A bill which would legalize civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in Brazil cleared its first legislative hurdle in Brazil's Congress on Thursday.

According to The Associated Press, the measure was approved by the Human Rights Committee in Brazil's Senate after 16 years of debate.

However, last year the nation's top court legalized civil unions for gay couples, paving the way for lower courts to allow some unions on a case-by-case basis to be converted to full-fledged marriages.

The bill, which must pass other Senate panels before heading to the Senate floor, is sponsored by Senator Marta Suplicy, who said it was important to legislatively approve what courts are already allowing.

Suplicy and Congressman Jean Wyllys, currently Brazil's only openly gay member of Parliament, have also sponsored legislation which would legalize gay marriage.

Suplicy, 67, is the former Mayor of Sao Paulo, the largest city in Brazil and the sixth largest in the world, and a member of the Worker's Party (Patido dos Trabalhadores). She studied in the United States, first at Michigan State University and later at Stanford University.

Marriage in Brazil is regulated by the federal government, not the states.