While legislation in Latin American countries is among one of the most progressive, violence and discrimination against the LGBT community shows the region in a far less favourable light.
LGBT Rights in Theory and in Practice
In Brazil, every 28 hours an LGBT person is violently attacked due to homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia. As a matter of fact, Latin America accounts for 78% of reported murders of transgender and gender-diverse people worldwide, according to a study of a group Transgender Europe. In absolute numbers, between January 1, 2008, and April 30, 2016, the group has documented 1,654 hate-motivated homicides of LGBT people across the region. Another report on LGBT rights found nearly 600 cases of homicides motivated with perceived gender identity of the victim in 2013 alone.
There is an “alarming pattern of grotesque homicides … and broad impunity for their perpetration, sometimes with the suspected complicity of investigative authorities,” commented Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.
Meanwhile, however, many praise Latin America for its exemplary legislative inclusiveness. Following the former metropolis Spain, which legalised same-sex marriages in 2005, several Latin American countries introduced comprehensive legal reforms recognising LGBT rights. In 2010, Argentina legalised same-sex marriages, becoming the first country in the region to pursue this path. Soon, others followed – same-sex marriages and adoptions are currently legal in Argentina, Uruguay, French Guyana, Colombia, and Brazil.
In addition, several other countries are embracing progressive civil rights more gradually. In Mexico, same-sex couples can legally wed and adopt children in Mexico City and six out of 31 states. Chile and Ecuador, in turn, recognise civil union laws. This solution offers similar legal protections as marriage. Many experts consider it also the first step towards full recognition of same-sex unions.
From a legal perspective, this constitutes a remarkable advance. Only in 1999, nearly half of the region still criminalised engaging in homosexual activities.
Chicken or the Egg
So, how come Latin American gay-friendly laws do not resonate with Latin American societies?
Public opinion polls contribute to our understanding of the discrepancy between the progressive legislation and the scale of discrimination against LGBT community in Latin America. Nearly three quarters of El Salvadorians believe homosexuality is morally unacceptable, followed by 51% of Bolivians and 49% of Venezuelans. In contrast, only 15% of Canadians and 6% of Spanish hold the same view.
On the one hand, what both Canada and Spain have in common is a head start. They both legalised same-sex unions in 2005. An explanation that seems more plausible, however, is the history of civil rights movements. Rather than assuming that legislative changes in the latter two countries prompted a social change, it would seem that legal landscape in those countries changed in reaction to social mobilisation.
In the case of Canada, social debate over particularly contentious cases usually precedes major reforms. For instance, the infamous case of Everett Klippert served as a direct impulse to decriminalise homosexuality in Canada. The police arrested Klippert in 1965 after he had voluntarily admitted engaging in consensual homosexual relationships. Assessed as “incurably homosexual”, the judges sentenced Klippert to life imprisonment. The gross injustice suffered by Klippert threw a new spotlight on the issue, leading subsequently to legal amendments. Released from prison in 1971, Klippert was the last person in Canada jailed for homosexuality.
In Latin America, in turn, the LGBT rights grassroots movements have played a marginal role in shaping societal norms. Instead, many gay-rights reforms were simply top-down initiatives.
Furthermore, the model of masculinity and family promoted by widespread machismo and the Church only exacerbates the situation. Frequently it is the fear of those who challenge traditional notions of gender roles that fuels the gender-driven discrimination. “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,” predicted Peruvian Nobel-prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa in the aftermath of the homicide of Daniel Zamudio, a Chilean student killed by a neo-Nazi group in 2012.
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