One Country’s Big Gay Leap

Author: Frank Bruni
Publication: New York Times
Publication Date: October 8th, 2011

Click here to read the full article at the New York Times.

WHEN she turned 38 last month, Brenda Frota Johnson got a sweet surprise: a formal “happy birthday” from her longtime partner’s mother.

It wasn’t a gift or even a card, just a succinct text message, but even so, it had no precedent over the 10 years that she and her partner, Isabel Advirta, 39, had been making a life and a home here together.

Why this birthday? The two women share a theory.

“Brenda’s now officially a part of the family,” Advirta said recently as they watched their 3-year-old daughter, Salomé, play in a leafy Lisbon park.

Johnson agreed. “It’s because we’re married,” she said. That legal blessing — that loftiest of imprimaturs — has changed little between them but a lot around them.

With minimal international attention, Portugal — tiny, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Portugal — legalized same-sex marriage last year. Although the country is hardly seen as a Scandinavian-style bastion of social progressivism, it’s one of just 10 countries where such marriages can be performed nationwide, and in this regard it finds itself ahead of a majority of wealthier, more populous European countries, like France, Germany, Italy and Britain. In the United States, only six states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. How did that happen? And what wisdom do the answers offer frustrated supporters of same-sex marriage here and elsewhere around the globe?

With a potent case of Portugal envy, I went there and talked with advocates and politicians at the center of its same-sex-marriage campaign and with gay and lesbian couples who married after the law took effect in June 2010. All were still pleasantly stunned by what Portugal had accomplished.

It was only a little more than a decade ago that a country first legalized same-sex marriage, and that happened in precisely the kind of forward-thinking, bohemian place you’d expect: the Netherlands. About two years later, Belgium followed suit.

Then things got really interesting. The eight countries that later joined the club were a mix of largely foreseeable and less predictable additions. In the first category I’d put Canada, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. In the second: South Africa, Spain, Portugal and Argentina.

Why those four countries? People who have studied the issue note that that they have something interesting and relevant in common: each spent a significant period of the late 20th century governed by a dictatorship or brutally discriminatory government, and each emerged from that determined to exhibit a modernity and concern for human rights that put the past to rest.

“They’re countries where the commitment to democracy and equal protection under the law was denied, flouted and oppressed, and the societies have struggled to restore that,” said Evan Wolfson, the president of Freedom to Marry, a New York-based advocacy group, in a recent interview.

That dynamic informed Spain’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005. Spain’s big step also reflected the tenuousness of the Vatican’s hold on the everyday mores and behaviors in many developed democracies still spoken of as Roman Catholic. While the vast majority of Spaniards belong nominally to the church and Catholic leaders lobbied against same-sex marriage, the Spanish Parliament nonetheless approved the law. Politicians understood that most Spaniards didn’t regard Catholicism as a rigid prescription for living.

Politicians in Portugal and Argentina — two countries with their own large Catholic majorities, strong geographic or historical ties to Spain, and a palpable desire to keep pace with it — took note of the same-sex marriage legislation there. Spain set off an Iberian wave with trans-Atlantic reach: one of the countries considered most likely to approve same-sex marriage next is Uruguay, which already permits same-sex civil unions and allows gay men and lesbians to adopt.

“SPAIN was very important for me and for my party,” said José Sócrates, the prime minister of Portugal from March 2005 to June 2011, when his center-left Socialist Party lost control to the center-right Social Democratic Party. I talked to him on the phone; he wasn’t in Portugal when I was.

The idea that Portugal should do no less than Spain came up repeatedly in my conversations with those who pushed for the Portugal measure, and so did the insistence that Portugal was much more cosmopolitan than many outsiders gave it credit for being.

 

I was left with the strong impression that for many highly educated and young people in Portugal — which belongs to both the European Union and the euro zone but doesn’t have nearly as much economic or political clout as its peers, and has plunged into fiscal crisis — same-sex marriage became a badge of sophistication, affirming their country as an enlightened place. 

“Certain issues get picked as key debates about a civilization — as symbolic messages,” said Miguel Vale de Almeida, a university professor who served in Parliament with the Socialist Party as the legislative body’s only openly gay member, from 2009 until earlier this year. Promotion of same-sex marriage branded the party as adaptable and future-oriented.

Portugal was (and to some extent still is) playing catch-up. Its ban on abortion was overturned only four years ago. And in Portugal it remains illegal for a woman without an actual or common-law husband to receive fertility treatments or adopt.

Even same-sex marriage happened not as a reflection of, but in spite of, public opinion polls. As Sócrates and others recall, those polls, in 2009, suggested that support for it was about 40 percent at best.

But Sócrates nonetheless pledged during a re-election campaign that year to legalize same-sex marriage. To his mind it wouldn’t be a pivotal enough concern to turn away voters otherwise supportive of him and the party. Besides, he said, it was a matter of justice.

 

“It’s the obligation of my generation,” he said, then mentioned two personal influences. A secondary-school classmate, who had been presumed gay and teased about it, committed suicide in his mid-20s. And the movie “Milk,” released near the start of his re-election campaign, rekindled that memory and fortified his resolve, which survived opponents’ insinuations that Sócrates, single since a divorce many years earlier, must be gay.

THAT opposition wasn’t as furious as it would be in America, partly because of differences between Portuguese Catholics and our religious right. “With Catholics here there’s a sense of, ‘Do what you want, just don’t talk too much about it,’ ” said Paulo Côrte-Real, a leading gay rights advocate in Portugal. While that didn’t incline devout Catholics toward supporting same-sex marriage, it diminished their appetite for getting into a huge sustained public fight over it.

And once it became law, everyone for the most part moved on. Sócrates’s government was tripped up by economic matters, not same-sex marriage, support for which rose significantly in polls following its institution, as people saw that their society wasn’t crumbling as a result. “It was a good example of the pedagogical effect of law,” Vale de Almeida said.

In the first year of the law’s existence, 410 same-sex couples married, and some were surprised, happily, by the reaction.

They said that the state-sanctioned formalization of their partnerships impressed the people around them, especially older relatives who now had a traditional vocabulary and framework — vows, rings, cake — for understanding the relationships. Sara and Rita Martinho recalled the striking change in one of Rita’s grandfathers, who had resisted acknowledging her sexual orientation, once they were married. He merrily attended the wedding. “If there’s food involved,” Rita said, “family will come.” And he later gave them a set of espresso cups, because he’d noticed they didn’t have any.

But progress comes in fits, starts and half steps. Lesbians in Portugal, even married ones, can’t get fertility treatments. Same-sex couples can’t adopt. Some say there are ways in which they envy America, or at least open-minded corners of it.

After a wedding in Lisbon in June, Manuel Amaral and Gonçalo Pereira drove around the Pacific Northwest for their honeymoon. They said that when they told the man at the Avis counter in San Francisco that they were newly married, he upgraded them to a red Mustang.

San Francisco isn’t all of America, and the religious dynamics and political vitriol in this country are different from Portugal’s. But might it be possible for President Obama, so maddeningly hesitant to endorse same-sex marriage, to take a lead on the issue? And might he find, as Sócrates did, that it wouldn’t make or break him?

 

“At the end of the day,” Sócrates told me, “what we had was the political will.”