Honduras Measure to Ban Same-Sex Marriage Mobilizes Rights Groups
From his fifth-floor office in the National Congress building, Jose Celin Discua has seen the enemy, and it is us.
The veteran congressman has been watching what he regards as a surging tide of immorality sweeping the United States and other parts of the Western world. He’s determined to stop it from reaching Honduras, even if he has to rewrite the law of the land.
“In various countries of the world -- Holland, Spain, various states of the United States -- there is already [same-sex] marriage,” Discua says. “It is already coming, and it is already accepted.”
But not in this impoverished, crime-racked Central American nation of 6.8 million. In October, Discua sponsored a congressional motion to ban marriage and adoption by homosexuals. Strongly backed by the country’s swelling evangelical Christian movement, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, the motion passed unanimously.
If the measure passes a second legislative vote, as required by federal law, the constitution will be amended to read that marriage only between a man and a woman is legally valid. In effect, Honduras would implement nationwide what 11 U.S. states voted for in ballot measures in November and what President Bush says he hopes to enact across the U.S.: a comprehensive ban on gay marriage.
“We hope that next year they will ratify it, in which we recognize that the state of matrimony is between a man and a woman,” says the Rev. Oswaldo Canales, president of the Evangelical Fraternity of Honduras, which represents 98% of the country’s estimated 2 million evangelicals. “For me, a homosexual is like an alcoholic, like an addict that needs help. They are sick morally and have a sickness of the soul.”
Marriage rights aren’t a high priority for Honduran gay rights activists, but the proposed constitutional ban has mobilized them against what they see as another attempt to relegate gay and lesbian Hondurans to second-class citizenship. The activists say they’re fed up with job discrimination, police brutality, hate crimes and the media’s stereotyping of them as prostitutes, junkies and delinquents.
They place some of the blame for the issue on the U.S. With national elections coming up, gay activists say Honduran conservatives are taking a cue from their counterparts to the north and trying to rally support with the gay-marriage issue.
“The same political campaign that Bush [started] is what” Honduran conservatives are doing, says Edgardo Javier Medina, 43, of the gay rights group Kukulkan. “It is the same line against homosexuals.”
Around the world, the subject of gay marriage is bringing political debate to a boil.
In Spain, the government of Socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has approved a draft law to legalize gay marriage and adoption, despite fervent opposition by Spain’s Roman Catholic authorities. Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has said that his Liberal Party government would introduce legislation in 2005 permitting gay marriage, although the Conservative Party opposes it.
In Honduras, the debate over gay rights has been heating up since Aug. 27, when the country’s minister for the interior and justice, minister of health, and human rights commissioner granted legal status to three gay and lesbian rights organizations, allowing them to officially represent gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transvestites and act on their behalf.
It didn’t take long for a backlash to begin. On Sept. 22, the National Congress recommended that President Ricardo Maduro suspend this legal recognition, which one legislator characterized as an attack on the family and public order. In November, representatives of about 80 evangelical churches filed a petition demanding that the government rescind its recognition of the three groups.
Attorney Paulette Patino, who represents the evangelicals, says that her clients are not homophobic but object to the idea that homosexuality is a normal form of sexuality. As she and the Rev. Canales see it, a small minority of gay Hondurans are trying to impose their will on the rest of the country.
Although opposition to expanding gay rights has support from Honduras’ two largest political parties, a few dissenting voices are being heard from the leftist Party of a Unified Democracy. Gay rights groups are working with the party and smaller political entities, hoping they may yet be able to cobble together enough of a coalition to turn back the conservatives.
Doris Gutierrez, a Unified Democracy deputy, says many of those seeking to reduce gay rights are engaged in demagoguery. She believes that if a plebiscite was held, the majority of Hondurans would not oppose gay marriage.
“This has been manipulated by the media,” she says. “And there is a lot of machismo in this culture. The majority of the [legislators] are men.”
Honduras’ gay community, like those of most Central American countries, is small and politically weak by U.S. or European standards. Though homosexuality is not illegal, only about 5,000 people belong to the country’s eight or so gay rights organizations. There are no identifiably “gay” neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa, a city of more than 1 million, Medina says.
As in other countries, gay activism in Honduras was spurred by the global AIDS crisis in the early and mid-1980s. Although the crisis galvanized gays politically, it also may have reinforced the Honduran public’s negative impressions of homosexuals.
“The papers here in our country have been very coarse, very stupid. They have been very yellow,” says Marco Antonio Lopez, coordinator general of the Violet Collective, the nation’s oldest gay rights group. “These crude conservatives ... are bothering us a great deal, more when we are in [an election] year.”
Despite the attention that’s been showered on the issue, Medina and other activists say that obtaining marriage and adoption rights is less urgent for gays in Honduras than passing legislation against workplace discrimination or curbing police brutality against homosexuals.
“Our priority now is the right to live,” Medina says.
But opponents of gay marriage believe they’re helping to curb a host of related pathologies and moral failings.
Canales, 45, believes that homosexuality is one of several behaviors destroying traditional Honduran family life, which, he acknowledges, has its own grave problems. He believes lesbianism is increasing because of heterosexual domestic violence against women, a byproduct of what he disapprovingly calls a macho culture.
Canales, who has preached at the Angelus Temple in Los Angeles and will be attending a White House breakfast with Bush in February, also says the controversy over gay marriage in the U.S. has helped shape the debate in Latin nations.
“Clearly, it reverberates in these countries,” he says.
Canales says he chose to situate his sprawling church in the capital’s poor, haphazard Comayaguela district to minister to the area’s prostitutes and drug addicts.
Donny Reyes chose to start a gay rights group, Arcoiris, in the area for the same reasons. Reyes, 29, wants the new group to reach out to a younger, wider cross-section of gays and lesbians.
Reyes and his boyfriend, Ariel Medina, 21, don’t know whether the amendment will pass, but they’re resolved to keep fighting. “Perhaps we will not win the battle,” Medina says, “but we will continue with the war.”