The law will apply to “couples formed by two people regardless of their sex or sexual choice,” which means that heterosexual couples may also benefit.
The city government has 120 days to adopt the necessary regulations and the new legislation is expected to come into force by mid-April 2003.
The law will cover insurance policies and health benefits covered by Buenos Aires’s local government but it will not permit same-sex couples to adopt children, marry or receive inheritances. Nor will it cover people who live outside the capital or allow access to federal programmes. Underage and blood relatives are banned from registering.
Buenos Aires thus joined a handful of places, including some US states and several European countries like France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland, in recognizing civil rights for same-sex couples.
The city legislature passed the measures after a debate often interrupted by chants of ‘‘Get to work!’’ by homosexual rights activists worried that lawmaker opposition might thwart its passage.
Gays and lesbians watched from the galleries draped in the rainbow-coloured gay pride flag chanting: “Equality, equality!” and taunting a group of Catholic militants on the other side of the ornate hall.
“We as a couple are going to register our union. We’re undergoing a treatment for artificial insemination. We’re going to have a baby and we want rights,” said María Rachid, a lesbian activist who nervously watched the debate with her partner.
“Before this bill a gay person would have trouble visiting a loved one in hospital because legally they would not be a family member,” said Roque Bellomo, a legislator who voted for the law. “Now Buenos Aires has become the first city in Latin America to pass such a law and we hope it is only a first step.”
The passage of the law was stiffly opposed by the Catholic Church — one of the most respected institutions in the country — which argued that city legislators had no authority in defining civil unions and that the measure, rather than putting same-sex and heterosexual couples on the same footing, “privileges” homosexual ones.
“Respecting gays or lesbians doesn’t mean that they must be granted legal status bending the legal essence of matrimony and family,” said the Church’s Archdiocesan Committee for Women.
The Buenos Aires Bar Association also rejected the measure.
“The bar has already expressed its opposition on constitutional grounds because anything having to do with civil law falls within the exclusive jurisdiction of the National Congress,” the association president Roberto Durrieu told the Herald.
“And we are also opposed because of another fundamental reason: anything seeking to grant any legal status to same-sex couples violates natural law, which only envisages different-sex unions,” he added.
Durrieu said that his words weren’t a criticism of “those who have opted for a sex switch but for the state action to grant them legal status.”
There are no official statistics on the size of the gay or lesbian community in Buenos Aires — a city of three million people which grows to 13 million when Greater Buenos Aires is taken into account — but it is widely considered to be one of the region’s largest.
The city, known as the Paris of Latin America with its boulevards, cafés and vibrant cultural scene, has long seen itself as a beacon of European enlightenment in the continent.
While in much of Latin America a macho culture dominates and gays are frowned upon, in Buenos Aires there are gay activist groups, bars and parades.
In neighbouring Chile, for example, even divorce — let alone gay civil unions — is illegal. Similar bills to grant legal status to gay couples have so far not prospered in Colombia and Mexico.
Suntheim, 34, said he hoped the new law would provide an impetus to similar measures being considered in Brazil, Uruguay and Colombia.
He added that he and Cigliutti, 45, hope to be the first same-sex couple to register once the law comes in force and once the creation of a registry it orders materializes. He is currently unemployed but he receives the social benefits of Cigliutti who — Suntheim just said — has a state job.
Both have been living together for five years and a half and to receive those benefits, they had to prove a minimum five-year coexistence whereas under the new law two years would be enough. After the legislation was passed they went to celebrate to the bar next to the legislature, with orange juice.
(With news agencies)