LATIN AMERICA: In Latin America, a Harbinger of Women's Rights

Tuesday, July 27, 2010
New York Times
Central America
South America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Human Rights

With a historic vote this month allowing gay couples to marry and adopt children, Argentina joined a vanguard of nations — nine, to be precise — granting gays and lesbians these rights. It's a stunning development on a continent where not long ago such a bold measure would have been unthinkable.

Only the legalization of abortion anywhere in Latin America would be more momentous.

Incredibly, in this day and age, abortion is legal in only one nation in Latin America, Cuba. Five countries — Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic — ban it under all circumstances, even when the mother's life is in danger. A law making abortion legal in Mexico City is under attack by the Roman Catholic Church. But abortion is not the only women's rights issue in Latin America. Although many governments in the region describe themselves as progressive, the daily lives of millions of women in Latin America remain mired in poverty, male dominance and discrimination because of lax enforcement of social reforms and legal measures.

Still, Argentina's vote to allow same-sex weddings is nothing short of a social revolution, a possible sign that perhaps the campaign for women's rights cannot be too far behind.

Argentina's recent turbulent past and brutal oppression and persecution of gays and lesbians hardly foreshadowed the Patagonian nation's new global status as a champion for them. Decades ago during the “dirty war,” a state-sponsored campaign of terror against leftists after the coup of March 1976, gay bars in Buenos Aires were closed, and more than a thousand gay men were persecuted, arrested, kidnapped, tortured and killed. The stories of the hundreds of thousands of “disappeared” — gays and straights — haunt the country even today.

Outside cosmopolitan Buenos Aires, this is a region where homosexuality is still taboo, generally seen as a mortal sin, an abomination, a cruel joke and an accepted reason for social ostracism. It's a region where slurs for gays and lesbians are among the most hate-filled words you can say about a man or woman, and where boys with what are perceived to be effeminate mannerisms are condemned to mocking and isolation.

Against that background, the advance of gays in Argentina may be seen as paving the way for other formerly politically repressive nations, like neighboring Chile.

For now, alone with Canada in the Americas, Argentina has joined a handful of European nations, including Spain, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands. It's notable that three heavily Roman Catholic countries — Argentina, Spain and Portugal — defied religion and social tradition to take on this discomfiting and contentious issue, seen by some in the West as the human rights battle of our times.

The Argentine law has notable distinctions: it passed by a narrow margin and, as of now, applies to Argentine citizens only. Foreign gays and lesbians planning their weddings in Argentina are out of luck. More significant, the law overcame bitter opposition from the Roman Catholic, Mormon and evangelical churches, to which the majority of the population belong.

It is uncertain whether other nations in the hemisphere will follow suit. Even Brazil, known for its tolerance of different lifestyles, is reluctant. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil supports the legalization of civil unions, but legislative measures have failed to pass.

Mexico City was until now the first jurisdiction in Latin America to allow gays and lesbians to marry and adopt children, a law adopted in December 2009. Though many activists there celebrated, few people believe that the city's liberal tendencies will spread to the more traditional states of overwhelmingly Catholic Mexico.

In Chile, the government plans to propose limited civil unions but has no plans to go further. Uruguay and Colombia have civil unions, but gay marriage is not on the table. The majority of Central American countries are dead set against gay rights, except possibly for Costa Rica, which is considering some sort of civil guarantees.

Most interesting, perhaps, is Cuba. As books and films have recorded, gays and lesbians were viciously persecuted in the first decades of the Castro revolution. Mass arrests, imprisonment in work and re-education camps, job discrimination, murders and deportations were common in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Yet today, gays and lesbians can march and speak openly, thanks in large part to the daughter of President Raúl Castro, Mariela Castro, 47, head of Cuba's National Center for Sexual Education. She has been an aggressive supporter of rights for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered.

“For me, sexual identity and orientation is a human right,” she told the German magazine Der Spiegel in an interview this month. She and other activists, with the tacit backing of her father's government, have softened attitudes toward gays. Ms. Castro recently offered up a bill to legalize gay partnerships. She had her father's support, she said. But she withdrew the proposal under fire from the Catholic Church and some government bodies.

In the United States, voters in California and other states have banned same-sex marriages. Only the District of Columbia and five states, four of them in New England (the fifth is Iowa), have legalized gay marriages.

With that in mind, Evan Wolfson, the executive director of Freedom to Marry, a gay lobby, said, “Key to the vote in Argentina's human rights achievement was strong leadership from legislators and the president. It is time we see more of our own elected officials standing up for the Constitution and all families here in the United States. America should lead, not lag, when it comes to treating everyone equally under the law.”

President Barack Obama has moved to lift the military's “don't ask, don't tell” policy, which has driven thousands of gays and lesbians from the armed forces. The president has enlisted the support of the top brass, and it does seem likely that eventually the military will end the discriminatory policy.

While same-sex marriage is one of the hottest issues of the U.S. culture wars, the president and the overwhelming majority of politicians step gingerly around it. Some, like the president, support civil unions but not gay marriage. Though some surveys show that a thin majority of people in the United States support same-sex marriage, the issue — like abortion — ignites deep passions and, like abortion, will eventually land in the U.S. Supreme Court.

For this summer, U.S. gays and their supporters take comfort in “The Kids Are All Right,” the first Hollywood mainstream movie to portray a lesbian couple with kids — a modern American family.