beyond that, both cities illustrate an interesting point about the relation of economic and social freedom. Like Washington, Mexico City has a sizable and visible gay population, a gay enclave and several gay bars. Once a jurisdiction affords economic freedom to its citizens, they begin to assert the right to more autonomy in other parts of their lives as well.

It may be worth mentioning here that the social democratic route to gay equality is not the only one. There is also the libertarian/minimal government route of reducing the scope of government and depriving it of the power and right to grant special rights to some groups (e.g., heterosexuals) but not to others (e.g., homosexuals).

Paul Varnell is a nationally syndicated columnist based in Chicago.

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