SAO PAULO, Brazil – Late Thursday, Brazil’s Federal Supreme Court ruled in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples.
The vote was 10-0 with one abstention.
"This is a historic moment for all Brazilians, not just homosexuals. This judgment will change everything for us in society — and for the better," said Marcelo Cerqueira with Grupo Gay da Bahia. "Gays, lesbians and transsexuals will be recognized as being more human. We'll be more accepted by having our rights honored."
The court case took two years to resolve, but the justices ruled that same-sex couples deserved the same legal rights as opposite-sex couples. The ruling will affect such things as alimony, inheritances, adoption, health benefits, and pension and retirement benefits of a deceased partner.
Cleber Vicente, project coordinator for the Rainbow Group in Rio de Janeiro, called the decision "a historic achievement," the state-run Agencia Brasil reported.
"There is something to celebrate this result," Vicente said. "It is a struggle that stretches for over 15 years."
San Diego Gay & Lesbian News South American correspondent Roy Heale, who is based in Argentina, is talking to locals today to hash out further details. Heale says Brazil's Congress and Senate must now vote to make the high court ruling legal.
Many gay couples were hoping for marriage equality, but Brazil is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic and the church aggressively opposed both gay marriage and civil unions.
“The freedom to pursue one’s own sexuality is part of an individual’s freedom of expression,” Justice Carlos Ayres Britto wrote for the majority.
Brazil’s president, Dilma Roussef, has encouraged progressive social policies in South America’s largest nation, with a population of 190 million, and she has put LGBT rights at the forefront of her vision. The world is watching, as Brazil has landed the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.
At the same time, Brazilian society is lagging behind in tolerance. While Sao Paulo boosts one of the largest gay Carnivals in the world and Rio de Janerio has a thriving LGBT community, Brazil has also seen a huge uptick in anti-gay violence. Grupo Gay da Bahia notes that 260 LGBT people were murdered in 2010 in Brazil, up 113% over the past five years. Outside of major cities, LGBT Brazilians are often harassed, bullied and ridiculed.
Justice Gilmar Mendes told Agencia Brasil that the court was obliged to protect gay couples from prejudice and violence.
"This legal limbo that (same-sex couples encounter) contributes to discrimination, even to the violent practices that have seen in the news. It is the duty of the state to protect and duty of the court to give that protection if, somehow, it was not intended by the legislature," he said.
Cerqueira, of Grupo Gay da Bahia, expects the court decision will eventually help change public opinion.
"This ruling will help. The violence comes about because of impunity for those who commit it," Cerqueira said. "When a country judges a case like this in favor of us, it will have an impact across the judicial and law enforcement sectors."
Brazil, the fifth most-populated nation behind China, India, the U.S. and Indonesia, will become the largest country as well as 20th one to legalize civil unions for same-sex couples. In South America, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay have already legalized some form of marriage equality for all citizens. In North America, Mexico City and Canada allow gay marriage, while the U.S. has a mixed record among the 50 states and the District of Columbia.