ORANJESTAD, Aruba (AP) — A speck of an island in the Dutch Caribbean has become increasingly popular with gay couples after legislators legalized same-sex marriages in a region still openly hostile to gays and lesbians.
Two men were recently married in Saba, marking the first ceremony of its kind in the region and setting off a frenzy of calls from gay couples in other Dutch Caribbean islands seeking to marry, said Julietta Woods with Saba's Civil Registry office."People keep calling me every second," she said by telephone this week.
As part of the Netherlands Kingdom, the islands of Saba, Bonaire and St. Eustatius have to recognize same-sex marriages. While Bonaire and St. Eustatius have balked at the idea of legalizing such unions, the idea has been embraced in Saba, long considered a gay-friendly destination.
"We've seen it as a human rights issue," said Saba council member Carl Buncamper, who is openly gay. "It is important to give the partners equal rights when it comes to inheritance and other benefits."
Dozens of gay couples cheered Saba's unprecedented step, noting that gays often face taunts, threats and even death elsewhere in the Caribbean, with many islands enforcing so-called buggery laws implemented in colonial times. Some islands also have tried to amend their constitution to establish that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.
While Saba currently stands alone in approving same-sex marriages, Bonaire and St. Eustatius are expected to follow.
The Netherlands, which in 2001 became the first country in the world to approve same-sex marriages, is giving those islands more time to adopt the same law amid local opposition. The Netherlands has said local governments should use the time to help communities get used to the idea of gay marriage.
The other Dutch Caribbean islands of St. Maarten, Curacao and Aruba have to recognize same-sex marriages but don't have to legalize them because they have a more autonomous relationship with the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, the nearby French Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe are expected to soon debate the issue as France prepares to vote early next year on whether to legalize same-sex marriages.
In Saba, it took legislators several years to adopt the law and ensure that procedures were in place. On Dec. 4, officials married Xiomar Alexander Gonzalez and Israel Ernesto Ruiz in a civil ceremony at the island's courthouse.
The two men live together in Aruba and wanted to make their union official, dressing in all white to celebrate the occasion. Gonzalez said people in Saba were very welcoming.
Aruba does not allow same-sex marriages, but that could eventually change, said Desiree Croes, Aruba's first openly gay Parliament member. Croes had planned to marry to her partner in Saba, but they ended up marrying Dec. 12 in the Netherlands to celebrate with more family and friends.
Although Aruba is supposed to recognize same-sex marriages, it has struggled to do so. In 2005, the island's Superior Court ordered the government to register the union of two women who complained their 2001 marriage in the Netherlands wasn't recognized locally.
Croes said she believes her marriage will pave the way for others.
"It will take time to change the minds completely," she said. "We still get stares, but the good thing is that people don't criticize us openly."
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.