Gay marriage law passed
By John Gill
On 30 June 2005 Spain became the third European country after the Netherlands and Belgium to legalise same-sex marriage between native Spanish citizens and also registered foreigners living in Spain. The proposal was a key point in the manifesto of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and the left-wing PSOE, Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party), when it swept to power in the wake of the Madrid railway bombings of 2004 and the right-wing Partido Popular's disastrous attempts to represent the attacks as ETA actions. Mr Zapatero said that same-sex marriage was a characteristic of a "modern and tolerant society". As in Britain, there is much debate about extending these equal rights to unmarried heterosexual couples and even unmarried cohabiting siblings. At least 5,000 couples have already applied for permission to marry, although some local mayors of the Partido Popular have said they will refuse to officiate in these ceremonies.
The law gives Spanish and resident same-sex couples the right to marry and the same rights of ownership, inheritance and adoption as married heterosexuals. Importantly, it will also improve the legal situation for children born into or adopted by lesbian or homosexual households, giving them civil and inheritance rights currently denied them under law.
When the 187-147 majority vote was passed, prime minister Zapatero said, "We are not legislating, ladies and gentlemen, for remote unknown people. We are expanding opportunities for the happiness of our neighbours, our work colleagues, our friends, our relatives." The Roman Catholic right opposition responded with cries of "shame!" Some even accused Zapatero of unleashing a "virus" on Spanish society. Certain bishops and ayuntamientos have said they will refuse to acknowledge these unions, although now that the law has been passed this is in itself a crime. An estimated 62 per cent of Spanish people support the move to legalise same-sex marriages. Some Spanish media observers have said that this response is a part of an attempt to unify a country shaken by the Madrid bombings.
It is estimated that around ten per cent of Spanish people live in same-sex couples, or are attracted to their own sex. Some estimates suggest that as many as 700,000 people in Andalucía are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered. It is also estimated that there are about four million lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered people in Spain.
Previously, the only civil protection same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples had in Spain was the "hecho a pareja" (literally, 'make a couple') declaration, which few people knew about. The hecho a pareja declaration is a simple if limited declaration people can make at the ayuntamiento, town hall, in a matter of minutes. It is really only useful in disputes over ownership and death duties on property. The couple simply have to fill in a few forms declaring themselves a couple, confirm that they are not married to anyone else, and provide identity.
The system is only open to Spanish people and foreigners registered as resident and with a residencia card. The benefits, however, are significant; the pareja system reduces death duty on shared property from twenty-percent of the market value of the property to a mere two per cent of the property value. It's not known how many same-sex or unmarried heterosexual couples have found themselves trapped by death duties on property shared outside a conventional marriage or a hecho de pareja, but the number is believed to be sizeable. Grieving partners of any sexual persuasion are frequently forced to sell a shared home and go through the trauma of finding a new and far cheaper property to pay death duties.
At present, Andalucía is one of the few regions of Spain that recognises the pareja system, and anyone sharing property outside a conventional heterosexual marriage is advised to talk to their ayuntamiento about the process. Gay marriage is now enshrined in law, and gives partners the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples. Just how many Spanish and guiri same-sex partnerships take up the option remains to be seen, but it is a remarkable achievement for the Zapatero government and something that people who might benefit from it should consider. For those inclined to the pledge, it would seem to be an opportunity not to be missed. The Catholic establishment called it a "disgrace". Prime minister Zapatero called it the result of "two unstoppable forces: freedom and equality". Updated November 2005