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    Will Chile Be the First Nation to Win Marriage Equality in 2018?

    By Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis

    As the new year begins, we look to Chile in hopes that the South American nation will become the first country to achieve marriage equality in 2018. If successful, Chile will join Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and the territories of French Guiana and the Falkland Islands as the seventh country in South America with the freedom to marry.

    It appears, however, that the national legislature must act quickly if marriage equality is to become the law in the most straightforward manner. Chile just held Presidential and national legislative elections in November and December. Former President Sebastián Piñera—who introduced Chile’s civil union bill in his prior term of office, but who opposes full marriage equality—defeated Alejandro Guillier, the pro-equality candidate whom outgoing President Michelle Bachelet, a marriage equality supporter, hoped would succeed her.

    President-elect Piñera and the new legislature, a majority of whom support equality, will not take office until March 11, however, making it conceivable that the current legislature could pass and Bachelet could sign marriage equality legislation into law before she leaves office. The Bachelet administration is also pushing for immediate passage of gender identity legislation. 

    President Michelle Bachelet first announced her support for marriage equality in her successful 2013 campaign for president. In 2015, the nation adopted civil unions for same-sex couples. They provide many, but not all of, the rights and responsibilities of marriage. In 2016, the government agreed to drop its opposition to marriage equality and to introduce pro-equality legislation as part of an agreement pertaining to an ongoing lawsuit seeking marriage equality that LGBTIQ rights advocates had filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2012.

    In August 2017, Bachelet finally introduced marriage equality legislation, saying: “We can’t let old prejudices be stronger than love. We do this with the certainty that it is not ethical or fair to put artificial limits on love, or to deny essential rights just because of the sex of those who make up a couple.” The legislation also provides equal adoption rights for same-sex couples. Public opinion polls have shown over 60 percent support for marriage equality. Legislative action on the measure began in November.  Over 100,000 people marched in Santiago in support of swift passage of marriage equality and transgender rights two days before the legislature began work on the bill.

    According to the PanAm Post, President Bachelet’s spokeswoman Paula Narváez said that the administration would make marriage equality and gender identity legislation priorities in the remaining weeks before March 11. The Post quotes Narváez as saying, “In the case of marriage equality, we want to open a legislative body that will allow the debate to continue further” and “the Gender Identity bill is very urgent.”

    If these bills do not become law before Bachelet leaves office, LGBTIQ supporters vow to continue pressure for passage when Piñera and the new legislature take office. Although The New York Times reports that President-elect Piñera promised in the campaign to prevent the marriage equality legislation from going forward in order to appeal to more conservative voters, pro-LGBTIQ equality legislators appear to hold majorities in the new legislature. In addition, LGBTIQ advocates argue that the new Chilean government would be obliged to abide by its prior international agreement to implement marriage equality legislation.

    We—and the world—will keep our eyes on Chile. The time for full marriage and LGBTIQ equality is now.

    John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, together for over three decades, were plaintiffs in the California case for equal marriage rights decided by the California Supreme Court in 2008. Their leadership in the grassroots organization Marriage Equality USA contributed in 2015 to making same-sex marriage legal nationwide.