Gay activists decorate a square in front of the Congress building before a parliamentary debate for law proposal to make all marriages equal, allowing same-sex marriages to have the same rights and same divorce conditions as heterosexual unions in Montevideo on December 11, 2012.

Montevideo -

Uruguayan lawmakers approved a bill early on Wednesday to legalise same-sex marriage and sent it on to the Senate.

The Chamber of Deputies approved the measure after eight hours of debate, with 81 votes in favour out of 87 legislators present. The result was greeted with thunderous applause from around 200 activists watching from the gallery.

The bill - introduced by members of President Jose Mujica's leftist Frente Amplio - seeks to reform the civil code so that “heterosexuals, homosexuals, lesbians and the transgendered are allowed to have a monogamous marriage” and emphasises the “transformation of the family as an institution.”

“This is not a homosexual or gay marriage law,” said Julio Bango, a Frente legislator and one of the bill's authors. “It is a measure to equalise the institution of marriage independent of the sex of the couple.”

The small South American country has taken a progressive stance towards gay rights over the past six years, approving civil unions, adoptions by gay and lesbian couples, sex changes starting at age 18, and gays in the armed forces.

In Latin America, same-sex marriage has been legal in Mexico City since 2009 and in Uruguay's neighbour Argentina since 2010. - Sapa-AFP