In 2012 the Western Hemisphere continued to make headlines in terms of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights. The courts in Colombia and Mexico and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights emerged as LGBT champions, while transgender rights advanced in Argentina and Canada. An openly lesbian woman entered the cabinet in Ecuador, and another was elected to the U.S. Senate. Marriage equality advanced in two of the hemisphere’s largest countries (Brazil and the United States) and the tiny Netherlands jurisdiction of Saba. However, violence against LGBT individuals remains pervasive, both in notoriously homophobic places (Jamaica and Honduras) and in more progressive countries (Brazil). In Chile, at least, LGBT-related violence has led to better laws.
Below is our list of the 20 most significant political stories on LGBT rights across the Americas.
20 – Help is on its way. Organization of American States (OAS). As a further step in the development of international norms against homophobia, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Government of Chile to pay damages caused by its 2003 Supreme Court ruling stripping Karen Atala, a lesbian mother and judge, of custody of her three daughters on the basis of her sexual orientation. This is the first time the Inter-American Court ever heard an LGBT case. Also, a unit specializing exclusively in LGBT issues became operational within the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in February. However, future gains on the LGBT agenda are likely to be overshadowed by the Commission’s continuing controversies.
19 - A changing tide in the Caribbean? Saba. The tiny Dutch island of Saba (capital city of The Bottom) may not even have 2,000 residents, but it made history in December by becoming the first jurisdiction in the Caribbean to legalize same-sex marriage. The move may be late for a Dutch land, but it’s pioneering for a tropical one.
18 – Hopelessly devoted. Mexico. In April, the Partido Acción Nacional candidate for president, Josefina Vázquez Mota, stated in front of 120 bishops and archbishops forming the Mexican Episcopate that she opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. She went on to lose the presidential election. The winner, Enrique Peña Nieto of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, had asserted that the topic of marriage equality should be decided by the states.
17 – The Kits are alright. Brazil. Controversy emerged in the high-profile mayoral race in São Paulo last year over “o kit gay” (the gay kit), an anti-homophobia initiative in the Ministry of Education when candidate Fernando Haddad (Partido dos Trabalhadores) was in charge. His opponent, veteran politician José Serra (Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira), slammed the proposed materials, intended for distribution among teachers to help instruct children about sexual diversity, as a waste of money and step toward indoctrination. Haddad went on to win the race in a second-round vote in October.
16 - The Young and the Restless. Ecuador. Carina Vance was an unconventional choice to become the country’s minister of health last January. A U.S.-educated, 34 year-old lesbian with a primary focus in public health, Vance adds her own unique story to the continent’s robust legacy of female leadership.
15 - Public display of affection. Colombia. Since mandating Congress in 2011 to resolve the issue of same-sex marriage, the Constitutional Court has laid down a series of rulings strengthening gay rights in the country. The partner of a deceased priest was determined eligible to receive widower benefits last May, and gay couples may now kiss in public without fear of recrimination. The court has, however, proved less willing to tackle the issue of adoption by gay couples.
14 – Public display of hatred. Jamaica. After getting caught having sex in a bathroom at the University of Technology, two young men were chased by an angry mob. One of the men was detained by security guards, who proceeded to physically assault him, egged on by the surrounding crowds. The assault was caught on video, shocking a nation that is often too comfortable with homophobia.
13 - Valores familiares. United States. Latino voters are not as socially conservative as typically portrayed. Exit polls in the November presidential election found that 59 percent of Latinos support legalizing same-sex unions. Non-Hispanic whites, on the other hand, post the lowest support for marriage equality of any demographic.
12 - Trans-cendental. Ontario. The first Canadian province to recognize gender identity made headlines last June with an amendment to the Ontario Human Rights Code. The measure was passed unanimously across all three parties of the legislature.
11 - It’s not just party all the time. Brazil. Three states, including its most populous São Paulo, legalized civil marriages between same-sex couple. In all three cases, the states’ supreme courts handed down the favorable verdict. Yet Brazil also holds a more nefarious record. In an annual report by its oldest gay rights organization, Brazil leads the world in murders against LGBT persons, accounting for a whopping 44 percent of the global total. A homosexual, it reads, is 800 percent more likely to be killed by hate-fueled violence in Brazil than in the United States.
10 - All hail the chief. United States. Under pressure following his vice president’s endorsement of marriage equality, President Barack Obama finally conceded in May that he does believe same-sex couples should be able to legally marry. In contrast, all of Obama’s top challengers from the Republican Party, including the eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, publicly declared themselves to be staunchly against marriage equality.
9 – Queer (in)visibility. Cuba. Adela Hernández became the island’s first transgender person to hold office in Cuba after being elected as a municipal delegate. She has come a long way since she was jailed for two years in the 1980s because of her gender identity. In addition, the U.S. government granted President Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela her second visa to travel to the United States in May. She gave talks on the progress of LGBT rights. Despite all this talk, the Cuban government decided that the first census in 10 years would not count gay couples.
8 - Disorder no longer. United States. The American Psychiatric Association stopped labeling homosexuality as a disorder in 1973, but it was only in 2012 that transgender people were no longer considered mentally ill. The previously used term “Gender Identity Disorder” has now been substituted for “Gender Dysphoria.”
7 – There is always a first one. Chile. The country’s first openly gay elected official, Jaime Parada, won a seat on the municipal council of a wealthy and generally conservative district of Santiago. Parada is a prominent gay rights activist. He actively employed accusations of his opponent’s homophobia as a campaign issue. Parada will serve until 2016.
6 - Courts and codes. Mexico. While the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to weigh in on marriage equality next year, its Mexican counterpart has already been focusing on the issue. In December, the court unanimously struck down a measure in Oaxaca’s civil code asserting marriage to be solely between a man and a woman. Jurisprudence is established in the Mexican system after five consequent, identical rulings on the matter; only two such rulings are now lacking.
5 – A Latin Holland. Uruguay. The leftist governing coalition of President José Mujica made headlines by considering a measure to legalize marijuana, decriminalizing abortion and taking the first steps toward legalizing same-sex marriage. Clearing the Chamber of Deputies in December, the measure is expected to clear the Senate and become law early in 2013, potentially becoming the third country in the Americas to legalize same-sex marriage, after Canada and Argentina.
4 – (De)crying game. Chile/Honduras. Following the uproar over the horrific murder of gay teen Daniel Zamudio, Chile barely passed an anti-discrimination bill in July introduced seven years ago. The episode gained international attention—singer Ricky Martin even dedicated his GLAAD award to the slain teen—and was a landmark in a country with a right-of-center president. In Honduras, the brutal killing of gay journalist and former candidate for Congress, Erick Martínez Ávila, was condemned by members of the U.S. Congress. The rise in violence toward LGBT Hondurans since 2009 had already led the State Department to treat Honduras as a test for the government’s new approach to promoting gay rights abroad.
3 - An unnecessary distraction. El Salvador. The religious right suffered a setback last February when it failed to push though Congress a constitutional ban on gay marriage. Needless to say, the legislature has had more pressing issues to deal with in 2012, namely, keeping the country’s democratic institutions from falling apart.
2 - Still leading the way. Argentina. The country already made headlines by becoming the first to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010, and again in 2012 proved to be a pioneer in the global struggle for LGBT rights. After a 55-0 vote by the Senate, the Argentine government enacted one of the most progressive transgender laws in the world. Moving forward, the government will pay for sex reassignment surgery while virtually eliminating the red tape for transgender persons to correct legal documents—such as driver licenses and birth certificates—to accurately reflect their gender identity.
1 – Majorities side with minorities. United States. For the first time in the Americas, gay rights advanced by way of popular vote. In the November 6 general elections, majorities in three states approved legalizing same-sex marriage and a constitutional ban was voted down in a fourth state. In addition, the first openly gay senator was elected. Two of the nation’s biggest TV networks covering the elections had openly gay individuals front-and-center during the returns, while the New York Times’ most famous—and gay—statistician, Nate Silver became a national star after correctly predicted the election’s outcome.
*Homepage photo courtesy of Flickr user "Phaedrus007."