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Chicago gay couple fights for marriage rights in Panama
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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While this month's United States pride festivities will take place for the second year in an era of marriage equality, for LGBTQ communities living in Panama it is still a dream.

However, it is one that is not only seeing unprecedented support in the traditionally Catholic Central American country but has now advanced to Panama's Supreme Court.

The case facing the nine justices follows petitions filed by two couples arguing against the constitutionality of Panama's current marriage ban.

Enrique Raul Jelenszky and John Winstaley filed in October 2016.

Chicago advertising executive Ken Gilberg and his husband Alvaro Levy joined the fight on March 24 of this year and they are looking for help.

Even though they live in the heart of the Lake View gayborhood Gilberg and Levy, who just celebrated their 31st anniversary, dearly want to spend their retirements surrounded by the breathtaking majesty of Levy's home country. After all, it's where they met in 1985 while Gilberg was on a business trip.

"We kept a long-distance relationship going for a year or so," Gilberg said. "Alvaro moved here in 1986. He eventually got his Green Card and became a citizen."

Formerly in advertising himself, Levy retired two years ago. The couple began thinking not only about their futures but those tied to Panama's LGBTQ community.

"We came to realize that we don't have the same rights there that we have here," Gilberg explained. "Even though there's not a lot of overt hostility or towards gay people in Panama and they aren't criminalized, our marriage wasn't recognized."

In the fall of 2016, the couple were approached by the Panama law firm Morgan & Morgan which sought their participation in a Constitutional challenge to the country's existing marriage laws.

"We talked about it," Gilberg said. "One of the advantages that we have, as opposed to people who are younger and live there, is that we're not afraid of any reprisals. One of the issues that they have there is that there are no anti-discrimination laws. So, people are afraid of losing their jobs. We can't lose our jobs since we don't work there. We really have nothing to lose and everything to gain."

The challenge presented to Panama's highest court is to a law written in 2014 which defines marriage as between a man and a woman only. Unions performed in another country with same-sex marriage rights are not recognized.

While the constitutionality of that law will be debated, a second argument has been made that, by discriminating against same-sex couples, Panama is in violation of international human rights.

Meanwhile, Panamanian LGBTQ rights organizations such as the Pro-Equality Alliance have been working towards a groundswell of support for gay marriage.

"They've enlisted psychologists, attorneys and held seminars for anyone who could possibly be a spokesperson to create a unite front that says that [equal marriage] has nothing to do with religion," Gilberg noted.

The groups have also been educating Panama's people on laws which forbid LGBTQ individuals from co-owning property or insurance policies, making health-care decisions for a partner, or receiving pension benefits.

These efforts have been making progress.

May 2017 was declared as a "month against homophobia." Celebrities such as former Miss Panama Sheldry SÃïez took part in a publicity campaign that involved painting a hand in the rainbow flag.

"Let us learn to live in tolerance, we are all the same," she wrote on her Instagram. "Respect is not charity, respect is a right that has the human being at birth."

The campaign took hold and particularly younger Panamanians showed their solidarity literally by hand.

"We've seen public opinion start to shift the other way," Gilberg said. "The arguments have been very civil. A lot of the fears people had have now been answered and a lot of the injustices that they didn't know existed have been brought to light. The current Vice President of Panama [Isabel Saint Malo] has come out in favor of marriage equality. The First Lady will be the Pride Parade Marshal."

"We have established a mentality that we are fighting for rights and we don't care what the Catholic Church thinks," Levy added. "As human beings, we are entitled to be married and to have a life together. Matrimony is not the identity of the church."

Despite an increase in support for equal marriage, there has been significant push-back oddly enough not as much from the majority Catholic institutions but from evangelical and Mormon communities.

As a result, the Supreme Court has asked for Amicus Briefs. It's where Gilberg and Levy are looking to U.S. and international LGBTQ- and equal-rights advocates for support.

"We're trying to get the word out here to enlist organizations, celebrities, anyone we could possibly reach out to who have been in favor of marriage to get on board," Gilberg said.

He added that, so far, he hasn't had much luck.

Gilberg and Levy stressed that their case isn't just about a happy retirement.

"We hope that, at the very least, eventually Panama will pass legislation that will at least allow civil unions," Gilberg said. "Best cast scenario is that the court will rule in our favor and our marriage will be recognized."

"We're doing this for the new generations of Panamanian [LGBTQ] people," Levy added. "We will be their face, we will talk about it. We're not afraid of anything."

To support Gilbert's case, email KENNYG59@RCN.COM .

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