The mixed picture in South America’s LGBT+ rights boom

(Source: Chris Geatch)(Source: Chris Geatch)

The progress in LGBT+ rights in South America within the last ten years has been outstanding. Uruguay stands out in particular and on paper appears more impressive than the UK, thanks to its blood donation laws regarding MSM (men who have sex with men). It has been particularly liberal in its recent legalisation of cannabis and women’s rights regarding abortion, and for these reasons was named The Economist’s ‘Country of the Year’ in December 2013. Brazil and Argentina are not far behind, both passing same-sex marriage with landslide parliamentary majorities, and granting adoption rights to same-sex couples and rights to change one’s legal gender. The former also provides free sex-reassignment surgery provided by their public health scheme. Colombia and Chile have also made steps; the former legalised same-sex marriage in 2013, and civil unions very recently received final approval and passed through Chilean congress. Today, no country in Latin America has laws against same-sex sexual activity. However, one must note this liberal climate exists despite the fact that only 25-30 years ago, the majority of the aforementioned countries were ruled by military dictatorships with appalling human rights records.

Martin Weinstein has argued that Uruguay established “a regime that was the most totalitarian on the continent”. The military arrested and tortured citizens, categorising them into either A, B or C depending on how much of a threat they posed to control, censored thought in free speech and education, and crushed the power of workers’ unions. Argentina’s Dirty War (1974-1983) consisted of extreme right-wing death squads (the ‘Argentine Anticommunist Alliance’) that hunted down people associated with socialism. It led to the phenomenon of the disappeared people, a term used across several Latin American countries to describe people abducted and imprisoned by the state. In Argentina, a lack of documentation means the numbers of those killed or disappeared varies considerably, but are thought to be between 7,000-30,000.

Democracy resurged after the fall of these military dictatorships. In Uruguay, universities were freed of state control and the economy finally improved thanks to a rise in exports and a liberal economic model. It was again dubbed the Switzerland of South America due to its economic stances on foreign currency and taxation. This liberal climate also extended to the social sphere, with significant political support for improvements in human rights and civil liberties. Left-wing politics has been very popular in these countries as a reaction against the military crushing socialist ideals. However, the importance attached to individual civil liberties has caused a transformation of the orthodox Marxist left in these countries, sharply distinguishing them from ‘traditionally’ socialist Latin American nations Cuba and Venezuela. One might assume that this less extremist left organically led to the legalisation of gay rights, yet homophobia was still rife after the dictatorships. Real success came when gay activists presented LGBT+ discrimination as a human rights issue, instead of an issue relating to the liberalisation of sexual mores.

Democratic successes

The promise of democracy was a large part of the reason Raúl Alfonsín was elected president of Argentina in 1983. He claimed he would restore human rights and punish those who caused the country so much pain in the Dirty War. Within a month, high-ranking officers were prosecuted for their appalling human rights records. During his time he prevented three military uprisings, famously returning from the 1987 uprising stating: “The house is in order, and there’s no blood in Argentina… Happy Easter.” Similarly, the new Constitution of Brazil (1988) finally removed authoritarian legislation present under the military regime and was a step towards the re-democratisation of Brazil into its current form as the New Republic. This came after a long struggle against the power of both the military and pro-military politicians.

Yet this liberal climate did not automatically improve gay rights; amidst promises of a restoration of justice came arrests like the police raid of an Argentinean gay bar, when some 200 people were arrested in April, 1984. Around 150 activists who were tired of this homophobia formed the ‘Comunidad Homosexual Argentina’ (CHA). They campaigned arguing that oppressing gay people was akin to military oppression of the population as a whole. A CHA advertisement in El Clarîn, the largest newspaper in Argentina, on 28 May 1984 read: “There will never be a true democracy in Argentina if society permits the existence of marginalised sectors and the methods of repression that are still in place.” Its Brazilian counterpart, ‘Grupo Gay da Bahia’, had been formed in 1980, and was instrumental in campaigning for LGBT+ rights and AIDS awareness. This human rights pitch was cutting edge; only in 2008 did the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights sign a statement to fight the criminalisation of homosexuality on the grounds that it is discrimination. It was also a very different to previous gay rights groups: the Frente de Liberación Homosexual stated in 1970: “We don’t have to liberate the homosexual; we must liberate the homosexual in everyone.” This previous view sought a widespread change in cultural attitudes leading to sexual liberalisation, instead of a legal change to better the rights of LGBT+ people as a minority group.

The effect of this approach is made manifest in the sharp development of gay rights in Argentina and Brazil. In 1996, a mere 12 years after the police raid, the decision of the city of Buenos Aires to leave out sexual orientation in a draft of the antidiscrimination charter saw heavy protests which led to a government climbdown, making Buenos Aires the first city in Latin America to include gay people in antidiscrimination legislation. The new Constitution of Brazil in 1988 demanded equal treatment of all citizens, which in the political climate of the time was readily extended to include protection for LGBT+ people. Many cases that have been brought to court by LGBT+ people were therefore pronounced in their favour, as LGBT+ rights were deemed admissible under the ethos of the new democracy. Only one year following the adoption of the new constitution, and only four years after the fall of the Brazilian military government, the states of Mato Grosso and Sergipe promulgated constitutions that forbade discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Progress continued into this century. By 2002, Buenos Aires legalised same-sex unions, two years before the UK. Omar Encarnación points out that this decision came right after the devastating Argentine great depression (1999-2002), suggesting that in some cases through political and economic despair comes liberalisation and empathy. In 2003, this discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation was banned in 73 states on the basis that it was unconstitutional. Colombia has also seen progress; it approved civil partnerships in 2007, but has a complicated relationship with same-sex marriage. The Constitutional Court stated that Colombian Congress must create an equivalent of same-sex marriage by 20 June 2013 or else same-sex couples would automatically gain this right. Congress did not manage to pass such a bill, so the courts have tried to create ‘marital unions’. Since 2013, only three same-sex couples have been granted marriage by judges, proving that marriage down to a judge’s discretion instead of a bill can become very complicated.

The successful partnership between states with an active interest in democracy and gay rights groups championing their case as human rights is made clear in the recent support for same-sex marriage in Argentina (legalised in 2010): 73 human rights organisations, including those who campaigned against the horrors during the dictatorship, supported the same-sex marriage bill. As Encarnación points out, President Kirchner has been criticised for only becoming a gay rights ‘crusader’ when she realised its electoral advantages. Nonetheless, she has created great progress, and when the same-sex bill passed, she echoed words of the ‘Communidad Homosexual Argentina’ in her comment: “We are a more humane and equitable society this week than last week… thousands of Argentines have conquered rights I already had.”

However, the early 2000s were only the beginning of the legislative progress of trans rights. Until 2006, it was illegal in Argentina for trans group Asociación de Lucha por la Identidad Travesti-Transsexual to campaign, compared to CHA, who were granted lobbying status in 1992. Rights to change one’s legal gender and name on a document were granted in Chile, Brazil and Uruguay only in 2007, 2009 and 2009, respectively. Argentina approved only one case of sex reassignment surgery in 2007, and one regarding legal gender in 2009. Brazil stormed ahead in 2007, granting sex reassignment surgery under their national health scheme, and justified it on the grounds that denying this medical care is discrimination. Argentina followed suit in 2012, and also granted rights to change one’s name and gender on documentation. Again the same pattern arises: progress follows as soon as the government views their actions as discriminatory and therefore a human rights, rather than a minority rights, issue. The Federal Court seemed to take a step further by acknowledging the ‘intense suffering’ of gender dysphoria that will occur for some trans people if they are refused this surgery.

LGBT+ Pride in São Paulo, 2014. With 400,000 annual visitors, São Paulo's is the largest in the world

LGBT+ Pride in São Paulo, 2014. With 400,000 annual visitors, São Paulo’s pride parade is the largest in the world (Source: Ben Tavener)


Socialism’s role

Though the post-military liberal climate in general led to an improvement in LGBT+ rights in Brazil and Argentina, it is also clear that socialist and left-wing parties in particular have been essential in spurring progress in Uruguay and, most recently, in Brazil. The adoption of LGBT+ rights into politics is noted in Brazil’s left wing governments, such as the Workers’ Party, Socialism and Freedom Party, and the United Socialist Workers’ Party. The most famous pro-LGBT+ politicians, Marta Suplicy Smith and José Genoino, are in fact both part of the Workers’ Party. In 2009, under President Lula, the Workers’ Party released ‘The National Plan for the Promotion of the Citizenship and Human rights of LGBT people’. It was a very progressive step, including brand new legislation in a vast amount of areas including adoption rights, blood donation restrictions, sexual diversity programmes in schools and allowing people to change their official name and sex on legal documents. In 2013, The National Council of Brazil also legalised same-sex marriage with a sweeping victory of 14-1. Though this legalisation of same-sex marriage is an important step, focusing on the wider spectrum of LGBT+ rights issues demonstrates a significant commitment to tackling homophobia and promoting equal treatment of LGBT+ people in the future.

The relationship between the socialist government and equal treatment of LGBT+ people is closest in Uruguay, with a marked boom in LGBT+ rights since the election of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) in 2003. Up until this point, power had passed between the Colorado and National parties, which had made up Uruguay’s two-party system since the country’s independence in 1828. Uruguay’s liberalism in the early 20th century under the Colorado party and José Batlle y Ordóñez, particularly in the fields of education and welfare, is well known. But it was only when the Frente Amplio came to power in 2004 that progress for LGBT+ rights was really boosted and, unsurprisingly, this front is a conglomeration of left wing and socialist parties. In 2003-4, Uruguay implemented several antidiscrimination laws, which Argentina only has within certain states and not nationwide (though it must be acknowledged that Uruguay is a lot smaller than Argentina). In particular, 2008-2013 bore witness to a whole host of LGBT+ rights advances, including the recognition of same-sex civil unions, adoption rights, allowing LGBT+ people to serve openly in the military, equal access to IVF and surrogacy, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage in 2010.

Aside from politics, major cities in Brazil and Argentina have become increasingly liberal after seeing the potential benefits from LGBT+ tourism. Opening the door to LGBT+ rights before other countries in South America, aside from the attraction of the cities themselves, has led to Buenos Aires and São Paulo becoming the top hot spots for LGBT+ tourism in the continent. Even as early as 2005, Buenos Aires tourism officials estimated 20% of their tourists identified as gay, spending approximately $600 million (£402m) annually. This came with the opening of gay bars and hotels that cater specifically for this type of tourism. São Paulo also is known for hosting the world’s largest LGBT+ pride, attracting 400,000 foreign visitors. Although Pride is criticised for being a weak version of gay rights campaigning that spreads negative stereotypes, it is nonetheless a celebration, as opposed to a protest, that is relaxed and upbeat in nature. It is sponsored by the government and supported by the Ministry of Culture. It is worth noting the advantages of attracting so much support from business and politics, as it has provided a platform for large organisations to speak in favour of LGBT+ rights to a broader public.

Recurrent problems

Despite progress in legislation, crime rates against LGBT+ people remain high. There is the fear that liberal ideals lie mainly with politicians who have pushed through groundbreaking legalisation rather than across society as a whole. UNAIDS, part of the UN, states a person is killed every two to three days in Brazil because of their sexuality. In 2008, the Grupo Gay da Bahia published their annual report, which stated that year that 198 people were murdered in Brazil and 35 in Mexico. The gender divide is shocking; 64% of victims were gay males, 32% transgender people, and only 4% were lesbians. This outlines the clear threat that gay males create against Latin America machismo, a form of hegemonic masculinity, and its clear consequences. Grupo Arco-Iris, an LGBT+ rights group in Rio de Janeiro, states 64% of LGBT+ people have been discriminated against, from abuse in the streets to being turned away in services such as restaurants and bars. This proves that legislative progress can only go so far in a society where many are still willing to hurt LGBT+ people.

Founder of SOS Dignity and Cambridge alumnus Barry Michael Wolfe campaigns for trans acceptance in Brazil. He reveals in schools that trans people are often forced to use their gender assigned at birth or be referred to as a number. Consequently, students leave education early from being discouraged, and few leave literate. With little or no job prospects, they often turn to prostitution. Wolfe claims in major cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, prostitutes are commonly 16-17 years old, and sometimes even as young as 12 (in cases where they have been evicted by their family). This occurs in a country with arguably the best the progress for LGBT+ in South America with regards to legislation and governmental action. Moreover, he claims that because of transgender people being taboo in society they are forced into awful conditions in low-end brothels, heightening the risk of violence and sex trafficking. Wolfe notes this violence is also carried out by the police force, which undoubtedly heightens the lack of faith LGBT+ can have in a state. It is not only society that prevents the potential good found in the law, but also enforcers of that law.

A bright future?

The progress that has been made in the last twenty years in South America came from empathy towards human rights from a time of shared repression.  Note the similarity between LGBT+ people framing their struggle as part of wider movements in South America, and the relationships forged by the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group recently explored in the film Pride. It is also clear that socialist and left-wing parties in particular have led the progress of LGBT+ rights in South America. One cannot ignore the worryingly high rates of crime against LGBT+ people. However, we can hope that further moves such as Brazil’s sexual diversity programmes in schools, which encourage societal progress, will encourage acceptance in wider society. An anti-discrimination law is not effective if no one feels safe enough to pursue a case against discrimination, and in this respect, there remains much work to be done in the fight for acceptance.