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LGBT rights in Latin America, caught between progressive laws and widespread homophobia

LGBT rights in Latin America are caught in a dangerous paradox: whilst legislation is progressive in many countries, hate crimes and homophobia are widespread.

The legislative landscape in the area of LGBT rights in Latin America began to evolve in the early 2000s. Whereas in 1999 almost half the region still criminalised homosexuality, the legalisation of same-sex marriages in Spain in 2005 incentivised its former colonies (and not only) to refresh their policies on the matter. 

Since then five Latin American countries – Uruguay, French Guyana, Colombia, Brazil and Argentina – have fully legalised gay marriages and adoptions, Colombia being the most recent case with legislation passing in April 2016. Additionally, Mexico has also been gradually recognising LGBT rights: same-sex couples can marry and adopt children in Mexico City and six out of 31 states. Chile and Ecuador have introduced civil union laws that grants LGBT couples similar legal protections as marriages.

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Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina during a pride parade in 2010 © Beatrice Murch/Flickr

LGBT marginalisation and persecution

On the other side of the legislative spectrum, since Belize revoked its anti-sodomy laws in August 2016 the only country in Latin America that still penalises homosexual relations is Guyana, where “buggery” (a term almost synonymous with sodomy) calls for life imprisonment, though the law isn’t enforced. Last year the country’s Supreme Court challenged Guyana’s ban on cross-dressing except in cases of “improper purposes”.

Yet despite numerous advances, Latin America doesn’t have a unitary voice on LGBT issues and inspiring breakthroughs in the region are insufficient to overshadow the actual size of marginalisation and persecution. Alone it was scene to 78 per cent of murders of transgender and gender-diverse people documented worldwide between 2008 and 2014, according to the United Nations. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights points to almost 600 hate-motivated homicides of LGBT people in the member states within a one-year timeframe. A comprehensive 2015 UN report also cites an alarming number of fatal assaults in Brazil, which reported 310 murders with homophobic or transphobic motives in 2012.

Furthermore, it should be emphasised that all data is believed to downplay the actual scale of discrimination as many crimes aren’t reported due to fear of retaliation or they’re simply not classified as hate-driven, specialists indicate. There is an “alarming pattern of grotesque homicides … and broad impunity for their perpetration, sometimes with the suspected complicity of investigative authorities,” UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns pointed out in 2014.  

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Gay pride parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2010 © Paulo Vitor/Agencia Estado/Flickr

Homophobia and machismo

In addition, opinion polls point to the fact that Latin American reforms don’t necessarily resonate on the local level. For instance nearly three quarters of El Salvador’s society, a little over half in Bolivia and a little less than a half in Venezuela believe that homosexuality is morally unacceptablePew polls show, though all three countries have undertaken some judicial measures to protect the LGBT community. 

Widespread homophobia in Latin America is attributable partly to the predominant machista model of masculinity that puts pressure on men to build their identity around images of virility and encourages behaviours such as alcoholism, domestic violence, disregard for women’s rights and family abandonment. Homophobic hate speech is frequently used to reaffirm masculinity. “It will be a long and difficult path until Latin America liberates from those deeply rooted defects that are machismo and homophobia – two sides of the same coin,” wrote Peruvian Nobel-prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa in the wake of the murder of Daniel Zamudio, a Chilean student fatally assaulted by a neo-Nazi group in 2012.

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A vigil in memory of the victims of the Orlando Pulse gay nightclub shooting takes place in El Salvador © Jose Cabezas/Reuters

LGBT women

Interestingly, there is a tendency to perceive LGBT women in a slightly different light than men, which is reflected in the legislation of some Caribbean countries that haven’t legalised homosexuality. Jamaica criminalises only male same-sex intercourse but the law doesn’t take an explicit stance on females. “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of … any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor”, reads the 1864 Offences Against Person Act, commonly known as the country’s buggery law.

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Members of the LGBT community in Sao Paulo, Brazil © Nacho Doce/Reuters

Combatting discrimination

Numerous initiatives to combat LGBT-targeted discrimination and violence as well as efforts to judicially include LGBT communities have put Latin America on the map of human rights activists and scholars who consider the region an example to follow. And, indeed, those undoubtedly positive developments should be promoted internationally. There is, however, a wide gap between the political willingness to push for equality and the extent to which it meets with public approval. Rather than prematurely praising Latin America’s gay-friendly image we should focus on, and work to change, what lies beneath.

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