SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — Dozens of same-sex couples in Chile began celebrating civil unions on Thursday, taking advantage of a new law that gay advocates say is a clear sign of change in a country long regarded as one of Latin America's most socially conservative.
The civil union law was debated in Congress for over a decade until it was passed and signed into law by the president in April. As it went into effect, couples began arriving at civil registry offices early to officially validate their unions.
Some wore matching traditional Chilean cowboy garb, others elegant tuxedos and dresses.
"It was beautiful. It was such a nice ceremony. It was all very emotional. Our families were here, everyone was shedding tears," Virginia Gomez told reporters after she registered her union with her partner, Roxana Ortiz.
"History changes today," Ortiz said, showing the blue passport-like document that validates their union. The couple had married in Spain but their union was not recognized in Chile. "Now we can make decisions together like a couple. We're thrilled."
Civil union gives same-sex and unmarried couples many of the rights granted to married couples. Partners can inherit each other's property, join one another's health plans and receive pension benefits. They have been recognized in several South American countries, though only Argentina and Uruguay allow formal gay marriage. Gay advocates in Chile are celebrating the right to same-sex civil unions as a step toward full rights.
"The civil union doesn't end our struggle. We're demanding same-sex marriage. We're going to request for the measures stuck in congress to be revived," said Rolando Jimenez, president of the Gay Liberation and Integration Movement.
Chile decriminalized gay sex in 1999 and It was one of the last countries in the world to legalize divorce, in 2004. The brutal killing of a gay man in 2012 set off a national debate that prompted Congress to pass a hate crimes law.