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Caracas: Sneaking into the Chapel Through the Back Door
by José Orozco

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Pictured Symbolic blessing in Caracas. Tamara Adrian at her law office. Elena Hernaíz and Ana Margaríta Rojas at their home. Photos by César Rojas.

Gay marriage is sweeping the planet. That might be true in isolated pockets of enlightened government, but in Venezuela it's still a long way off. In the meantime, gay and lesbian couples, with the help of their lawyers, are finding ways to protect themselves.

Gay and lesbian couples standing before a cleric, wedding decorations, champagne and an audience of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered (GLBT) and their heterosexual allies. It's a scene that's been repeated from Holland to Canada, from Argentina to Massachusetts. But weddings they're not.

A recent Saturday night in a well-known Caracas cultural center saw such a scene. But in a country with a constitutional article explicitly limiting marriage to a man and a woman, whose language also makes legalizing civil unions a headache, the best these couples could manage was a symbolic blessing. Not that they were complaining.

'Till death do us part because love moves everything,' was the reason for getting blessed given by a lesbian who participated in the ceremony [she asked not to be named]. Presided over by Caracas' chapter of the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Community Churches, which opened its doors to gays and lesbians from its founding in 1968, the symbolic blessing showed gay marriage's two sides. As with straight marriages, it's about rights and symbols.

Long-term couples don't need to legitimize their commitment to the outside world. Yet they do need to acquire the rights that married couples enjoy, including inheritance and adoption as well as the right to make decisions for your partner in medical emergencies.

'We'd like to legalize our union,' said Inés Alvarez, referring to her partner Jenitza Pérez. 'But it's logical that we do it through alternative routes while there's no [marriage]. We've fought too hard to get into a situation where if I die, she [Pérez] ends up in limbo.'

The couples who participated in Venezuela's first symbolic blessing for gay and lesbian couples didn't gain any rights, but they did experience the joy of affirming their relationships in a public space.

'We wanted to legitimize our relationship before God,' said Pérez. 'To say 'this is my partner, I love her and I want to spend the rest of my life with her.' We also wanted to show society that this is a serious relationship and to reaffirm our rights.'

Fighting the Law

Ana Margaríta Rojas and Elena Hernaíz, who also received the symbolic blessing, met 18 years ago when Hernaíz's son introduced his mom to his music teacher. But that's none of anyone's business.

'It doesn't matter how we met, nor why we're gay,' explained Hernaíz. 'But what does matter is our individuality. We get interviewed because we're gay, but no one pays attention to us because we're successful professional members of a community.'

Hernaíz doesn't refer to a GLBT community, physical or affective, but the apartment building and neighborhood the couple call home. She and Rojas insist on framing the issue of gay rights within the framework of human rights.

'We're part of a collective,' said Hernaíz. 'We don't want to be placed in a ghetto and separated from the rest of society.'

Rojas and Hernaíz run a small consulting company and a non-profit called Reflections (Reflejos). Just off the ground, the non-profit aims to construct citizenship, for gays and everyone else. Rojas and Hernaíz have organized on citizenship issues for years as they dealt with their own issue of discrimination.

'I had a heart attack while Ana was out of town,' said Hernaíz. 'My family made decisions without consulting Ana, things like moving me from a clinic to a hospital as well incurring all kinds of debts. When Ana returned to Caracas, we were in a mess.'

If someone in Venezuela doesn't have children, siblings or parents, Venezuelan laws authorize a third cousin to make medical decisions before a gay partner, claimed Rojas. 'That's why we needed to protect ourselves,' added Hernaíz.

The couple met with a parade of lawyers to explain their problem. Without gay marriage or civil unions, the situation demanded some creative legal work. But the lawyers Rojas and Hernaíz met almost invariably belittled or ridiculed them. Then they met Adriana Pérez.

Learning from the efforts of other lawyers, Pérez forged a path through the legal morass, drafting a document grounded in rights that apply to all Venezuelan citizens. Armed with this document, Pérez helped legalize her first union in May, 2003.

The process requires the gay or lesbian couple to sign seven separate documents. A general power of attorney covers shared property and requires each partner to sign a document. The medical power of attorney and a testament declaration require the same. The last document, called a declaration of deed, 'states that a same-sex couple lives together,' said Pérez.

The two powers of attorney and the two declarations apply to all citizens. But the declaration of deed explicitly states the gay or lesbian couple's partnership, setting a precedent for the legalization of gay and lesbian unions. It's not marriage, nor as complete as a civil union, yet it protects a couple from the kind of irresponsibility Hernaíz's family exercised during her hospitalization.

As Pérez says, 'It's absolutely legal and notaries [who authorize the documents] can't reject them.'

The long road ahead

José Ramon Merentes, General Coordinator for the gay-rights group Affirmative Union, entered a gay marriage request to the National Assembly's (AN) Constitutional Assembly in '99 when the current constitution was written and voted on by the Venezuelan people. That's where the trouble began. Not only did they not accept it, they clearly stated in article 77 that marriage was a heterosexual affair.

Tamara Adrian, a local law professor and lawyer, suggests that the article doesn't squash efforts to legalize unions, but in fact encourages them. The country's Bolivarian Constitution incorporates all international human-rights agreements ratified by Venezuelan representatives to the United Nations (UN), the Organization of American States (OAS) and other bodies. Merentes cites the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, for one, which expressly protects GLBT people from discrimination and guarantees them equal citizenship rights. The constitution, then, is effectively contradicting itself by denying gay marriage.

Last October, Merentes entered an interpretation request to the Supreme Justice Tribunal (TSJ) on gay marriage. There's been no response. 'This isn't the right moment,' said Adrian. 'The bottom line is timing. Socially, [for AN members] there are more important and relevant things.'

Carlos Gutiérrez, executive director of academic sexual diversity group ContraNatura, claims that the journey will be long. He adds that the best route lies in entering repeated interpretation requests to the TSJ, describing Venezuelan society as a 'totalitarian sexual regime.'

Most gay activists and law experts agree that challenging the constitution directly is an uphill battle. Like Gutierrez, Adrian recommends using the TSJ to recognize these 'civil pacts.' She places her hopes in 'a judge or politician with sufficient strength and conviction to do something to recognize these rights.' Otherwise, Adrian adds, gay marriage will have to wait for more prosperous times than the country's current economic and political crisis.

Until either happens, it's the back door to the chapel, and legal rights, for gay and lesbian couples.

Caracas Gay Rights Activists. Adriana Pérez, lawyer. Ph: 011 58 412 315 6257. E: . Elena Hernaíz, activist. Ph: 011 58 212 239-2620. E: .ve. Carlos Gutiérrez, academic. Ph: 011 58 412 827-1455. José Ramón Merentes, activist. Ph: 011 58 751-3501.

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