Our Not So Warm Welcome to Panamá

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Our Not So Warm Welcome to Panamá

“Welcome to Panamá” arrivals signage


Dehumanized. That’s how the customs officer made us feel on our entry into Panamá earlier this year.

Allow me to go into more detail. My husband Joseph and I have been legally married for 10 years this year. We recently took a trip to Argentina where we spent 6 wonderful nights celebrating our 10th year of marriage and our 29th year together. On the way back we stopped over in Panamá for two nights. 

Argentina has had marriage equality since 2010, the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. Apparently, Panamá is still wrestling with it, as I learned on March 18, 2023. More on this later.

I need to first go back to the period between 2013, when we were married in California after both California’s discriminatory Proposition 8 was invalidated for lack of standing by the US Supreme Court and in the US v. Windsor case ruled that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which denied federal recognition of same-sex marriages, was a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and 2015. During that two-year period, we would arrive into one US state or another and ask ourselves “are we married here?” That in and of itself was weird, so when the Obergefell v. Hodges decision guaranteed nationwide marriage equality in the United States two years later we finally felt that we were legitimately recognized as a couple and therefore as a family.

When we arrived into Argentina without even asking ourselves “are we married here?” (I only Googled it when I decided to write this post), we walked up to the immigration officer, a friendly young blond gentleman with a man bun, together, as families do. The only question he asked us was where we were staying and for how long. As a side note, Argentina doesn’t require anyone arriving from out of the country to complete any paperwork; they simply go with what was submitted when one checks in with the airline, I suppose.

So when the flight attendant on our flight from Buenos Aires to Panamá distributed the customs forms for our arrival we asked for one because she told us they were one per family, and we are a family. Or so we thought…

There are technically two departments that process incoming arrivals in Panamá. The first officer you see is Migración (immigration). We walked up to the counter together when called and presented our passports and our one completed form, which he glanced over then set aside, then processed each of us individually and efficiently and sent us on our way.  We then claimed our bags, which were already coming off the belt, and headed for Aduana (Customs) and the exit. Of note, EVERY piece of luggage AND hand carried items go through an x-ray machine on the way into Panamá after the customs form is presented to the person on duty. I handed our completed form to the young woman who immediately asked for a second one. I said in Spanish “Estamos familia” (we are a family). And she shook her head no, so I said “Estamos casados (we are married). She rudely replied, in Spanish, and unfortunately, I can’t remember her exact words, but no matter what she said the meaning was clear – “not in Panamá, you’re not.”

And that stung, and back to the first word of this post, we felt dehumanized.

So we got out of line and went back to fill out a second form and instead of getting back in line approached another agent and went right through. I guess I should feel lucky we didn’t get sent to secondary, but still, it was a dehumanizing experience.

After we got to our hotel, I did a bit of research and learned that in 2018 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that the American Convention on Human Rights mandates and requires the recognition of same-sex marriage. The ruling was fully binding on Costa Rica and set binding precedent in other Latin American and Caribbean countries, including Panamá. And apparently Panamá has been fighting this ruling ever since.


Our room at the W Hotel Panamá                        Photo cred W Hotel Panamá team member


While we ended up having a nice, albeit short, visit and our hotel welcomed us without issue, and, in fact, treated us very well with an upgrade for our anniversary, this entire experience has left a bad taste in our mouths. I plan to send this post to Tourism Panamá, the national tourism board, and also let any LGBTQ+ people, couples, and families who are considering travel to Panamá know about our experience.

I realize the tourism board can’t necessarily influence the country’s lawmakers but they need to know how unwelcoming our arrival experience was. Charles Chan Massey, March, 2023

Charles Chan Massey is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The Personal Stories Project. You can reach him via e-mail at charles@personalstoriesproject.org