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Custody fight tests traditions in Chile

Lesbian seeks daughters' return

SANTIAGO, Chile -- Emma de Ramon recently bought a condominium here. But even before she moved in, she said, everyone in the building knew one fact about her: She's gay.

De Ramon and her partner, Karen Atala, a judge, have become unintentional celebrities since waging a battle against Chile's Supreme Court, which forced Atala to surrender custody of her three daughters because of her relationship with de Ramon.

Now the couple has become emblematic of a segment of the population growing noticeably bolder recently: those eager to shed Chile's label as the most culturally conservative country in Latin America.

Some of those seeking change have challenged powerful institutions, which they say don't represent the public will. Atala and de Ramon have taken their fight outside the country to an international human rights commission in Washington, which they hope can convince the Chilean government that its highest court was wrong.

"Oh, we're famous now," said de Ramon, a historian who met Atala after the criminal court judge separated from her husband in 2001. "As for myself, when I'm out in public I usually don't feel like I'm the target of discrimination, and I don't hear disparaging comments. That's only from the Supreme Court."

Groups that have historically determined Chile's cultural norms -- including the Supreme Court, the Catholic Church, and a traditional class of political elites -- are being tested on multiple fronts.

A new national policy, for example, offers free morning-after pills to anyone 14 or older. Congress is debating proposals to explicitly protect the legal rights of gays and other minorities. Another proposal that would allow "merciful deaths" to terminally ill patients has ignited a debate about euthanasia. And a government-funded AIDS prevention campaign launched this month shows school-age girls and a gay couple, among others, promoting condom use. The campaign has riled Catholic Church leaders.

For a country that legalized divorce just two years ago, the pace of change is remarkable. The church remains influential and is viewed favorably by most Chileans, but its leaders say they are concerned about a general movement away from its teachings.

This month, the country's Catholic bishops issued what they termed a moral wake-up call to the nation, citing "strange currents" running through society that are distancing people from their religious foundations.

Macarena Saez, the attorney handling the Atala custody case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, said a growing recognition of the distance separating Chile's general population and its institutions make her hopeful that the government will reach an amicable agreement in the case.

"We're facing a society that is way more open than its institutions, and that's a good sign for us," Saez said.

Saez and her colleagues are hoping that the commission, part of the Organization of American States, will issue a similar ruling about the Atala case, resulting in new antidiscrimination legislation that would specifically ban child custody decisions based on the sexual orientation of the parent.

Felipe Rivas, who four years ago founded a student group for gay men and lesbians at the University of Chile, said the Atala case and the possibility of antidiscrimination legislation are viewed as important steps for gays, but said they also hold broader meaning here.

"In Chile, human rights has always meant torture and the crimes of the dictatorship," said Rivas, 23.

"But now the definition is changing, and people are seeing that human rights abuses can extend to a lot of other areas, too."

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