How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
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 the books protecting gays and lesbians against discrimination. Same-sex marriage is legal in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and in several Mexican states and the Federal District of Mexico City. Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, and Ecuador allow same-sex civil unions that offer same-sex couples all the benefits of marriage save for the name. Some Latin American nations are now even forerunners in the global struggle for LGBT equality.
Since 2010, when Argentina became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage, it has enacted some of the most progressive LGBT legislation found anywhere in the world. Argentine law currently allows anyone to change his or her biological gender without the customary permission from a doctor or a judge. The law also permits same-sex couples wishing to have children access to reproductive assistance, such as in-vitro fertilization, through the national health system and bans conversion therapy intended to “cure” same-sex attraction. Not surprisingly, today Argentina tops many lists of countries most responsive to LGBT issues and concerns.
So how did Latin America go from being one of the most repressive environments for homosexuals in the world to one of the least? And what are the takeaways for the international human rights community as it seeks to contain the backlash against gay rights sweeping large swaths of the world? Triggered, in no small measure, by the fear that gay rights advances in the developed North will find their way into the global South, in recent years, India, Nigeria, and Uganda (among others), have moved to criminalize or to re-criminalize homosexuality. Bahrain, Egypt, and Iran are reported to have begun executing gays. Other countries have instituted a ban on the “promotion” of homosexuality, fashioned after Russia’s infamous 2013 anti-gay propaganda law. That law is so broad as to make an admission of homosexuality, unless made in a negative light, a crime.
External influence has certainly played a big role in Latin America’s “gay rights revolution.” For starters, for several decades now, the region has been engulfed in a tidal wave of “global queering,” a term that refers to the worldwide spread of homosexual identities and cultural practices launched by the gay liberation movement born with the 1969 Stonewall Riots. Widely known as the launch pad for the contemporary gay rights movement, Stonewall inspired a generation of Latin American gay activists to import the gospel of gay liberation to the region. They were led by the Frente de Liberación Homosexual (FLH), Latin America’s first viable gay rights organization. Founded in Buenos Aires in 1971, the FLH promoted sexual nonconformity, pride in being gay, and repeal of the infamous edictos policiales, federal ordinances that made homosexuality a crime in practice although not in law. (Argentina, like most of Latin America, decriminalized homosexuality in the nineteenth century, influenced by France’s Napoleonic Civil Code). Although the FLH was viciously crushed by the military in 1976, after the return of democracy to Argentina in 1983, its legacy inspired a new generation of gay activists to pick up the cause.
Pressure and shaming from international human rights organizations has also facilitated gay rights by aiding in the “socialization” of Latin American governments into human rights norms and practices. During the 1980s, gay activists at the Inter-American Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission created a splash by pushing the United States and Canada into granting political asylum to a number of Latin Americans who claimed that their lives were endangered by the fact that they were homosexual. The most famous of these cases was that of Marcelo Tenorio, a gay male from Brazil, the first person to be granted asylum in the United States on the grounds of his sexual orientation. Tenorio told U.S. immigration officials that he fled Brazil in 1990 after he was stabbed outside of a gay bar in Rio de Janeiro in 1989 and that he feared for his life if forced to go home. In coming to his rescue, activists were aiming as much to save gay lives as to embarrass the Brazilian government for its horrid treatment of gays and lesbians.
International pressure has also encouraged Latin American nations to enact policies and legislation specifically intended to advance gay civil rights. In 1991, after denying legal recognition to the Comunidad Homosexual Argentina (CHA), Argentine President Carlos Menem was treated to a shaming campaign while traveling in the United States. It was waged by ACT-UP Americas, an offshoot of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), the New York-based organization famous for its attention-grabbing activism. Menem was accosted virtually everywhere he went, including at the Argentine consulate in New York, where a demonstration featured pictures of AIDS patients chained to their hospital beds in Buenos Aires. Upon his return home, Menem promptly legalized the CHA. Backed with legality, in 1996 the CHA was able to secure a ban on anti-gay discrimination in the City of Buenos Aires, the first gay rights ordinance in all of Latin America.
The international outcry over the killing of Daniel Zamudio, a gay 24-year old Chilean who was brutally killed by neo-Nazis in 2012, tipped the balance in the debate over a national ban on discrimination in that country. Years before Zamudio’s killing, the Chilean Congress had discussed and ultimately shelved a national anti-discrimination law. At the heart of the dispute was whether the law should include sexual orientation as a category for anti-discrimination protection. After the many international headlines generated by Zamudio’s killing, including an article in Spain’s El País, in which the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called on the Latin American nations to end anti-gay discrimination and violence, the national anti-discrimination law, including sexual orientation, sailed through the Chilean Congress.
Last but not least has been the timely intervention by several individual foreign nations, most notably Spain. After 2005, when Spain became the first Roman Catholic nation to legalize same-sex marriage, the Socialist administration of José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero made LGBT rights a priority in its diplomatic relations with Latin America. This intervention, ably aided by a host of Spanish NGOs, such as Fundación Triángulo and the Federación Estatal LGBT, is credited with spurring gay rights policies throughout Latin America, especially same-sex civil unions and same-sex marriage. No other Latin American country was more impacted by this “diffusion” effect than Argentina, a country that is predominantly populated by people of European descent, has high levels of social and economic development, and possesses Latin America’s richest history of organized activism around the issue of homosexuality. Not surprisingly, in both Spain and Argentina the campaign for marriage equality shared the same slogan: “The same name with the same rights.”
Ultimately, however, the rise of gay rights in Latin America should be seen a homegrown affair fueled by a host of cultural, legal, and political factors. After all, naming and shaming has done little for Western leaders to promote gay rights at the global level. In visits to Senegal and Kenya, for example, U.S. President Barack Obama urged his hosts to decriminalize homosexuality and afford civil rights protections to the LGBT population. If anything, these efforts have spectacularly backfired, as can be seen by the unprecedented gay rights backlash currently underway in much of Africa. Ironically, LGBT people are worse off today in most parts of Africa than before the West began to push its gay rights agenda.
Since the mid-1980s, when Latin America began to emerge from military rule and embrace democracy, the region has experienced a deep process of social modernization. Among its most significant aspects is the growing secularization of the public, as can be seen in the rise of so-called lapsed Catholics, also known as “cultural Catholics.” These are self-professed Catholics who do not see themselves as beholden to the Church’s teachings. In countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, about two-thirds of all Catholics fall into this category. These religious trends, which have undoubtedly have been accelerated by the Church’s loss of moral authority ensuing from its support of bloodthirsty dictatorships and sex abuse scandals, have made the public more accepting of homosexuality and more supportive of gay rights.
A decline in religiosity in Latin America has also lowered the risks for Latin American politicians of supporting gay rights. In 2009, when Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a left-wing politician famous for his social liberalism, signed into law Mexico City’s same-sex marriage ordinance, he tuned a deaf ear to the Catholic Church’s threat of excommunication. That would have been unthinkable only a few years prior. Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, today hailed as a gay rights heroine for her fierce advocacy of marriage equality, all but welcomed the opposition to same-sex marriage by then Cardinal of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio (today Pope Francis). When Bergoglio branded the same-sex marriage bill “the Devil’s Project,” Kirchner delivered a rhetorical smack down, characterizing his words as “reminiscent of the Dark Ages and the Inquisition.”
Since embracing democracy, the majority of Latin American nations have also revamped their constitutions, a process that has given Latin America some of the world’s newest and most progressive constitutional frameworks. Some of them, including Argentina’s, fully incorporate the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, making it easier for gays in Latin America to approach the courts and demand equal treatment. Although the declaration is mum on the issue of sexual orientation, many references to the “dignity of all people” are nowadays broadly understood to apply to homosexuals. Most Latin American countries have also strengthened the autonomy of the judiciary, which has historically been the weakest branch in the region’s governments. This, in turn, has empowered the courts to rule boldly in favor of gay rights. In fact, some of the most sweeping court rulings in favor of same-sex marriage have come from Latin American courts.
In 2011, the highest court in the land in Colombia and Brazilian ruled that treating homosexual unions differently from heterosexual unions was unconstitutional, and it ordered the government to grant all the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples. In June, 2015, just weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Obergefell vs. Hodges that same-sex marriage was a constitutionally guaranteed right under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment of equal protection under the law, the Mexican Supreme Court, without any of the drama of its American counterpart, ruled that all state laws banning same-sex marriage were discriminatory and therefore in violation of the Mexican Constitution.
THE ARGENTINE WAY
Lastly, Latin America’s gay rights successes cannot be fully understood without accounting for the smart advocacy by gay rights activists. What Latin American gay activists have lacked in the way of organizational resources relative to their counterparts in the United States and Western Europe—such as large membership bases and political connections—they have more than compensated for by crafting some of savviest gay rights campaigns around. Most notably, whereas gay activists in the United States have waged a “civil rights struggle” to advance gay rights, including same-sex marriage, in much of Latin America gay activists have waged a “human rights crusade.” The former seeks to legitimize gay rights through national law while the latter finds the legitimacy of gay rights in the universality of human rights.
The framing of the struggle for gay rights as a human rights crusade was most expertly realized in Argentina. After the transition to democracy, in 1983, Argentine gay activists folded their aspiration for ending antigay discriminatory policies and for extending civil rights protections into the large and influential Argentine human rights community born from the political excesses of the Dirty War. To drive home the point that gay rights are human rights, activists adopted the slogan “the freedom of sexuality is a basic human right.” That slogan foreshadowed the popular idea that “gay rights are human rights” in European and American gay politics.
Gay organizations in Argentina also branded themselves as human rights organizations, rather than as gay rights associations. A central goal of this effort was to incorporate the gay community into the broader civil society, which was then mobilized around the issue of justice and accountability against the military regime. The movement succeeded in convicting regime members of crimes against humanity. Although Nunca Más (Never Again), the final report of the National Commission on the Disappeared that served as the basis for the prosecution of military officers, does not recognize a single disappeared individual because of his/her sexual orientation, this did not stop gay activists from making the claim that gays are “the disappeared among the disappeared.” According to gay activists, some 400 gays disappeared during the military dictatorship, although no evidence to support this claim has yet emerged.
To influence hearts and minds about homosexuality, as much as to influence gay rights legislation, gay activists adopted the Argentine human rights movement’s playbook. For instance, gay activists embraced the famous escraches, or the accosting and shaming of public officials who fail to support human rights causes, a strategy pioneered by the children of the victims of the Dirty War. Less apparent is that gay organizations have purposely avoided formal political affiliations, believing that support for gay rights, as with human rights, should rise above politics. And so, gay activists have been able to collaborate with politicians from both the left and the right and avoid making gay rights into a partisan issue. On the eve of Argentina’s final senate vote on same-sex marriage, all senators were allowed by the leadership of their parties to vote their conscience, thereby contributing mightily to the support that the bill enjoyed from across the political spectrum.
The end result in Argentina was a gay rights campaign that although inspired by foreign trends and events was firmly grounded in local politics and realities. It succeeded in changing the law regarding homosexuality, and, more important, in transforming society and the culture at large. To be sure, whether the strategies that have worked so brilliantly in Argentina can be replicated in other parts of the world remains an open question. Human rights, for example, do not tug at the hearts of policy-makers and the public in other parts of the global South as they do in Latin America, and in Argentina in particular. But the larger lesson from Latin America remains that strategies for securing gay civil rights can only succeed if they find resonance at the local level. International gay rights activists would do well to heed this advice.