Clerical error led to Costa Rica's first legal gay marriage

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Posted: Nov 13, 2015 12:01 AM
Clerical error led to Costa Rica's first legal gay marriage

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — When Jazmin Elizondo Arias was born in 1991, someone goofed and noted on her birth certificate that she was male.

As the years passed and Elizondo grew up, the mix-up never caused any problems. So she never bothered to try to correct the record officially, something that others in her situation found could turn into a slog through Costa Rica's bureaucracy with no guarantee of success.

Recently Elizondo and her partner, Laura Florez-Estrada Pimentel, exploited that simple clerical error from nearly a quarter-century ago to become Costa Rica's first legally married gay couple — at least briefly — and high-profile protagonists in the Central American nation's debate over same-sex unions.

"All that I know is I had in my hands a certificate that says they are a man and a woman. Legally she is a man, and legally a man and a woman can get married," said Marco Castillo, a lawyer and activist who performed the civil ceremony. "I married a man and a woman according to the official documents."

Elizondo and Florez-Estrada run a cafe in the eastern part of the capital, San Jose. Florez-Estrada, a 28-year-old Spanish national who has lived in Costa Rica since age 6 and specializes in making pastries, is the sister of a prominent leftist politician, Jose Maria Villalta. Elizondo, 24, studies the performing arts.

The two women decided after this year's Gay Pride march to tie the knot, and they did so quietly on July 25. Their marriage became widely known only last week after they received their marriage certificate and Costa Rican media picked up on the story.

The flurry of publicity prompted an unusually quick response by Civil Registry officials, who reviewed Elizondo's records, reclassified her as a woman and in recent days annulled the nuptials. They also opened criminal complaints against the women and Castillo, the lawyer, for allegedly performing an "impossible marriage."

"It's absolutely suspicious and discriminatory. It's clear that the Civil Registry moved out of hate, because they not only annulled the marriage but filed this criminal complaint," Florez-Estrada said.

Registry officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The agency's director, Luis Bolanos, was quoted by the website Ameliarueda.com as saying that for a marriage to be annulled, the Family Code calls for an administrative process to correct the mistake.

"In this case effectively there was an error in one of the registrations, which makes the annulment of this marriage possible," Bolanos said.

Castillo said it was telling that officials apparently fast-tracked the review when similar cases of mistakenly recorded gender can languish for decades.

"One woman waited 60 years for them to make the change for her, and she couldn't even register the children to whom she gave birth," said Castillo, who also heads the gay marriage activism group Diversity Movement. "Meanwhile in our case, it didn't take them two days."

According to Costa Rican law, knowingly entering into a marriage where there is an impediment carries a possible prison sentence of six months to three years.

While Elizondo and Florez-Estrada await possible prosecution, the Constitutional Court is considering the case of another gay couple, whose relationship was recognized as a "de facto union" by a family judge July 2.

Several versions of a bill proposing to recognize same-sex unions have also been presented in congress, sparking fierce opposition from political parties with religious ties.

Lawmaker Abelino Esquivel dismissed Elizondo and Florez-Estrada's marriage as a stunt, a "desperate act by the gay community" to legitimize something that is not recognized by law.

"The principle of uniting couples is so that they can reproduce, and as far as we know today, after practically having traveled to the planet Mars, nobody has yet discovered that two people of the same sex can reproduce," Esquivel told the newspaper La Prensa Libre.

Florez-Estrada said the couple knew they could face legal problems if they went public with their marriage but decided to do so anyway.

"We had to make public that it was not our mistake. It is a question of basic rights," she said. "If we're all equal on paper, why can't I get married?"