Carlos and Alejandro had been a couple for 15 years when Alejandro, an HIV-AIDS and sexual education activist, entered the final months of his battle with cancer.
Carlos visited him most days without any trouble at the Calderón Guardia Hospital in San José, but when Alejandro was sent home, Carlos found himself blocked from making end-of-life decisions for his partner.
“I wanted him to stay at the home where we had lived for years,” said Carlos, whose name has been changed for this story, in a telephone interview, “but his family wanted to take him with them to Guanacaste and there was nothing I could do about it. We were together for 15 years but as far as the law was concerned, we were total strangers.”
Carlos traveled to the northwestern province of Guanacaste from San José to visit Alejandro about once a month, but the distance apart wore him down. Once there, he would sleep on a small separate bed in the same room as Alejandro and care for him. After being in a coma-like state, Alejandro opened his eyes when he realized Carlos was near during one visit.
One day, Alejandro’s family told Carlos to say goodbye to his partner. Believing that Carlos’s presence was the only thing keeping Alejandro alive, the family asked him not to come back and barred him from entering Alejandro’s room. With no legal recourse, Carlos was left with little choice but to return to San José and wait.
Alejandro died three days later.
The family invited Carlos to the funeral, but when he showed up, they ignored him.
Carlos’s struggle to make end of life decisions for his partner of 15 years is a compelling illustration of why lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender activists are so energized about a law signed by President Laura Chinchilla Thursday morning.
Advocates believe a revision to the Young Person Law’s Family Code that legislators passed last Monday is the LGBT community’s best chance to date to win an eight-year battle over common-law marriages for same-sex couples.
The outcome, however, is not clear. The law’s language is vague, includes an age limit on who can take part in the unions, and will surely face a counter-suit in the country’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court if not another bill seeking to limit any interpretation of common-law marriages outside one man and one woman. But there are already at least three gay and lesbian couples in the wings, ready to test the limits of the new law.
“As an employee at the Caja (Costa Rican Social Security System), I see these kinds of stories all the time,” said Geovanny Delgado, vice president of the Diversity Movement, a LGBT advocacy organization in San José, speaking about Carlos’s experience. “My partner and I decided that this was not the future we wanted.”
Delgado, 31, and his partner, Jeff Vivera, 34, are one of three couples planning to apply for a common-law marriages under the new law, which was published in the government newspaper La Gaceta on Monday.
Fiorella Bruno and her partner, Ana Cristina Binda, and Alberto González and his partner, Lorenzo Serrano, join Delgado and Vivera as some of the first same-sex couples to petition for cohabitation benefits under the law.
These three couples hope their cases will establish a judicial precedent that allows other same-sex couples to claim inheritance and social security benefits, extend insurance coverage to their partners, have hospital visitation rights and create joint-banking accounts and other shared assets.
The amended Family Code states that common-law marriages shall be granted without “discrimination contrary to human dignity.” Lawmaker José María Villalta of the Broad Front Party, who penned the revision to the Family Code, said the law opens the door for same-sex couples to request common-law marriages.
The motivations behind the couples’ decision to be among the first to apply for these benefits are things many take for granted.
Bruno explained that raising her 7-year-old son, Luca Vincenzo Binda, with her partner, Ana Cristina Binda, is fraught with bureaucratic barriers. Bruno works to support the family but because Luca is not her biological son, she cannot cover him or his mother on her insurance. As a result, the family has to rely on private hospitals when they need health care, which quickly becomes expensive.
While Carlos said he did not have trouble visiting Alejandro in the hospital, Bruno said this was a serious concern for her family. Bruno, who has asthma, said she is often hospitalized and wants her family to have visitation rights.
“If everyone had to spend a week without visiting their loved ones in the hospital, this would change immediately,” Delgado said.
The lack of recognition for same-sex couples in Costa Rica also prevents them from being able to claim benefits from international employers who would otherwise offer them.
González pointed out that if he lived in the U.S., Canada, or even parts of Mexico, he would be able to extend insurance benefits to Serrano as an employee of a U.S.-based company. But because the company bases its benefits on local laws, the Tico couple is ineligible.
González, 26, added that they were unable to get a loan to start a business together, in part because they did not have a joint bank account or other shared assets.
Even if the court rules in their favor, however, the benefits for same-sex couples will not be shared equally.
One of the strangest chapters in this law’s story is the age requirement to apply for same-sex common-law marriage. Technically, because the Young Person Law only applies to people ages 12 to 35, couples — gay or straight — older than that would not be eligible to apply for benefits under the law.
Bruno, 39, said that she and her partner, Binda, 35, are applying in part to test the limits of the law’s age restriction.
Meanwhile, lawmaker Justo Orozco of the conservative Christian Costa Rican Renovation Party announced his intention to file a constitutional challenge against the recently approved law on the grounds that its age-specific benefits are “discriminatory.”
The new non-discrimination language passed the Legislative Assembly one day after the June 30 Diversity March, a LGBT pride parade attended by thousands of Costa Ricans and supporters from across Central America.
The Front for Equal Rights, a coalition of Costa Rican LGBT groups, launched a national campaign for marriage equality on the same day, collecting more than 2,000 signatures in support of their petition.
All of the couples interviewed said that marriage equality remains their final goal, but they would push for judicial recognition of their relationships in the meantime.
“There’s more of a chance of it passing now than ever before,” said González in a phone interview, noting that there is now legal language to support their claim. “There’s really no other option for us” than to push for the benefits, he said.
According to Marco Castillo, lawyer and president of the Diversity Movement, LGBT groups have been lobbying for common-law marriage benefits for same-sex couples since 2005, but a lack of political will and conservative lawmakers’ efforts stymied the initiative.
Bruno told The Tico Times in a telephone interview that she felt there is historic momentum behind their struggle, referencing recent LGBT victories in the United States and the fact that President Chinchilla signed the bill into law despite outcry from conservative lawmakers.
“We’re not ready to declare victory yet,” Delgado said. “There is still a lot ahead of us, but it’s a first step.”