March 15, 2013 at 10:41 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Argentine gay activist criticizes Pope Francis
Esteban Paulón, Argentina, gay news, Washington Blade

Esteban Paulón of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Federation of Argentina. Photo courtesy of Esteban Paulón.

Argentina’s leading LGBT rights advocate on Wednesday criticized Pope Francis’ strong opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Esteban Paulón, president of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans Federation (FALGBT,) noted during an interview with the Washington Blade hours after the College of Cardinals elected Francis that he was among the most vocal critics of a same-sex marriage bill that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed in 2010. The new pontiff, who was the-then archbishop of Buenos Aires, described the measure in a letter he wrote to four Argentine monasteries before the country’s Senate approved it as a “machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

Francis further categorized the bill as “the work of the devil” that would “spark God’s war.”

“He organized people who mobilized themselves en masse against the equality law and the rights of the collective diversity in moments during which the enormous social and parliamentary consensus that the equality law had in our country was clear,” Paulón said.

Fernández strongly rebuked Francis’ comments.

“It’s worrisome to listen to expressions such as ‘God’s war,’ ‘The work of the Devil;’ things which actually bring us back to the times of the Inquisition, to Medieval Times,” she said while on an official trip to China during the same-sex marriage debate.

The Argentine president further referenced the Crusades as she criticized Francis’ remarks.

“It establishes, as a society, a place which I don’t think any of us wants to have,” Kirchner said. “We are all willing to debate, to discuss, to dissent, but do it within a rational frame without stigmatizing others because they think differently and fundamentally.”

Paulón noted to the Blade that Francis lived in a country in which same-sex marriage has been legal for more than two years.

“This law did not cause any catastrophe, it did not damage the family, it did not cause the destruction of anything,” he said. “It has strengthened families; it has granted rights that have made many people happy.”

Francis, a Jesuit who was previously known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was born in Buenos Aires to Italian immigrant parents in 1936.

He became archbishop of the Argentine capital in 1998. Pope John Paul II in 2001 appointed him cardinal.

Francis was also reportedly the runner-up in 2005 when the College of Cardinals elected Benedict XVI to succeed the previous pontiff.

In addition to his opposition to marriage rights for same-sex couples, Paulón noted the new pope also spoke out against Argentina’s law that allows trans people to legally change their gender without sex-reassignment surgery. Francis has also claimed that adoption rights for gays and lesbians in the country constitutes discrimination against children.

The new pontiff has also been outspoken against efforts to allow abortion and in-vitro fertilization in Argentina.

A journalist in 2005 accused Francis of conspiring with the military junta that governed the country from 1976 to 1983 to kidnap two Jesuit priests. Up to an estimated 30,000 Argentines died or disappeared during the so-called dirty war, but Francis in 2010 told a court he actually tried to help the priests and others whom the regime had targeted.

In spite of the controversies, he has reached out to people with HIV/AIDS.

The National Catholic Reporter reported he kissed and washed the feet of 12 AIDS patients at a hospice he visited in 2001. Francis has also defended the poor and the public sector.

“On some issues the church has a discourse of mercy, of piety, of compassion,” Paulón said.

Francis faces criticism from other Latin America activists

Other LGBT rights advocates throughout the region have also criticized Francis, who is the first non-European pope.

“The Vatican and the entire hierarchy of the Catholic church have once again shown indifference at the very least to the human rights of people, electing as their highest representative someone who has stigmatized and offended the love between same-sex couples, calling it a danger to the family, for children and as a move towards the devil,” a spokesperson from the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation, a Chilean LGBT rights group, said in a statement.

Ricardo Montenegro Vásquez, director of Orgullo LGBT Colombia, also spoke out against Francis’ election.

“With his election, the Vatican conclave insists on sowing prejudice and hate against some people who more than simply repudiating, deserve understanding and social inclusion,” he said.

Rev. Victor Bracuto of the Metropolitan Community Church in Buenos Aires, pointed out Francis’ advocacy for the poor and speaking out against corruption. He also highlighted the pontiff’s opposition to Argentina’s same-sex marriage and gender identity laws and his reputed ties to the military junta.

Bracuto described the conclave’s decision to elect Francis as a “strategic political decision” in a statement he e-mailed to the Blade.

“He will be a pope of friendly discourse with the poor, austere and pious, but a cloud will continue to hang over his head over the dictatorship, excluding the GLBTI collective,” he wrote. “He will seek to ensure that the ‘politics of right’ do not spread.”

In spite of her previous statements against the new pope, Fernández congratulated Francis in a statement she issued shortly after the College of Cardinals elected him. She will also attend his installation Mass in Rome on March 19.

“It is our desire that you have, assuming the helm and guidance of the church … successfully carry out your extremely important pastoral charge in pursuit of justice, equality, fraternity and peace for mankind,” Kirchner said.

Paulón acknowledged many of his countrymen feel a sense of pride over Francis’ election.

More than 75 percent of Argentines are Catholic, but Paulón concedes he does not feel the church’s opposition to same-sex marriage and other issues will change under Francis’ pontificate.

“We would like to be optimistic but we do not have much reason to be so,” he said.

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

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