Over the Rainbow
It was one of my first evenings in Buenos Aires, on a reporting trip in May 2011 to cover the relationships among religion, politics, and LGBT rights leading up to and since Argentina’s legalization of same-sex marriage the year before. I stopped in Recoleta Cemetery, a burial place for Argentina’s elite. The day had been spent in walking exploration—a chance to get my bearings, to see the streets and the plazas I’d read about in news reports. But at the entrance to the cemetery, I left current events under the large letters reading Requiescant In Pace, and I got lost in the past.
A life-sized bronze statue of a young woman, big eyes looking ahead and long, straight hair covering her shoulders, with cobwebs connecting nose to chin to chest, caught my eye. I looked at her sun-lit face, smiled at the life-sized bronze dog next to her, snapped a photo and moved on, eager to see who stood on the next corner.
A week later, I learned the story of that statue from Luigi Ronchi, a former Christian missionary who had heard it, and the stories of many others, from an elderly cemetery tour guide. Liliana Crociati de Szaszak, a 26-year-old artist, was on her honeymoon in Innsbruck, Austria, when an avalanche struck her hotel. She died beneath the weight of the snow. That same day, February 26, 1970, more than 7,000 miles away in her Argentina home, Liliana’s faithful dog, Sabú, also died. Grief-stricken, her parents commissioned the statue in her honor. She stands in front of a neo-Gothic tomb, designed by her mother, and wears her wedding dress, the same dress Liliana was buried in. The details changed my understanding; they gave life, even in death, to Liliana.
They also changed my outlook on my reporting. I wasn’t in Buenos Aires simply to investigate the new law and the Catholic Church’s opposition. I was there to learn the individual stories that are frequently ignored and easily dismissed. The order of events, statistics, and general attitudes provide a necessary context. But the personal narratives, the first-hand accounts, provide the emotional core of the story, and maybe even a barometer on how things will play out in the future.
These individual stories are particularly important to consider now that the leader of the Argentine church’s vocal resistance to equal marriage, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, has become Pope Francis. Back in July 2010, just before the final bill’s vote, Bergoglio notoriously called same-sex marriage a “destructive attack on God’s plan,” a “threat to the natural order.” Now, just three years later, his public opinions on homosexuality have taken a different shape. In his new role as Pope, Francis spoke out against judging gays and lesbians, and admitted the Church shouldn’t be so focused on issues like same-sex marriage. The sharp contrast in the religious leader’s statements notwithstanding, many—Catholics and non-Catholics, Argentines and not—have already suffered the effects of a discriminatory culture, their views on marriage, legal or not, shaped by forces beyond their control.
Argentina’s fight for gay marriage officially began in 2007 when Claudia Castro and María Rachid went to the Civil Registry as a couple and submitted the first-ever request by a same-sex couple to be married. Many people on both sides of the issue thought victory would be impossible. They stood against the Catholic Church’s strong opposition and Argentine society’s general ambivalence. But nonetheless, the entire LGBT community had come together to advocate for marriage rights—an achievement in itself. Many groups dedicated to sexual diversity joined forces under the umbrella of the Federación Argentina de Lesbianas, Gays, Bisexuales y Trans (FALGBT), then led by María Rachid. Standing outside in the freezing early morning hours of July 15, 2010, after 14 hours of debate on the Senate floor, the naysayers were proven wrong.
Verónica Capriglioni, a photographer and a leader of the lesbian-feminist group La Fulana who was capturing it all through her lens, remembers the moment just before the official announcement. “They were minutes that transformed themselves into hours. The eyes, the looks. All of my friends, my fellow activists, all of those people feeling the same. The nerves, the emotion, the crying. To see Claudia Castro and María Rachid who started all this… Everything was perfect.” A special education teacher, she can’t be open about her sexuality at work. But she is committed.
“When we heard the approval, our differences ceased to exist. It didn’t matter if the person next to you was from a different organization, if you couldn’t stand them, if you didn’t know them, or if you had ideological, political, or cultural differences. At that moment everyone in the plaza felt the same; we shared that feeling and we celebrated it. We hugged and we cried and we screamed. We felt love and happiness. We had achieved that equality.”
Despite the fact that Argentina is one of just 15 countries worldwide that allows same-sex marriage, homophobic attitudes are still widespread. Most believe that with time, exposure, and education, discrimination will wane. Yet for many gay people I met in Argentina, there is still a lot of ambivalence about marriage itself. There’s a saying about marriage in Argentina that goes something like this: los que están dentro quieren salir, y los que están fuera quieren entrar. Or, those who are inside want to leave, and those who are outside want to enter.
I met Verónica Enciso my last day in Buenos Aires, about two hours before I needed to leave for the airport. She was working in a local design shop, I was buying a gift for my nephew, and we were both, as it turned out, eager for conversation. It somehow felt like we’d known each other for years and before long, as her eyes welled up with tears, she was sharing her story.
Vero grew up in a family of Testigos de Jehová, or Jehovah’s Witnesses, part of a tightknit minority religious community in an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Argentina. She liked the closeness and she felt “protected from bad influences, from people who didn’t have God’s protection, from those who were going to be destroyed in Armageddon.” It was very strict. She wasn’t allowed to socialize with non-Witnesses—a rule Vero’s been experiencing from the other side since she renounced the religion almost six years ago. She’s been shunned by family and by old friends. “Now I don’t cry,” she told me. “But before I cried.” Then, a few seconds later: “Let’s leave this topic because I’m starting to get really sad. Please.” Four years ago, she finally came out to her family. Her mother got up from the table and left Vero eating dinner alone. They didn’t talk about it then, and they haven’t talked about it since.
Asked a few weeks later whether she’d like to get married one day, now that the opportunity exists in Argentina, Vero offered a resounding no. “I’m never going to get married,” she exclaimed. “Not even with a woman!” It scares her too much; she’d feel trapped. She listed the reasons, then relented, slightly: “I’d have to be really in love. Maybe then.” It’s possible that Vero’s still-raw breakup with Cari, her girlfriend of 2 years and the owner of the design shop where I met her, had something to do with the reluctance. But more likely is the influence of her strict religious background.
“I don’t walk around with a rainbow flag,” she told me when explaining why the equal marriage law didn’t interest her. “I’m really laid back with that. It’s a matter of respect, for those who still have trouble seeing two girls holding hands. And for my family, I suppose.”
Luigi realized he was attracted to boys at a very young age, in second or third grade. Thinking that he just needed to be closer to God, he studied theology and embraced various forms of Christianity whose central focus was the idea that homosexuality was sinful. That eventually led Luigi to the apostolic Cooneyite ministry, known as the Church with No Name or the 2×2 Church. Before long he’d quit law school, given up all of his earthly possessions, and joined the mission in a last-ditch effort to escape the inevitable. Now, nearly four years later and after intense therapeutic work, he says he’s open to whatever life may bring, including marriage.
Luigi shares Vero’s discomfort with overzealous public displays of sexuality, which became clear as we walked around the LGBT pride festival immediately before the parade in Buenos Aires in November 2011. Luigi’s a good-looking guy, tall, clean-cut and stylish, with an interest in activities like polo and sailing. He’s worldly, speaks fluent English and Portuguese, and has made impressive strides toward building a new life since leaving the ministry.
It was his first time at the festival, an event that has grown significantly since the adoption of same-sex marriage in July 2010, and it only took him a few minutes to dismiss it as a lowbrow spectacle—as with most things, he wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions—critiquing everything from the clothing (or lack thereof) to the music, to the absence of handsome men. Luigi left before the parade began, but not before he insisted on “being gay” and posing for photos with the most elaborately and outrageously dressed. “My therapist is going to love this,” he said. “He’ll be really proud of me.”
For him, the equal marriage law in Argentina didn’t just serve the practical purpose of allowing him to marry a male partner. Importantly, it also provided validation. It meant that it was acceptable to be gay—for Luigi, for anyone. “The biggest victory of the law of gay marriage in Argentina is to help the coming generations to have an inner victory,” he believes. “Laws such as this help them to grow up with the knowledge, with the certainty, that this is okay.” A few minutes later, he added: “Imagine if I’d had this knowledge when I was 12 or 11.” We both paused, wondering how his life might have taken a very different course.
Vero and Luigi’s experiences highlight the painful struggle of accepting and expressing sexuality within a severely conservative religious community. But at least one denomination welcomes Argentina’s gays and lesbians. ICM (Iglesia de la Comunidad Metropolitana), known in the United States as the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church), is a global denomination with outreach directed at the LGBT community. As the only regular female member of this ecumenical church, Gladys Trinidad is accustomed to spending most of her free time with men. She relates to them better, she says, remembering how she liked to tag along with her father as a kid, building things and playing sports. “The gays are very fun, but it’s different among the lesbians,” she told me. Acknowledging that lesbians have a tendency toward bitterness, she expressed her personal desires clearly: “I’d like to have a happy partner. It doesn’t matter if she doesn’t have a cent, but it’s important that’s she has a certain happiness.”
Gladys often says that she is doubly discriminated against because she’s a minority twice over—she’s a Paraguayan living in Buenos Aires, and she’s a lesbian. In the more conservative and strongly Catholic Paraguay, as the youngest of eight siblings who are all married with children, Gladys always felt like a black sheep. She moved to Buenos Aires 14 years ago, to change her life. She speaks slowly, with a thick accent, as she mentally translates from her native Guarani to Spanish.
She may have a tough exterior, but Gladys is a natural caretaker, who cooks professionally for an elderly German couple. Like many in Argentina’s LGBT community, she sees marriage as a means of protection. “If something happens to one of us,” she told me, “we can be sure that nobody will be able to take what we gained and achieved with a lot of sacrifice.” But personally speaking, she’d say that at the moment, no, she’s not going to get married. “Maybe that’s because I haven’t found the right person.”
When I met her during that May trip, she’d recently gotten out of a ten-year relationship and she was brokenhearted. But she never speaks poorly of her exes, or of anyone for that matter. And in a more recent conversation, she told me that she’s beginning to open herself back up to the possibility of love, to the possibility of meeting a good, healthy person. A hardworker. A woman that she can share her life with, that she can talk with and be close to. That, to Gladys, is the true meaning of a partnership.
The car sped down the highway, weaving through traffic, and the city of Buenos Aires was soon in the rearview. It was a beautiful fall morning, one of the last of May, and as I enjoyed the changing scenery from the back seat, Gustavo Michanie (or Micha, as he’s better known) and German Vaisman discussed the presentation they were about to give.
When President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed the gay marriage bill into law, Micha was there, at the Casa Rosada. He had played a key role in this moment, by gathering funds and securing support from rabbis and other Jewish leaders. Micha came to Casa Rosada with two knit rainbow kippas—one on his head, the other a gift for the president. It was fittingly symbolic, a representation of his strong identification with being Jewish and with being gay.
We pulled in late to Macabi—one of several Jewish social clubs located outside the federal capital—and the woman at the security booth, asking our names and our business, nearly fell off her chair when Micha said we were representing Gay Argentine Jews.
“Those exist?” she exclaimed, eyes wide in genuine disbelief. Micha’s organization, Judíos Argentinos Gays (JAG), has most recently centered its efforts on education, and particularly on holding sexual diversity training sessions with students. As we drove into the complex, Micha, repeating the question between cackles, looked in the rearview and told me that was all I needed to know about being gay and Jewish in Argentina.
Maximiliano Pelosi, known as Maxi, might agree. He is not Jewish himself, but his partner’s family is Orthodox, and they don’t know that Maxi exists. Maxi, on the other hand, has an intimate knowledge of them. At his office in Buenos Aires, he told me a story about meeting his partner’s mother at a kosher butcher shop, and engaging in small talk about the meat, about the prices. To her, Maxi was a stranger, a nice young man willing to chat. Maxi, on the other hand, knew everything about her. He’d even picked out the blouse she was wearing that day as a present for her birthday. “I thought that was very unfair,” he said about her not knowing that. And then added: “For her, not for me.”
Most of JAG is made up of Argentines in their 40s, but not all. There is Norman, a New Yorker in his late 70s. Norman met Jorge, a Cuban, on a summer Sunday in 1980 in East Hampton, New York, and they were together from that day until Norman passed away in January 2012, after a long battle with lung cancer. “Our relationship is a serious relationship,” Norman told me in a whisper. They chalked it up, quite simply, to love and to commitment, which had been strengthened by Norman’s illness, and not only between him and Jorge, but also among the community of friends they became part of after moving to Buenos Aires in 2006.
Despite the age gap, the JAG community treated Norman and Jorge equally, with respect. They ensured that they were cared for—they drove them to the doctor and home from parties; they called to check in, to say I love you. “My own kids wouldn’t even do any of that,” Norman said. The deeply social nature of Argentine culture is an aspect that Norman and Jorge, as a couple, treasured. “It’s a family type of life,” Jorge explained, “both among the gay and the straight communities, but it’s especially important for the gay community.”
Norman and Jorge got married in the summer of 2010, 30 years after they met, three years after they’d had a commitment ceremony, and six weeks after the same-sex marriage bill was signed into law in Argentina. Jorge didn’t have a problem with getting married, because it was important to Norman, but he won’t accept that gays are equal in Argentina. “The fact that they signed a law and said that you can get married is not accepting you,” he told Norman, in what seemed like a familiar discussion between them. “It doesn’t come from the heart. It came from politics.”