Lesbian couple tests Portugal's gay rights

Teresa Pires and Helena Paixao make no secret of their feelings. They kiss in public and call each other "My love." That's proved too much for this conservative northern Portuguese coastal town where the lesbian couple has lived since leaving Lisbon last year.

Locals answer their "Bom dia!", Good morning with silence. One scandalized neighbor sprayed them with a garden hose as they walked down the street hand-in-hand. Paixao had to quit her job in a cafe after customers stopped turning up. "It's very hard, but it doesn't bother me any more," said Paixao, 35.

In January, the couple decided to take their private ordeal public, launching the first and so far only bid to force this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country to grant gays the right to marry. They went to a civil registry office in Lisbon in jeans and matching cream sweaters and asked to be wed. The registrar turned them down because the law permits marriage only between men and women.

Five years ago, Portugal extended some legal benefits such as joint tax returns to people who live together, including homosexuals. However, the concessions fell far short of the entitlements gained by marriage. The case of Paixao and Pires, both divorced and with young daughters, has become a litmus test of modern Portuguese attitudes toward homosexuality as Europe moves toward greater tolerance.

They decided they wanted to wed after reading about Elton John's civil union with his longtime partner last December in England . The ceremony concluded the first week of legalized same-sex unions in the United Kingdom . In Europe , Belgium , the Netherlands and Spain have legalized gay marriage. Canada and Massachusetts in the United States also allow gay marriage.

"We saw what's been happening abroad and thought: 'That's what we want, too'," Pires said. "It's our dream." But Portugal moves at a leisurely pace. When new trends travel across Europe , this country of 10.3 million on the continent's southwestern edge tends to lag behind, and homosexuality is still taboo.

Lisbon has some bars and night clubs known to be popular among gays, but they are discreet. Paixao and Pires have encountered resistance even in the capital. They were evicted from their apartment after their landlady told them "people are talking." And when they cuddle on the bus, other passengers get off.

Though Portuguese law prohibits gay marriage, the constitution forbids discrimination based on sexual orientation. That has created a legal pickle that will likely require new legislation to resolve, the women's attorney Luis Grave Rodrigues says. "This is not just about Teresa and Helena, it's about the thousands of people who live in shame, in hiding and with no rights," Grave Rodrigues said in his small suburban Lisbon office.

Grave Rodrigues says his clients will fight all the way to the Constitutional Court the nation's highest court to win the right to marry. He believes the broad resistance to gay marriage will gradually slacken under the influence of other European countries.

The Portuguese delegation of the International Lesbian and Gay Association is supporting the bid by Pires and Paixao to force a change in the law and presented a petition with around 7,000 names to Parliament. Pires and Paixao, who have been together as a couple for three years, reckon that if their case is successful, hundreds of homosexual couples will come forward and ask to marry. The center-left Socialist government, though, says it has no immediate intention of addressing the issue, reports the AP.

N.U.