Buenos Aires, Argentina - With advocates for gay rights watching worldwide, Argentina early Thursday legalized same-sex marriages to become the first country in an overwhelmingly Catholic region, Latin America, to grant same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples.
After 14 hours of sometimes heated debate that lasted nearly until dawn, the Senate voted 33 to 27 to approve the Marriage for People of the Same Sex bill, which had been approved by the lower house in May and was strongly supported by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Argentina becomes the second country in the Americas, after Canada, to approve marriages for gays and lesbians.
Gay rights activists from the United States to Europe who had been following the debate said the approval would help hasten similar measures in other countries.
"I think people will look to it as very important," Dan Hawes, who oversees organizing nationwide for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said by phone from Washington on Wednesday. "Every win we have gives momentum and hope to people everywhere, including activists in the United States working for the right to marry."
Tens of thousands of activists -- supportive and opposed to same-sex unions -- had marched on the country's 104-year-old Congress building in Buenos Aires. One man, an opponent, quietly held a statue of the Virgin Mary and prayed. Others shouted slogans, demanding that gay couples receive the same privileges and rights as straight couples.
When the final tally was announced, supporters of the measure erupted in cheers.
Fernandez de Kirchner, speaking from China where she was on a state visit, said she was "very satisfied with the vote."
"This has been a positive step in defending minority rights," she said.
The approval is a blow to the Catholic Church, which has strongly opposed gay marriages here and in other countries where the Vatican has influence.
In Latin America, which is uniformly Catholic and where the church hierarchy is often consulted on major decisions, only Mexico City had approved same-sex marriages. But gay activists say they have made progress. In Colombia, the highest court last year gave same-sex partners nearly all the rights found in common-law unions. Uruguay's Congress also recognized same-sex unions.
"In some northern countries, they said these advances could never happen in our region," said Marcela Sanchez, of Colombia Diversa, an advocacy group on gay issues in the Colombian capital, Bogota. "But now we are seeing movement forward in a number of places."
For American gay rights advocates, the vote in Argentina puts that country of 41 million people ahead of the United States, where voters in California and other states have approved propositions blocking gay unions. Only the District and five states, four of them in New England, have legalized gay marriages.
In some ways, Argentina seemed a logical choice for the approval of gay marriage.
Though influential, the Catholic church is not omnipresent, as Argentina has long been a magnet for immigrants from around the world, including Jews, Muslims and, a century ago, anarchists who rejected the Vatican. It is also a country with a strong human rights tradition that sprouted up during a brutal dictatorship that lasted from 1976 to 1983.
The Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, is also among the world's most cosmopolitan cities, with numerous bars and hotels catering to gays. Indeed, the city legalized same-sex unions in 2002, but gays have faced legal obstacles to getting married. Nearly 70 percent of Argentines believed it was time to legalize gay marriage, according to a recent poll by the Analogías polling firm.