BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina became the first Latin American nation to legalize gay marriage Thursday, granting same-sex couples all the legal rights, responsibilities and protections that marriage brings to heterosexuals.
The law's passage – a priority for President Cristina Fernandez's government – has inspired activists to push for similar laws in other countries, and a wave of gay weddings are expected in Buenos Aires. Some gay business leaders are predicting an economic ripple effect from an increase in tourism among gays and lesbians who will see Argentina as an even more attractive destination.
But it also carries political risks for Fernandez and her husband, former President Nestor Kirchner. The vote divided their governing coalition, and while gay rights have strong support in the capital, anti-gay feelings still run strong in much of Argentine society, where the vast majority of people are Roman Catholic.
"From today onward, Argentina is a more just and democratic country," said Maria Rachid, president of the Argentine Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender federation. The law "not only recognizes the rights of our families, but also the possibility of having access to health care, to leave a pension, to leave our assets to the people with whom we have shared many years of life, including our children," she said.
The 33-27 Senate vote was tallied shortly before dawn, after a marathon debate that touched on religion, ethics, the legacy of Argentina's dictatorship and the challenges of raising children. There were three abstentions. Since the lower house already approved it, the law takes effect within days.
Gays and lesbians who have already found Buenos Aires to be a welcoming place to live will likely rush to the altar, but same-sex couples from other countries will need to live in Argentina before becoming eligible, and the necessary residency documents can take months to obtain.
The approval came despite a concerted campaign by the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical groups, which drew 60,000 people to march on Congress and urged parents in churches and schools to work against passage. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio led the campaign, saying "children need to have the right to be raised and educated by a father and a mother."
Opponents of gay marriage proposed a civil-union law instead that would have barred gays from adopting or undergoing in-vitro fertilization to have children, and enabled any civil servant to "conscientiously object" to register gay couples. In the end, parliamentary maneuvers kept the Senate from voting on civil unions as the government bet all or nothing on the more politically difficult option of marriage.
"I'm proud that we never tried for civil unions, always for complete equality," said Esteban Paulon, the LGBT federation's general secretary. He credits "an enormous conviction that equality means the same rights with the same names."
The final vote split both the governing coalition and the opposition, with lawmakers on both sides saying they went with their convictions.
Sen. Juan Perez Alsina, usually a loyal supporter of the president, called marriage between a man and a woman "essential for the preservation of the species."
But others compared the discrimination closeted gays face to the oppression millions suffered under Argentina's dictatorship years ago, and urged their fellow senators to show the world how much Argentina has matured. "Society has grown up. We aren't the same as we were before," Sen. Daniel Filmus said.
Same-sex civil unions have been legalized in Uruguay and some states in Mexico and Brazil, and the Colombian Constitutional Court has granted same-sex couples inheritance rights and allowed them to add their partners to health insurance plans.
Mexico City went even further, not only legalizing gay marriage but launching a tourism campaign to encourage foreigners to come and wed. On Thursday, Mexico City officials offered a free honeymoon in Mexico to the first gay couple to wed under the new Argentine law.
Argentina doesn't allow non-resident foreigners to tie the knot, but it is likely to draw more gay tourists who already spend millions in the country's economy, said Pablo De Luca, founder of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce in Buenos Aires.
"The fact that we are the first country in Latin America that respects the rights of the gay community by law sends a solid message that makes Argentina even more attractive," said De Luca, who estimates that 18 percent of the tourists who come to Argentina are gay or lesbian.
Argentina now sets a new standard for other countries in the hemisphere.
"Today's historic vote shows how far Catholic Argentina has come, from dictatorship to true democratic values, and how far the freedom-to-marry movement has come, as 12 countries on four continents now embrace marriage equality," said Evan Wolfson, who runs the U.S. Freedom to Marry lobby.
Wolfson urged U.S. lawmakers to follow suit: "America should lead, not lag, when it comes to treating everyone equally under the law."
Gay activists in neighboring Chile hope Argentina's milestone will improve chances for a gay-marriage law currently in committee in their own Congress.
"Argentina's political class has provided a lesson to the rest of Latin America," said Rolando Jimenez in the Chilean capital, Santiago. "We hope our own countries and political parties will learn that the human rights of sexual minorities are undeniable."
Activists in Paraguay plan to propose a similar law in October, said Martin Viveros of the group Somosgay. And in Uruguay, gays unsatisfied with the partial civil-union rights are preparing legislation to replace "man and woman" with references to "spouse" throughout the civil code.
Still, many Argentines, especially outside the capital, remain firmly opposed to gay marriage, and while the president's confrontation with the Roman Catholic Church may play well in the socially liberal Buenos Aires, the vote may encourage fissures in her ruling coalition.
Some opposition leaders accused Fernandez and Kirchner of trying to gain votes in next year's presidential elections, when Kirchner is expected to run again.
Associated Press Writers Bridget Huber, Almudena Calatrava and Debora Rey in Buenos Aires; Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile; Pedro Servin in Asuncion, Paraguay; and Raul O. Garces in Montevideo, Uruguay, contributed to this report.