Same-sex marriages hot debate in deeply Catholic Portugal

With gay marriage forbidden in Portugal the ruling Socialist party plans to propose new laws allowing same-sex marriage if they return to power after September elections.

Lisbon's gay community welcomes this but legislation may prove tough in a deeply Catholic country.

Lesbian couple Raquel and Rute have been together for over a year. Although it's early days for their relationship, they say they dream of a future together. However, Portugal's current law states that they are not allowed to put that dream on paper.

“For me, what's important are my civil and human rights. I should have the right to decide whether I marry or not. We're facing injustice at the most basic level,” says Raquel Reis, Lesbian Rights Activist.

Raquel says Portugal still harbors a strong homophobic attitude. She and her girlfriend cannot hold hands on the street without being ridiculed or without drawing unwanted attention. It’s only behind closed doors that they can be themselves. There is hope nonetheless that the Government could soon make same-sex unions legal.

The ruling Socialist Party says this is a fundamental issue for the left, and it is not radicalism. In fact, legalizing gay marriage would fall in line with the Constitution, which was changed in 2004 to state equal rights for all.

“Article 13 now says that nobody can be discriminated against by their, among other things, sexual orientation. So if this principle is written in our Constitution, not having same sex marriages is something that we consider is going against our Constitution,” says Duarte Cordeiro from the Youth wing of the Socialist Party.

Despite electing a Socialist government, Portugal remains largely conservative and Catholic. Not surprisingly, the church condemns the idea of same-sex “marriage”.

“The definition of ‘marriage’ is the stable union between a man and a woman. And we want to preserve the integrity of this concept. We cannot give marriage rights to homosexuals, because those partnerships have a totally different function,” Manuel Marujao from Episcopal Chuch says.

Gay activists say they don't care whether it's named “marriage” or not… What they're calling for is some kind of legal framework to give couples of the same sex similar rights to heterosexual couples, such as tax and inheritance rights.

“Even if there is only one couple who wants to get married we have to struggle for that. Because it’s a right, a humanitarian right, a social right, a constitutional right, and it’s also a matter of citizenship, because if we can’t access our rights then that means that we’re second class citizens. And that we cannot accept,” says Antonio Serzedelo from Opus Gay Association.

They say if such minority rights are finally recognized, it would be a victory for tolerance, freedom and equality. For now, Portugal’s gay community remains largely underground. If a new law is eventually passed, they say they’ll feel equal, open and proud.