While the debate over gay marriage in the Supreme Court of the United States makes international headlines this week, the Colombian Senate continues to discuss the issue, which was first approved in an open debate last year. Congress has until July 20, 2013 to make a decision on the issue or full marriage rights will automatically be extended to same-sex couples.

Simon Bolivar holds a gay pride flag in Bogotá

Public pressure on the issue has been significant, and Bogotá’s annual Gay Pride Parade always ends in front of Congress.

The choice of July 20 as a cut-off date has tremendous symbolic significance, being the nation’s Independence Day, and was assigned following a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that recognized the equal rights of same-sex couples and mandated that congress develop corresponding legislation or allow said rights to automatically take effect.

Gay and lesbian couples in Colombia already have essentially equal rights through the civil union process, including the ability to cover partners under employer or government-provided health insurance and pension plans, provide residency status for foreign partners, visit partners in the hospital and in prison and receive inheritances or life insurance benefits. However, such unions require documentation that a couple has lived together for at least two years, whereas marriage has no cohabitation or time requirement.

Similarly, gay couples cannot jointly adopt children, an issue not explicitly being debated at the moment. However, legislation permitting same-sex marriage would make defending the current ban on adoption significantly more difficult from a legal and constitutional perspective. In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the adoption of two Colombian children by an openly gay journalist from the United States.

While public support for gay rights remains ostensibly positive in the nation’s urban centers, violence and discrimination against the LGBT community has been problematic in Colombia for decades. Neo-paramilitary death squads continue to threaten homosexuals, along with transvestites, prostitutes and drug users as part of widespread “social cleansing” movements. In 2009, 45 LGBT Colombians were killed over sexual orientation, according to the most recent report from Colombia Diversa. The non-profit organization suggests that the actual tally could be significantly higher due to unreported cases.

Nonetheless, progress on the issue has been often astonishingly rapid, especially considering that homosexuality in and of itself was illegal in Colombia until 1980. The nation is now one of the most advanced in the world in terms of providing LGBT citizens with rights and anti-discrimination laws. Ratification of the Constitution of 1991 was a particularly critical moment for gay rights, codifying a number of protections and guaranteeing equality as citizens. Civil unions were approved for gay couples in 2007.

For years, Senator Armando Benedetti, of the conservative Partido de la U, has proven an unlikely champion of gay marriage in Colombia, co-sponsoring the initiative currently being debated in 2011 with fellow congressman Alfonso Prada. Members of Benedetti’s political party, including its figurehead, ex-President Álvaro Uribe, generally oppose gay rights. President Santos has remained almost completely silent on the issue since taking office, though he opposed both gay marriage and adoption for same-sex couples during his campaign.

City Councilwoman and former mayor of Chapinero, Angélica Lozano Correa has long been public about her bisexuality and represents a growing movement of openly LGBT politicians and social leaders in Colombia. Other prominent gay leaders in Colombia include current Mayor of Chapinero, Blanca Inés Durán, Director of the Partido Liberal, Andrés Vásquez Moreno and son of ex-President Virgilio Barco and director of the nation’s Social Investment Bank, Vigilio Barco Isakson, among many others. Tatiana Pineros became one of the world’s most prominent transgender government officials when she was appointed to head the Social Integration Secretary in 2012.

Same-sex marriage will undoubtedly remain a topic of heated debate in the coming months as Congress continues to discuss the issue and attempts to develop legislation to provide equal rights to LGBT couples in Colombia. With similar debates occurring in a number of other countries, it is a critical moment for equality and human rights around the world.