Gays in Latin America: Is the Closet Half Empty?

After years of lagging behind, gay rights movements in Latin America are coming out into the mainstream.


Most analysts haven’t noticed, but a major social revolution is taking place in Latin America. The region is becoming gayer. It’s not that there are more gays and lesbians living in Latin America (we would never know). Rather, the region is becoming more gay-friendly. A generation ago, Latin America was the land of the closet and the home of the macho. Today, movements fighting for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights are taking advantage of the region’s more globalized, open regimes. They are promoting their cause through smart, mainstream political and economic alliances. So, though closets and machos are still ubiquitous, Latin America is now the site of some of the most pro-gay legislation in the developing world.

Gay rights expanded in democratic Western Europe starting in the late 1960s, and in the United States more gradually since the 1970s. Despite being democratic and kind-of-Western, Latin America lagged behind. Then, in the late 1990s, legislation started to change. In 1998, Ecuador’s new constitution introduced protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 1999, Chile decriminalized same-sex intercourse. Rio de Janeiro’s state legislature banned sexual-orientation discrimination in public and private establishments in 2000. In 2002, Buenos Aires guaranteed all couples, regardless of gender, the right to register civil unions.

The policy changes just kept coming. In 2003, Mexico passed a federal antidiscrimination law that included sexual orientation. A year later, the government of Brazil initiated Brasil sem homofobia (Brazil without homophobia), a program with nongovernmental organizations to change social attitudes toward sexuality. In 2006, Mexico City approved the Societal Cohabitation Law, granting same-sex couples marital rights identical to those for common-law relationships between a man and a woman. Uruguay passed a 2007 law granting access to health benefits, inheritance, parenting, and pension rights to all couples who have cohabited for at least five years. In 2008, Nicaragua reformed its penal code to decriminalize same-sex relations. Even Cuba’s authoritarian new president, Ral Castro, has allowed free sex-change operations for qualifying citizens.

Change hasn’t simply come on paper. Latin American cities are also becoming increasingly gay-friendly. The number of gay-owned or gay-friendly establishments (e.g., bars, support groups, services) per capita in Latin American cities is on the rise, with some cities outperforming even the most liberal Western capitals. Nobody really ever thought the region was a gay desert, but there is plenty of evidence now that Latin America — at least legally and in urban centers — is coming out.

What explains the great Latin American awakening? Among the obvious answers is regime change: It helps that the region is no longer authoritarian, because gay rights rarely expand under such conditions. It also helps that the region is solidly urbanized and that Latin American cities are becoming more globalized and richer; gay life thrives in wealthy, cosmopolitan cities. It helps that the region is not Muslim or predominantly Protestant, because countries where these religions dominate — for example Arab or Anglo-Caribbean countries — tend to have the least gay-friendly legislation.

Yet a more surprising reason for the torrent of change has been the unexpected new clout of LGBT movements in the region. These movements have existed in some countries since the 1970s, but they have always been poor, small, plagued by enormous free-riding problems (all those people still in the closet), and devoid of strong national-level leaders. Typically, this would yield zero clout.

Instead, Latin American LGBT movements have overcome their political handicaps by adopting smart tactics. Rather than turning radical and desperate, they have forged pragmatic alliances with larger, more-influential social movements. In Ecuador, for instance, they relied on the much stronger feminist movement to influence constitutional change. Likewise in Brazil, alliances with government officials proved vital to health campaigns. Movements in Argentina, Mexico, and Peru worked with local businesses to develop gay markets.

LGBT movements have also made smart use of the tools afforded by globalization. They have promoted gay tourism, worked with the media to change cultural tastes, and used the Internet and academic forums to learn about [JC1] tactics that have successfully yielded change abroad. Latin America’s gay-advocacy groups are not radical, anticapitalist, or antiglobalization, and this has expanded their power. Given the antiglobalization tack of many progressive social movements, Latin American LGBT advocates are minorities in more ways than just their sexuality.

Clear challenges, of course, remain. Gay rights are still timid where they exist, and absent in many parts of the region, especially outside large cities. The most obvious reason is lingering homophobia. A recent survey in Brazil, the country with the largest gay-pride parades in the world, showed that 58 percent of respondents still agree with the statement, Homosexuality is a sin against the laws of God, and 41 percent with Homosexuality is an illness that should be treated. This is the paradox of advancing gay rights. The very same factors that make gay rights possible — higher visibility and smart lobbying tactics — also provoke homophobic sentiments.

Despite their adept political strategies, LGBT movements have also failed to win the unequivocal support of political parties on the left, which happen to be in power in most countries of the region. Maybe the lack of party support stems from the socialist left’s legendary disdain for post-materialist values and globalization — both of which LGBT movements have embraced. Perhaps it is because of the macho approach to politics inherited from the legacies of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, or merely the innate conservatism of leftist-populists. For whatever reason, and with the sole exception of President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva in Brazil, leftist presidents support far more timid gay legislation than gay groups want, if they support changes at all. In Ecuador last year, for instance, leftist President Rafael Correa personally blocked legalizing same-sex marriage in his new constitution, even though he filled it with plenty of other controversial articles. So though it may be true that LGBT folks love parties, in Latin America, they don’t always get the parties they want.

It is hard to be fully confident about the future, despite obvious progress for LGBT movements in Latin America. Gay rights and comfort zones seem to move in waves, with the ever present possibility of reversals. Changing laws and neighborhoods are no doubt a good start, but there is work to be done to counter waves of homophobia and the lack of ruling-party allies. The closet may be opening, but the jury is still out.

Javier Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 professor and chair of Political Science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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