Uruguay on Thursday became the first Latin American country to recognize gay civil unions, after President Tabare Vazquez signed a law granting certain legal rights to cohabiting couples of any gender.
The new law guarantees heterosexual or homosexual couples who have lived together continuously for more than five years social benefits enjoyed by married couples such as joint property ownership and hereditary rights.
The text recognizes "two people -- of any sex, identity, orientation or sexual option -- who maintain an emotional relationship sexual in nature, that is exclusive, stable and permanent, without being united in matrimony."
The bill sparked intense debates in both houses of Congress before it was approved by a majority of the leftist ruling coalition.
In Latin America, civil unions between homosexuals are legally recognized in certain local jurisdictions: the city of Mexico; the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul; and in three areas of Argentina, Buenos Aires, Villa Carlos Paz and Rio Negro province.
Uruguay's law takes effect nationally at the start of 2008.