Gay Costa Rican lawmaker leads the fight for approval of same-sex unions

Religious groups bitterly oppose the five measures before the Legislative Assembly

“Each nation has its own timetable,” says President Laura Chinchilla

Her name is Carmen Muñoz and she doesn’t boast about her sexual preference, but nor does she hide it. It is just not included in her résumé.

She has never been a gay activist but the current political climate in Costa Rica has left her with no other choice.

Muñoz serves as the parliamentary spokeswoman for the main opposition Citizens Action Party (PAC), and two months ago she spoke for the first time about “not being heterosexual” in an interview with San Jose’s major daily, La Nación. Now she admits that she feels “a freer woman” ready to face off with her country’s conservative forces, which believe that same-sex couples should have just about the same rights as two friends who are roommates.

This is the standard throughout Central America, where same-sex unions, let alone marriage, are not recognized.

Costa Rican activists know that it will be difficult to get lawmakers to approve gay marriage, but there are five proposed bills before the unicameral legislative assembly which call for legalizing same-sex unions.

It won’t be an easy task for the activists because Costa Rica is a Catholic country, with Catholicism outlined as “the religion of the state” in the Constitution. There are also Pentecostal and Evangelical groups bitterly opposed to any such reforms.

One lawmaker asked her to withdraw from any parliamentary vote due to her "gay bias"

One of these representatives is Justo Orozco, who is perhaps the best-known deputy in the country, mainly because of his staunch opposition to legalizing any type of homosexual union. Orozco, one of two deputies in the 57-member chamber who represents a religious party, often carries his Bible with him when he attends sessions.

He publicly called on Carmen Muñoz to recuse herself from voting on any of the measures regarding same-sex unions because she would be voting on a law that would favor her situation.

“She has been notorious in the media and even in Wikipedia she has declared herself a lesbian. That is why I am against her being part of this voting process,” Orozco said three weeks ago. His remarks outraged Costa Rica’s gay community, but Muñoz said that she understood that he represents a sector of conservative Costa Ricans.

She also knows that two other powerful groups are happy that Orozco has come out strongly against the issue – the Catholic Church and the National Liberation Party (PLN) of President Laura Chinchilla.

Chinchilla, who is married to a Spaniard and has a teenage son, has struggled to find excuses -- juggling words – so as not to appear as an archenemy of same-sex unions. Nevertheless, some of her Cabinet members, such as Education Minister Leonardo Garnier, have come out in favor of it.

In 2012, gay activists opposed an offer to organize a national referendum because they said human rights for minority groups should not be put to a vote, but also fearing at the same time that the question for legalization of same-sex unions would be defeated.

Soon after she came to office in May 2010, Chinchilla said that the issue wasn’t her government’s priority. The last time she spoke about the matter was when President Barack Obama – a supporter of gay marriage – visited San Jose in May.

“Each nation has its own timetable,” she said, somewhat acknowledging that Costa Rica isn’t ready to join the 19 nations, including six in America, that recognize same-sex unions or marriage.

But Muñoz isn’t ready to reject the notion that Chinchilla will finish her term in 2014 without signing some sort of law recognizing homosexual unions. There is a host of proposed legislation waiting for the appropriate time – including a possible switch in the makeup of the Legislative Assembly after this year’s election of lawmakers, seen as a prelude to February’s presidential race.

“I am not ruling out anything,” she said. “All of the party blocs in the assembly are split over whether to approve or reject this. But each day there is more support coming from the people, and that is what counts during elections.”

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