This month’s historic decision by the Brazilian Supreme Court to legalize same-sex civil unions continued a string of stunning victories for gays in Latin America.
In fact, as I point out in “Latin America’s Gay Rights Revolution” (Journal of Democracy, April 2011), since the early 2000s the region has emerged as surprisingly fertile ground for gay rights. Within the last five years alone, Uruguay lifted all legal barriers preventing gay men and women from serving openly in the military, Colombia’s Constitutional Court granted gay couples full rights of insurance, inheritance, immigration and social security, Mexico City legalized gay marriage and gay adoptions, and Argentina became only the eighth country in the world to legalize gay marriage.
A cocktail of social and political factors accounts for this surge of gay rights in what historically has been one of the most homophobic areas of the globe. This includes the growing secularization of the Latin American public—a trend made possible by the fading of Catholicism. In addition, the region has seen the advent of gay-friendly national governments in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, and municipal governments in São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Bogotá. These inroads follow the examples set by Latin America’s closely tied European counterparts. In 2005, Spain became the first Catholic-majority nation to legalize gay marriage and Portugal followed soon thereafter. In an act of transnational policy crosspollination, Spain’s marriage bill served as the blueprint for the Argentine one.
Yet it is the activism of gay groups that has carried the day for gay rights in Latin America. Relaunched with the wave of democratic transitions that ended decades of right-wing dictatorship in the mid-1980s, Latin America’s gay liberation movement has succeeded in making the argument that “gay rights are human rights.” This rhetorical strategy has been pivotal for mainstreaming gay culture and identity and for facilitating the embrace of gay rights by civil society, the courts and the political establishment.
Latin American gay activists have also effectively copied the strategies of the U.S. and Western Europe to press employers and governments to end discrimination of homosexuals. The advent of laws banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the workplace can be credited to partnerships between gay groups and progressive businesses; a strategy championed by gay groups in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s.
Another power tool is the Internet and social media. Gay groups across Latin America have exploited the Internet to create a gay cyberspace of almost boundless benefits. The relative low cost of email, blogs, websites, and social networks has allowed a myriad of gay organizations to develop an active online presence. This brings the gay community a wealth of services including archives of gay history, AIDS counseling, and chat rooms where gays can interact without the fear of being ostracized or attacked. The Internet has also functioned as a post-bureaucratic universe of interest representation that allows gay activists to get their message across when “old” media outlets (television, newspapers) are reluctant to do so.
It is less clear what the advent of gay rights means for Latin American democracy. That these rights signal democratic maturity is undeniable. But the continuing violence and discrimination against gays in countries such as Brazil and Mexico and the lukewarm support for tolerance for homosexuality shown by public opinion surveys have gay activists bracing for a backlash.
For now, however, activists are reveling in achievements once deemed improbable if not impossible.
*Omar Encarnación is a guest blogger to AQ Online. He is a professor of political studies at Bard College and the author of The Myth of Civil Society (2003) and Spanish Politics: Democracy after Dictatorship (2008).