Mario Arias and Roberth Castillo found out they wouldn’t be getting married while they were taking photos for the ceremony.
The two scheduled to be wed on Saturday in a public event held in the Costa Rican capital of San José. Arias, 28, and Castillo, 25, were set to be the first same-sex couple to tie the knot since the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruled on Jan. 10 that the 20 countries under its jurisdiction must treat LGBTQ couples “without discrimination.”
Judges mandated that member nations “must recognise and guarantee all the rights that are derived from a family bond between people of the same sex.”
Arias and Castillo claim they have known that they wanted to get married since they first met more than three years ago. Like many gay couples, they first got to know each other through the internet; they began corresponding in 2012 when Castillo was living in Venezuela, and Arias was back home in Costa Rica.
When they finally were able to meet up in person, Arias says that he was struck by Castillo’s personality: “how he is with other people, his style, and how he dresses.” He also liked that the man who would later become his fiancé was a “good dancer.”
“Because we had known each other for a long time, we fell in love,” Castillo says.
But on Wednesday, the couple learned their wedding was not to be. The Superior Notary Council of Costa Rica claimed that because same-sex unions are still illegal in the country (per the Costa Rica Family Code of 1973), notaries would not be permitted to sign off on the marriage certificates of same-sex couples.
“We were taking pictures with our wedding suits,” Castillo claims. “It was very frustrating and sad. We felt deceived because this provision was put out specifically for us because they knew we were going to get married.”
Costa Rica was poised to be the first country to follow through with the mandate from the IACHR. The court, which is based in San Jose, claimed in its verdict that signatories must “guarantee access to all existing forms of domestic legal systems… in order to ensure the protection of all the rights of families formed by same-sex couples without discrimination.”
Many of the Latin and South American nations under its purviewsuch as Chile, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and Peruhave yet to legalize marriage equality. Both Bolivia and Paraguay have previously moved to explicitly ban LGBTQ couples from marrying.
Although the ruling is binding, the court permitted governments to pass “temporary decrees” upholding same-sex couples’ rights until further legalization can be enacted.
Costa Rica, however, appeared eager to embrace the IACHR’s verdict.
Vice President Ana Helena Chacón vowed that the Latin American nation, which is sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama, would comply with the groundbreaking decision “in its totality.” Chacón claimed at a press conference the ruling is a reminder for countries “of their obligation and historical debt toward this population.”
But the Superior Notary Council’s defiance of those wishes may set Costa Rica up for a protracted battle in a country that is still evolving on LGBTQ rights.
Sixty-one percent of respondents to a 2013 survey from Pew Research Center opposed marriage equality, while just 29 percent supported full legal recognition for same-sex couples. A poll conducted by the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Políticos (CIEP) three years later showed increasing acceptance of LGBTQ unions, with 45 percent of Costa Ricans in favor of same-sex marriage. A majority, though, still opposed the freedom to marry.
Castillo claims the people of Costa Rica are “rarely ready” when it comes to advances in equality, but that doesn’t mean society shouldn’t progress on LGBTQ issues.
“When women were given the right to vote, the people were not ready,” he says. “We think that a large number of the population will change its mind, but this will take a long time. In the meantime, we have to guarantee these human rights. We can’t wait for everyone to be comfortable with this, and we need the courts to recognize our equality.”
That’s why the couple plans to challenge the notary board’s decision, and they have already hired a lawyer. In a surreal twist of fate, the person who was supposed to officiate their wedding will be representing them in court.
Their fight is both an idealistic and a pragmatic one.
Arias argues they have the right to be treated “the same as any other couple” under the Costa Rican constitution. But that recognition is a matter of necessity: At the moment, neither of the two have health insurance, and being recognized as a married couple would guarantee them access to government-provided health care services.
“Human rights are not about marriage,” Castillo says. “It’s about being treated equally by the law.”
But the response to their story may be a sign that things are changing. Their historic wedding attracted so much attention and excitement that they decided to open it to “whomever wanted to come,” Castillo says. The guest list numbered more than 700 attendees.
He adds the public was “very emotional.”
When asked why the couple has experienced such overwhelming support in a nation that has so many deeply entrenched pockets of conservatism, the two argue they have humanized the issue.
“We have put a face to this cause,” Arias claims. “Before it was an idea and a theory, but now there is an example of why this is important. Now we see how it’s affecting people. Despite the fact that now there are barriers put in front of us and it’s difficult, we feel certain that this fight will be won.”
“This is not over,” he continues. “If anything, it’s just beginning.”