October 1, 2017 at 10:39 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Gay lawyer spearheads Panama same-sex marriage efforts

Iván Chanis Barahona is a gay Panamanian lawyer who is spearheading efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in his Central American country. (Photo courtesy of Iván Chanis Barahona)

PANAMA CITY — A gay Panamanian lawyer who once lived in D.C. is leading efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in his country.

Iván Chanis Barahona is working on behalf of a gay couple legally married in the U.K. who is seeking formal recognition of their marriage in Panama. He is also among the lawyers who is litigating a second lawsuit challenging the provision of Panamanian law that bans same-sex couples from marrying.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in both lawsuits over the summer. They have been combined into one case.

Chanis told the Washington Blade on Sept. 26 during an interview at a Panama City coffee shop the judge who heard the lawsuits will share his ruling with the eight other judges who sit on the court. He said he remains optimistic, even though it remains unclear when the Supreme Court will release its decision.

“We did a really good job,” Chanis told the Blade. “We have a really solid case.”

Evan Wolfson, founder of Freedom to Marry, and Hunter T. Carter of the New York City Bar Association, who works with advocates throughout Latin America who are seeking marriage rights for same-sex couples in their respective countries, are among those who filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs. Chanis also noted the Supreme Court received amicus briefs from Herman Duarte of Fundación Igualitos in Costa Rica and Argentina.

Carlos Ernesto González is the lawyer from Morgan & Morgan, which is Panama’s largest law firm, who specifically represents the plaintiffs in the marriage cases. Chanis, who is not formally affiliated with Morgan & Morgan, is working pro bono on them.

“If they decide strictly on the law, we’re supposed to win,” said Chanis, referring to the Supreme Court.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2012 ruled in favor of Karen Atala, a lesbian judge from Chile who lost custody of her three daughters to her ex-husband because of her sexual orientation. The landmark decision established a legal precedent throughout Latin America.

The Mexican Supreme Court cited the Atala case in a 2013 ruling that found a Oaxacan law against same-sex marriage unconstitutional.

The Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation, a Chilean LGBT advocacy group, in 2012 filed a lawsuit with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of three same-sex couples who are seeking marriage rights. Chilean President Michelle Bachelet last month introduced a same-sex marriage and adoption bill as part of an agreement it reached with the group in June 2016.

“If they decide strictly on the law, we’re supposed to win,” Chanis told the Blade, referring to the Panama Supreme Court.

Panama first lady among prominent marriage supporters

Panamanian First Lady Lorena Castillo — who was the grand marshal of Panama City’s Pride parade in July — and Vice President Isabel de Saint Malo are among the officials who publicly support marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Chanis said the Panamanian Roman Catholic Church and evangelical groups have spearheaded the opposition to the issue. He noted to the Blade that President Juan Carlos Varela — who is Catholic — has “never gone all the way to say yes or no to marriage equality” but “flirted with the idea of civil partnerships” for same-sex couples during an interview.

“He didn’t restate it,” said Chanis. “You can feel he is open to something. He’s not against it, that’s for sure.”

Chanis specifically applauded Castillo for her support, noting she is a U.N. ambassador to stop discrimination against people with HIV/AIDS. He told the Blade a video that showed a mother abusing her 5-year-old son because she thought he was gay prompted her to endorse marriage rights for same-sex couples.

“She was like, ‘What the fuck? This is our country. This is not acceptable,’” said Chanis.

Castillo is among those who have appeared in a campaign in support of marriage rights for same-sex couples.

“I always felt she was very human, she was very kind and real,” said Chanis. “She’s controversial, that’s for sure, generally speaking because of her stance on many issues. On this specifically she has become a face, a leader who took a risk and owned it.”

A spokesperson for Castillo’s office told the Blade earlier this month in an email that she was not available for an interview.

Marriage is ‘part of the conversation’ in Panama

Chanis lived in the U.S. for a decade.

He studied at New York University before moving to D.C., where he lived for more than seven years.

Chanis worked with the Organization of American States to promote human rights in the Western Hemisphere. He also co-founded Gays and Lesbians International, a group known by the acronym GLINT that connects LGBT people who work at foreign embassies.

Chanis returned to Panama in 2016.

The Panama National Assembly in Panama City. Panama could become the first country in Central America to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples if its Supreme Court rules in favor of the issue. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Chanis told the Blade that Panamanian LGBT advocates have “found a common cause.” He added the debate around whether to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples has also highlighted broader issues of discrimination — violence against transgender Panamanians, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, discrimination against Panamanians of African descent and other groups and the separation of church and state — in the country.

Chanis also said marriage rights for same-sex couples has also emerged as an issue ahead of the country’s 2019 general election.

“Panama for the first time in their democratic story … has reached a point where we can speak about these issues and is part of the conversation in coffee shops, in public transportation, at the table with your family,” he said. “It is part of the conversation, whether you like it or not people are talking about it and that is huge.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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