In a groundbreaking announcement this week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) declared that it will create a Rapporteurship on the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons. The news garnered little media attention, but its significance to millions of LGBTI people across the Americas and to the broader struggle for universal human rights is profound.
The development follows years of concerted efforts by activists, international human rights organizations and more recently, world leaders. (The idea to create a Rapporteurship came out of a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff during a 2011 state visit to Brazil.) The abuses faced by LGBTI people in the Americas and across the globe are among the most systematic and pervasive human rights violations in the world, yet they have often been overlooked and subject to vast impunity.
The importance of this announcement should not be underestimated. It is worth remembering that just six months ago, many feared an end to the IACHR’s 50 years of groundbreaking work. Yet now, the Commission leads the international community once again in creating the world’s first-ever international human rights office dedicated exclusively to LGBTI rights. While other international bodies and governments have taken important steps toward addressing these issues, the IACHR is the first to create a permanent office.
Far more than a meaningless symbolic gesture (something, frankly, that the OAS is notorious for), the Rapporteurship will provide tremendous support to activists by installing a permanent expert to monitor and investigate human rights abuses against LGBTI people across the hemisphere.
The media across the world has a knack for framing narratives in a way that perpetuates the status quo. This is true whether the subject is the rich, the poor, gays, lesbians, Africans, Americans, or Muslims.
I was yet again reminded of the power of the media to influence public opinion as I flipped through the Evening Standard and Metro (two dailies published in the United Kingdom) and read headlines about bombings and other acts of terrorism. From these, it was clear that the Western media treats Muslims in a particular way—the very same way the Jamaican media treats people who are poor, from marginalized communities or are homosexual.
As a result of their portrayal in the media, Muslims, lesbians and gays are often defined by their wrongdoing. Headlines often read “Muslim Terrorist” or “Muslim Extremist” just as Jamaicans are used to reading headlines such as “Gay Miscreant” or “Gays Wreak Havoc.”
During a recent visit to Washington DC, I spoke with a Muslim friend who is distressed by the fear and hysteria on people’s faces when they see people thought to be Muslim. The Boston Marathon bombing in April heightened this fear. Although she does not wear a hijab, my friend is still frightened by these incidents and the treatment that follows them. What is ironic is that the same media that generates anti-Muslim sentiment then goes ahead and criticizes the media in places like Jamaica for similarly biased treatment toward gays and lesbians.
The result is a contradiction in what is permissible in the media. Christians, whatever their wrongdoing, are rarely identified by their faith. Heterosexuals, whatever their wrongdoing, are rarely identified by their sexuality. The rich, whatever their crimes, are rarely identified by their socioeconomic status.
It is also a fact that people from the lowest income quintile struggle academically and that people of color are more likely to be unemployed. But that does not mean poor people and minorities lack interest in educating themselves.
We must begin to question our privileges and freedoms if we want to make our communities more hospitable. Be reminded that prejudice is interconnected and serves only one purpose: to maintain a status quo.
In recent months, Brazil has been portrayed increasingly as a beacon of support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) individuals in Latin America. It received international praise after the Conselho Nacional de Justiça (National Council of Justice—CNJ) released a decision ordering the legalization of same-sex marriage across the country. Soon after, it garnered worldwide attention when it hosted the 17th LGBT pride parade in São Paulo, widely considered to be the world’s largest.
Yet in striking similarity to Carnaval, lavish pride celebrations in Brazil have come to mask a far deeper and more complex history of violence and oppression.
In a milestone event that garnered far less media attention than those mentioned above, LGBTI activists gathered last month with a group of progressive lawmakers at the 10th National LGBT Seminar to discuss their most pressing needs. Their main concerns included increasing rates of violence and a rise in “fundamentalism and religious intolerance” that has begun to seriously threaten their already limited rights.
Specifically, they have come under attack following the election of Federal Deputy Pastor Marco Feliciano (Partido Social Cristão-São Paulo) to preside over the Chamber of Deputies’ Comissão de Direitos Humanos e Minorias (Committee on Human Rights and Minorities—CDHM). A staunchly anti-gay social conservative, Feliciano has made inflammatory statements, including a claim that “AIDS is the gay cancer,” and that Afro-Brazilians are cursed by their ethnic heritage.
Jamaicans often purport, in defense of their homophobia, that as long as gays and lesbians keep “it” to themselves, they have no problem with homosexuality. According to this logic, if a gay person affirms and accepts his or her sexual orientation, he or she is forcing “it” on others. What exactly constitutes “forcing” is quite subjective, and barely anything can be deemed as such.
As a consequence, the vast majority of gays and lesbians in Jamaica live their lives in secret for reasons that include fear of discrimination, violence or harassment, fear of unemployment or eviction from their homes, or even the fear of simply “offending” someone with their homosexuality.
The ironic thing is that these gays and lesbians (many of whom finally decide that being open about their sexuality is not necessarily important) are routinely scrutinized and policed as they go about their daily lives—by the very same people who asked them to keep “it” to themselves.
Across Latin America and the Caribbean, the trend is an increasing acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex (LGBTI) people. Recent years have seen important strides toward attaining marriage equality, educational access and public visibility for LGBTI people throughout the region.
Despite these advances, a recent report by the Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Personas Trans (Network of Trans People of Latin America and the Caribbean—REDLACTRANS) highlights the challenges that remain for protecting the fundamental rights of trans people.
Undoubtedly, violence poses the gravest challenge to trans people in the region today. According to the 2011 Trans Murder Monitoring Project, 80 percent of trans murder victims worldwide between 2008 and 2011 were from Central or South America, amounting to a staggering total of 643 homicides. Police impunity and brutality further exacerbate violence against trans people by allowing frequent killings, arbitrary detentions, degrading treatment, and threats and extortion by public security officials. The absence of legal protections that explicitly prohibit violence and discrimination committed on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity limits access to justice and public protection.
Moreover, trans people face countless obstacles to attaining employment and basic public services, including health care and education. Berenice Bento, a prominent researcher on trans rights in Brazil, estimates that 90 percent of trans women in her country are functionally illiterate due to social exclusion in schools, a figure likely matched throughout the region.
If there is one thing Mexico’s men are famous for, it is the celebration of being macho. We see this everywhere: In telenovelas, the butch and handsome male protagonist becomes the hero only after he conquers the lovely señorita by wooing her with his macho chivalry. It is common to hear traditional male fathers telling their sons “real men don’t cry.”
A number of consumer products also cater to this very innate part of the Mexican heterosexual male’s existence through marketing, which might be considered as sexist in other cultures. The macho element also permeates humor; viewed through the optics of U.S. culture it no doubt be deemed much more than politically incorrect. This is not a matter of right or wrong, but rather a plain and simple recognition of who we are as a culture today.
On March 6, however, Mexico’s Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) took a decision that could lead to a shift in the way Mexican machos coexist with homosexuality, which today is regularly mocked. Mexican insults such as “maricón” or “puñal” (derogatory terms for “gay male”) are thrown around in colloquial talk with as much disdain as the word “pansy” in the English language. But the Supreme Court decided that such expressions are not protected by freedom of speech and can be subject to lawsuit on the basis of moral harm.
The split 3-2 judicial decision is probably an accurate proportion of how Mexican society would view the subject. Some view this as a step toward inclusion and tolerance. Others see this as unnecessary ruling and censorship of what has traditionally been acceptable humor.
Some version of immigration reform is almost certain to pass within the next year. President Obama, Republicans and Democrats alike are all strongly supportive of the idea and have each offered formidable, bipartisan proposals. If successful, this will be the first major change in U.S. immigration law since President Reagan’s signing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986.
But as we are presented with the rare opportunity to reform our system, we must ensure that we do so in a way that works for all, and that we continue our conversations after an agreement is reached. Doing so will mean accounting for the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people within comprehensive immigration reform and entering a discussion on the realities they face.
Leading up to the 2012 U.S. presidential elections, immigrant and LGBT activists made groundbreaking history. They joined forces and proved the effectiveness of intersectional advocacy. Together, they passed immigration and marriage equality measures in a number of states, and they ensured immigrant and LGBT rights remained a central focus within our national political discourse.
More importantly, they reminded us that these two groups are deeply tied to one another. Many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States identify as LGBT. Some of them are married to same-sex partners in states where they are legally permitted to do so, but are left “with the painful choice between staying with the person they love or staying in the country they love,” as stated by White House spokesperson Shin Inouye in a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Uruguay’s lower house passed the Ley de Matrimonio Igualitario (Marriage Equality Law) with a wide margin—81 votes in favor out of 87 total votes—last night, sending it to the Senate where it is expected to be approved. The law recognizes all marriages as legal and provides the same rights and responsibilities for both genders under a civil union.
The new law would also allow couples to decide which surname goes first when they name their children—breaking a tradition in Latin America that gives priority to the father’s name. This measure would replace Uruguay’s 1912 divorce law, which gives only women the right to break their vows without cause.
Legalizing same-sex marriage has been one of the main policy objectives of the ruling Frente Amplio (Broad Front—FA), the same party that has promulgated laws decriminalizing abortion and allowing state-controlled sales of marijuana in an attempt to blunt drug-related crime.
If the bill is signed into law, Uruguay would become the second Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage; Argentina was the first in 2010.
Javier Corrales and Mario Pecheny, co-editors of The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: A Reader in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights, point to growing secularization and stronger activism as key factors in the advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights. The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, South Africa, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Iceland, Argentina, and Denmark have marriage equality on the books.
After being stalled in Congress for seven years, a bill formally sanctioning discrimination became law in Chile yesterday. President Sebastián Piñera urged lawmakers to speed passage of the measure after the brutal killing of gay youth Daniel Zamudio earlier this year set off a national debate about hate crimes.
The Ley Antidiscriminación, also called Ley Zamudio, imposes penalties for acts of discrimination by race, ethnicity, nationality, disability, economic status, religion, or sexual orientation. Individuals may file anti-discrimination lawsuits and a judge must issue a ruling within 90 days. Penalties range from $370 to $3,660, but may be increased in the case of injury. The law also provides for criminal sanctions against violent crimes and requires the State to develop public policies to end discrimination.
Chile is one of the most socially conservative countries in Latin America. Divorce was only recently legalized in 2004, and abortion remains illegal in all circumstances. Conservative lawmakers had stalled on the anti-discrimination legislation, which was originally proposed by President Ricardo Lagos in 2005, on the grounds that it would open the way toward legalizing same-sex marriages. However, after 24-year-old Zamudio suffered fatal injuries from a brutal hate crime, the local and international community and President Piñera moved quickly to enact it. The bill was approved by a majority in both houses of Congress.
“Thanks to Daniel’s sacrifice, today we have a new law that…will enable us to confront, prevent and punish discriminatory acts that generate such pain,” said Piñera at the signing ceremony, where he was joined by representatives of the LGBT community; Jewish, Muslim and Indigenous groups; and Zamudio’s parents, among others.
Recent acts of violence alongside pending legislation and international pressure have brought to light the pressing need for lawmaking in support of LGBT rights in Chile. Together with protests for reforms in the education system, the public seems to be increasingly impatient about what the government is doing to protect LGBT rights. These demands are important beyond the scope of gay rights, because they have brought attention to the need for Chile to recognize, accept and protect the human rights of an evolving, heterogeneous culture as a fundamental prerequisite for continued prosperity.
The passage of an antidiscrimination law, which remained unresolved for over seven years, by a close 58-56 vote in the Chamber of Deputies this month was a basic necessity for the country. The Chilean Movement for Sexual Minorities (MOVILH) notes that in 2011 gay, lesbian and transgender Chileans were increasingly outspoken in reporting abuse and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. However, this recently passed antidiscrimination law does not deal with hate crimes per se, but rather defines illegal discrimination. Furthermore, certain passages have yet to be finalized in a mixed commission of Senators and Deputies on May 2. The recent death of gay youth Daniel Zamudio points to precisely why legislating solely on discrimination does not suffice in this case, serving as an exceptionally violent example as to why hate crimes require specific punishment under the law.
Zamudio received not only the public’s sympathy, but also worldwide attention including a briefing note from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ spokesman, Rupert Colville, urging Chile to enact hate crime legislation. In this regard, the MOVILH also argues that Chilean society is not opposed to legislating on issues of gay rights and antidiscrimination in its entirety, but there is a lack of bravery and willingness within Congress to approach these pending issues. The recent Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ overturning of a Chilean court ruling against lesbian Judge Karen Atala, who lost custody of her children because of her same-sex relationship, is further international pressure for Chile to meet requirements stipulated by international agreements it has signed onto.
Chile’s gay rights deficit is worrying as the country continues to be viewed as an example for continued economic growth despite global market volatility. President Sebastian Piñera’s administration is cautious about giving into all public demands, as Chile’s Minister of Finance Felipe Larraín recently said: “If we surrender to the temptation of appeasing demands by giving in to all of them, we will never get to our final goal [development].” However, most gay rights issues rely merely on political willingness rather than investment for social welfare. Furthermore, acting on gay rights is not the investment equivalent of reforming a public education system.