LGBT Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean: Why Now and What Next?

LGBT pride march Wikimedia Commons

“The region came out in the 2000s,” said Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College who spoke on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LBGT) politics in Latin America at a first of a kind discussion on October 20 at the Inter-American Dialogue. “Every country in the region had at least one advancement in LGBT rights,” he added.

Corrales, who recently co-authored The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: a Reader on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, said that half of all major cities in Latin America have at least one public LGBT organization per million inhabitants and some, including Montevideo which boasts 25, have far more. His research revealed no apparent correlation between how “gay friendly” a city is and its income level—a somewhat counterintuitive revelation that surprised many audience members.

Still, progress is uneven, he said. The Ecuadorian constitution is a case in point.

Enacted in 2008, the Ecuadorian constitution includes a non-discrimination clause on the basis of gender, sexual identity and HIV status. The same document explicitly proscribes unions between same-sex couples by clearly defining marriage as a right between a man and woman.

Other political obstacles are more deep-rooted. “The closet remains a very comfortable place,” Corrales said. He added that this is especially the case for elites. Tolerance for closeted elites is fueled by a dearth of politicians who are openly gay (or lesbian, transsexual or bisexual). By comparison, many more US and Canadian politicians are “out,” which creates a culture of acceptance. In Latin America, homophobia starts at home and is more pronounced among older generations. At the same time, a large percentage of youth in their 20s live at home making it unlikely that they will be open about their sexual identities.

Universities, typically a reprieve for LGBT students in the United States, are rated among the most hostile and intolerant environments for non-heterosexual students.

Commentator Macarena Sáez, of American University, pointed out that the language in the Ecuadorian constitution does not preclude the possibility of civil unions between same-sex couples. Ecuador, she elaborated, could ride on Colombia’s coattails and provide a legal, non-ecclesiastic avenue for same sex marriage. “Maybe the institution of marriage is waning,” she added.

More optimistic than Corrales, Sáez reflected that in the 1990s, Latin America was still struggling with basic freedoms. “The fact that we’re even talking about this means that Latin America finally has space for these issues,” she said. But according to Joseph Palacios, a sociologist at Georgetown University, the LGBT movement in Latin America is stymied by the Catholic and Evangelical churches that have become “strange bedfellows” in their public condemnation of same-sex marriage, and simultaneous efforts to promote the image of the nuclear family within the public imagination.

During the question and answer section, participants—among them members of several governments, including the US and Canada—asked what set Argentina apart when it legalized same-sex marriage in July of this year. Corrales pointed to low levels of church attendance as one obvious explanation, but added that Argentina’s transnational legal system is unique. Human rights law in Argentina was largely imported, and this has resulted in a progressive legal code more conducive to the passage of gay marriage.

Asked about the prospects of gay-marriage becoming legal in other parts of the region, including the United States, Corrales responded that the forecast is dim unless elected leaders recognize that LGBT rights should not be settled through the electoral process. “You should not settle minority questions through the majority electorate,” he concluded, paraphrasing the prophetic words of James Madison.