Rainbow Tide Rising: How Latin America Became a Gay Rights Haven

The rise of the Latin American left has coincided with a wide array of successful LGBT activism on the continent.

The New York Times recently declared Latin America “ahead of the U.S. and Western Europe” on gay rights, smashing stereotypes of a region not known for its social progressivism. The advances have roughly coincided with the ascendance of Latin America’s “Pink Tide” of left-leaning governments in the last decade.

Uruguay approved civil unions in 2008, and Ecuador did the same the next year. In 2009, Uruguay legalized adoption for gay couples and gender changes on official documents. In 2010, Argentina legalized gay marriage. Last year, Brazil’s National Council of Justice declared gay marriage legal nationwide, and Uruguay approved same-sex marriage. Sex reassignment surgery is covered by health insurance in Cuba and Argentina. Left-leaning governments have also approved a host of smaller measures, including anti-discrimination laws in Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela, and the decriminalization of homosexuality in Nicaragua and Panama.

Fewer advances have come under conservative governance, though to be fair the region hasn’t had much conservative governance lately. In 2007, Colombia’s Constitutional Court legalized civil unions, gay marriage is legal in Mexico City and two other states, and Mexican law requires that the marriages be recognized nationwide. Chile under conservative billionaire Sebastián Piñera passed a robust anti-discrimination law.

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In each country, the changes have taken place despite the vigorous resistance of the Catholic Church and often without widespread social acceptance of homosexuality.

In many Latin American countries, leftist governance has offered a set of receptive ears for LGBT activists. Leaders like Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa, Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner rose to power promising a new, 21st-century Latin American version of social justice. Some have incorporated gay rights into that vision more than others.

Militants and Sympathizers

“Historically the left has not been particularly gay-friendly. In fact historically, it has been very homophobic, as much if not more than the right,” said Omar G. Encarnación, professor of political studies at Bard College and the author of Latin America's Gay Rights Revolution, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.  

Traditional Marxist thought considered homosexuality “as some sort of ultimate bourgeois decadence,” he said.

Homosexuals were sent to forced labor camps in 1960s Cuba and punished with prison time in Nicaragua under the Sandinistas in the 1980s. A shift began in the 1990s, as leftist leaders began to embrace some liberal ideals, “becoming more along the lines of the Western European New Left,“ according to Encarnación.

Latin America’s progress on gay rights stems from a complex interplay of factors, including increased economic development, bold judiciaries, aculture of human rights, the decline of the Catholic Church and a torrent of creative and effective activism.

In Uruguay, that activism began in the 1980s when the nation was transitioning out of its 12-year military dictatorship, according to Federico Graña, member of the LGBT activist group Ovejas Negras or “Black Sheep.” An underground group called the Scorpios operated out of nightclub bathrooms and circulated writings on LGBT issues. In 1992, Homosexuales Unidos held Uruguay’s first public demonstration against homophobia. About 25 people rallied in Montevideo’s Plaza de la Libertad underneath the banner of “basta discriminación.”

In the 1990s, a member of Montevideo’s local parliament named Margarita Percovich began working with the LGBT community. She is now a senator in the Frente Amplio, Uruguay’s left-wing ruling coalition.

“That was the start of a dialogue, or it could be said the origins of the dialogues with some political sectors, particularly the left,” Graña said.

More Uruguayans began coming out of the closet, and marches began to draw hundreds of participants instead of dozens.

When the Frente Amplio took power in 2004, the coalition had “fewer militants than sympathizers” on gay rights, according to Graña. But since then, politicians and activists have been able to pass a host of gay rights measures.

The Frente Amplio was itself responsible for introducing Uruguay’s 2008 civil union law, and the 2009 approval of adoption for same-sex couples. In 2009, activists successfully campaigned for a law allowing Uruguayans to change their gender on legal documents. Afterward, LGBT activists drafted a marriage equality proposal in collaboration with a wide variety of other civil society groups.

“At the end of 2010, we brought the project to all 99 deputies of all Uruguay’s political parties. The Frente Amplio was the first to respond to us,” Graña said. The law was passed with large majorities—including some support from opposition parties—and was signed by President José Mujica in May 2013.

A 2013 poll found that 54 percent of Uruguayans support same-sex marriage, with 33 percent against.

The Uruguayan experience is paralleled in many ways in Argentina, another broadly tolerant nation that approved gay marriage in 2010. The administration of progressive President Néstor Kirchner announced a “social justice” agenda and reached out to the activist group Comunidad Homosexual Argentina to discuss gay rights.

Kirchner’s spouse and succeeding Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchnerinitially reacted timidly to the 2010 gay marriage proposal, but eventually became an ardent campaigner for the bill. Public support for gay marriage was so expansive that Fernández de Kirchner was even accused of “pandering.”

“I think the Kirchner administrations have done a great contribution to the LGBT movement, both Argentinean, Latin American and even international,” said Irene Ocampo, an activist based in Rosario, Argentina.

“The recent adoption of three bills [on marriage equality, gender identity, and reproductive assistance for same-sex couples] are starting to change the way we talk about these issues in our country.”

Hate Language

Further north, the picture is less rosy.

Venezuela has been a “huge disappointment” on LGBT issues under presidents Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, according to Julia Buxton, Venezuela analyst and a professor of comparative politics at Central European University.

Under Chavez, Venezuela revamped its constitution in 1999, guaranteeing all Venezuelans the right to employment, free education, health care, and a clean environment.

It was an opportunity to integrate gay rights into Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution, an opportunity the Chavez government passed up.

“When Venezuela rewrote the Bolivarian constitution in 1999, we may have anti-discrimination legislation in the constitution but there is effectively a constitutional ban on gay people adopting children or same-sex unions,” Buxton said.

Other countries with more old-school leftist leaders like Bolivia and Nicaragua have seen little movement on LGBT issues. “It is no accident, by the way, that the most orthodox leftist countries in Latin America remain by and large the least developed” on gay rights, said Encarnación.

Venezuelan law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, but the Bolivarian revolution hasn’t exactly cultivated a culture of tolerance. For instance, Chavista leaders have repeatedly tried to smear opposition leader Henrique Capriles by implying he is gay.

“I do have a wife, you know? I do like women!” Maduro, the current president, said at a rally during last year’s presidential election. At another point he called Capriles “a little princess.”

“To me, that’s hate language,” Buxton said. “The tone and the tenor of the debate is so regressive.”

Other Pink Tide states have mixed records.

Ecuador’s constitutional assembly legalized civil unions in 2009, on par with LGBT champions like Uruguay and Argentina and—with a per capita GDP of about $5,000—ahead of virtually all of its economic peers worldwide. However, that same constitution also defines marriage as “the union between man and woman,” and prohibits non-straight couples from adopting children.

In 1965 Fidel Castro declared that a homosexual Cuban didn’t have what it took to be a “true revolutionary.” Cuba sent gay men to forced labor camps in the 1960s, and homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized until 1979. In 2010 Castro finally called the nation’s record a "great injustice" and took personal responsibility. Cuba’s parliament has shot down same-sex unions in the past, but the island is a leader on transgender issues: the state-run medical system offers sex-change operations as part of its free service to all Cubans, and Cubans elected theirfirst transgender public official in 2012.

True Revolutionaries

Perhaps the best lesson from Latin America’s rainbow tide is this: in the countries most advanced on gay rights, activists have been able to successfully integrate LGBT issues with other social movements.

When the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001, gay rights activists took the chance to “nail themselves into this broader social justice movement that is born out of that crisis,” according to Encarnación. A resulting set of reforms in 2002 included a domestic partnership law for same-sex couples.

Uruguay has benefited from strong links between civil society and party politics. Federico Graña is himself an example, as a member of both the Black Sheep activist group and a member of the central committee of the Uruguayan Communist Party.

“It took me a lot of effort to make [LGBT rights] part of my party’s agenda,” Graña said. “We had an intense debate about how these subjects generated inequalities and how they would be related to a vision of socialism in the 21st century.”

Graña says a turning point in LGBT advocacy came around 2004, when activist groups decided they were taking too narrow an approach to their campaigns.

“In reality there exists a lot of discriminations that generate inequities and inequalities, so we believed that analyzing only sexual orientation was an error,” Graña said. “We realized that it would be impossible to analyze Uruguayan society without taking into account social class, without taking into account gender, without taking into account sexual orientation, and also racial issues.”

He credits the strong links between different civil society groups for Uruguay’s string of progressive new laws legalizing abortion in 2012, gay marriage in May 2013 and marijuana in December.

Many hurdles still remain for LGBT equality on the continent. Some analysts even argue that progress on gay rights legislation has triggered a backlash in societies where homophobia is still widespread. Latin America accounts for 80 percent of murders of transgendered people worldwide, according toGlobal Post, and44 percent of global homophobic attacks occur in Brazil, according to one activist group.

“The hope is that changes in the law will eventually have a transformation on societal attitudes, but that of course remains to be seen,” said Encarnación.

Chris Lewis is a freelance journalist based in South America. Follow him on Twitter @chris_lewis_.