LGBT Rights in Latin America: Progress and Resistance

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - JUNE 02:  People march during the anual gay pride parade on June 02, 2013 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by David Gasser/LatinContent/Getty Images)

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO – JUNE 02: People march during the anual gay pride parade on June 02, 2013 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo by David Gasser/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Samantha Aguilar, Cassandra Ginnis, Lukas Mcgregor

In an effort to take the temperature of LGBTI rights in Latin America, we have undertaken a sociopolitical analysis of those areas in the region, which have been late in arriving to questions of equity for sexual minorities.  While countries such as Argentina and Brazil have been leaders in this respect, others, such as Puerto Rico, Chile, and Nicaragua have been notable for their resistance.  The reasons seem to lie at the intersections of commerce and democratization, Catholicism, and entrenched gender roles.

In the early 1970s, gay rights movements were prevalent throughout the Americas – both in the U.S. and in Latin America – but were faced with setbacks, including military dictatorships with strong ties to the Catholic Church in places such as Argentina, Guatemala and Chile. While in many instances these governments – owing to the demands of cold-war alliances – were open to neo-liberal economic practices, their strong central governments were sufficiently repressive to limit the liberal social gains we have seen more recently since the widespread democratization of the region.  Since the uptick in democratic governance that began in the 1990s, the demands of the tourist trade, most notably in Chile and Argentina, have begun to ensure the safety and profitability of businesses that serve the LGBTI community.

The democratic era has also seen the rise of NGOs that are specifically focused on the rights of sexual minorities, whose visibility and dedication in the past two decades have helped to yield tremendous gains in the courts.  Activist Rolando Jimenez of the Homosexual Movement for Integration and Liberation (MOVILH) was able to mobilize public support for anti-discrimination laws in the wake of a brutal murder and a tragic fire; Cesar Cigliutti of Comunidad Homosexual Argentina (CHA) has been at the forefront of the battle for marriage equality in Latin America, and in the case of Tania Luna, a transsexual, was instrumental in obtaining her right to assert her name and gender legally without an accompanying gender reassignment surgery.  A free democratic society has no doubt been essential in allowing advocacy of this magnitude to take place.

The machismo/marianisma gender paradigm has also had its role to play not only in gender inequality in Latin America, but also in national attitudes toward sexual minorities.   A binary gender concept, which elevates ostensibly masculine characteristics – the capacity for casual brutality, say, or an appetitive and dominant sexual disposition – to a position of natural and unquestioned authority over its feminine opposite, is by its definition unable to accommodate the subtle varieties of sexual orientation and gender identity which comprise the LGBTI community.  It is perhaps fitting that this monolithic notion of masculinity, so embodied by the military dictators of Latin America’s recent past, is being gradually eroded in their absence.

As central authority has been weakened through democratization, and NGOs and rights groups have found the room to operate on behalf of sexual and other minority groups, the power of the Catholic Church has become more diffuse.  This has occurred along different timelines for different nations, with both Guatemala and Brazil legally separating Church from state before the turn of the 20th century, and Nicaragua and Chile doing the same thirty to forty years later.  Despite official separation in Argentina, the Catholic Church was what Patricia Marchak, in her book “God’s Assassins”, termed a “state church” during the military regimes, essentially supporting whomever happened to be in power.  While all of these counties are still nominally catholic, issues of complicity within the church have weakened its institutional as well as its moral authority.Protest Argentina

As with human rights progress throughout the world, the process is fought both through legislation and through norm shifting.  Catholicism has been entrenched in Latin American culture since the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s, and much of the gender narrative and sexual intolerance can be laid at the feet of the church, as correlations have been shown between the rate of religious belief and intolerance toward sexual minorities.  Because of the long history of Catholic primacy in the region, there is quite a distance to cover normatively, with only 5% of Chileans, for instance – according to  a 2010 report in the Journal of Homosexuality – holding “favorable attitudes toward homosexuals.”  As it stands now, in addition to the work of NGOs and advocacy groups, there is something of a “top down” process at work, with gains made in the U.S. and in Europe, both at the state level and in the Human Rights courts, having an impact on Latin American Judiciaries and the Inter American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), and ultimately on policies affecting the LGBTI community in places like Chile, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico.

To continue reading the full length Dossier»

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