Beyond Machismo

How Latin America Came to Embrace Gay Rights

Mexican cowboys participate in the gay pride parade in Mexico City, June 29, 2013. Claudia Daut / Reuters

From the early 1970s through the late 1980s, no place in the world was more unfriendly, dangerous, and potentially lethal for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people than Latin America. Viewing homosexuality as the ultimate sign of bourgeois decadence, Communist Cuba imprisoned and tortured gays by the truckloads, a horror captured in novelist Reynaldo Arenas’ gripping memoir, Before Night Falls. Argentina’s right-wing military regime targeted gays through the so-called Proceso Nacional, a dirty war waged between 1976 and 1983 to rid the country of political dissidents and so-called social undesirables. By the late 1980s, the scale of deadly violence against homosexuals in Brazil was so vast that it prompted gay rights activists to declare a “homocaust” and instigated a 1995 Amnesty International report, Breaking the Silence, about worldwide violence against LGBT people. This marked the first time that a major human rights organization had shined a spotlight on gay issues.

In Latin American countries that were spared military dictatorship, from either the right or the left, the picture for gays was only marginally better. In Colombia, police brigades were rounding up gays, alongside prostitutes, drug addicts, and the homeless, as part of a “cleansing” policy to eradicate crime. Morality campaigns in Mexico kept gays in the closet, unable to live their lives openly or petition the government for protection against discrimination. As recently as the early 1990s, many Latin American nations still refused legal recognition of gay rights organizations, deeming them a threat to the family and the nation (this was the rationale given by the Argentine Supreme Court when it denied legality to a gay association in 1991), and revelers at gay pride parades covered their faces for fear of reprisals from employers, friends, and neighbors.

Today, however, Latin America stands, alongside Western Europe and the United States, among the most progressive regions on LGBT rights. All Latin American nations have decriminalized homosexuality, with Panama being the last country to abolish an anti-sodomy law, in 2008; and all of them have laws in

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