Matthew T. Klick, Ph.D.; with special thanks to the research and writing of University of Denver Winter 2016 ‘Latin American Politics’ students: Karissa Abasto, Carolyn Neff, Kyle Freeman and Jack Patterson. Their work on LGBT-QIA developments in the region, all quarter, directly influenced and informed this blog post.
Matt is the founder and director of the Arctic and Mountain Regions Development Institute and a recent doctorate from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, where he examined the role of local governance and informal institution in determining human development discrepancies across similar, rural communities.
In recent months, the experience of Latin America’s LGBT community has come under renewed focus by myriad outlets. Perhaps somewhat surprising, much of the attention is positive – lauding new legislation or advancements in LGBT rights and policy across the region. But the achievements of some countries obscure a darker reality – an ongoing popular intolerance, evidence by hate crimes across the region. Indeed, the region has seen a wave – the so-called “rainbow tide” in fact – of progressive policies, lending an outward sense of LGBT tolerance, and even hemispheric leadership. Argentina, under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, legalized same-sex marriage (2010), and more progressively yet, passed legislation that allowed individuals to change their names and gender identity on official documents without seeking court approval first. Chile has since approved its Agreement for Civil Union law, which grants same-sex partners identical rights regarding property, finances and health care as heterosexual couples. Progressive laws and policy have similarly swept Uruguay (the world’s most gay-friendly country according to some), Costa Rica, Colombia and Mexico. These advances take place despite the ongoing influence of the Catholic Church, and increasingly, an ardently conservative Evangelical movement throughout the region. Such gains should not be dismissed lightly.
Unfortunately, however, the above gains have been matched by a spike in hate crimes, and attacks on prominent LGBT leaders. Six of the top eight countries in murders of transgender people are in Latin America (India and the U.S. are the others). In per capita terms, Honduras dominates all comers, but again the region as a whole is disproportionately represented, appearing in 12 of the top 13 spots. In Argentina, which has arguably been most lauded for its progressiveness, vocal trans activist Diana Sacayán was violently murdered. In a stunning turn, her death was the third transgender killing in Argentina that month, following the stabbings of Marcela Chocobar and Coty Olmos. Sao Paolo Police, meanwhile, brazenly, and viciously, beat Veronica Bolina beyond recognition, while she was in custody. These events, though gruesome and tragic, do not necessarily represent a systemic backlash by society. In other countries of the region, however, it is yet more dangerous still to openly identify as LGBT.
In Jamaica, the criminalization of male homosexuality is deleteriously affecting public health. Homophobia, meanwhile, is effectively mainstreamed, with support for existing laws against homosexuality finding a popular base, as does belief in “conversion therapy.” In El Salvador, rampant citizen insecurity exacerbates popular intolerance of the LGBT community. In an August 2015 article by Al-Jazeera, 14 trans women were reported murdered and another 13 survived attempted murders (as compared with 14 murders in all of 2014 and 16 in all of 2013). Grimly, the reporting adds, “many of the victims were shot in the head and their bodies brutally mutilated. No one has ever been jailed.” The life expectancy of a trans woman, accordingly, is but 35 years.
This post is not meant to diminish the brave and laudable efforts made by activists and some political leaders throughout the region to create policies of inclusion, health and equality. But to capitalize on these efforts, and to more genuinely “move the needle” on freedom and tolerance of LGBT, and any minority in the region for that matter, will require addressing some of the more fundamental impediments to peace and prosperity that plague the region still. Corruption, hyper-masculinity and machismo (including in government), an anemic or purposefully curtailed civil society, and a failure to protect basic human rights (or inversely the use of official force to impinge on such rights), combine to minimize and even roll-back the gains made by LGBT leaders from the region itself.
Securing LGBT rights, it is becoming clear, will mean securing human rights, including the most basic civil rights, for all in the region, and leading on this front from the top-down.