The struggle for equality is fought on many, many fronts, race, gender, and sexual orientation, but for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) communities in Latin America it has been a long struggle. Many of the things that other groups which face discrimination take for granted, such as access to healthcare, marriage, and a stable job, are the first step in the struggle for equality for the LBGT community. Basic rights and relatively easy things like marriage equality are no longer denied to people based on race or gender. But, in many countries, those rights are still denied LGBTQ communities.
Comparatively speaking, Latin America has progressed in LGBTQ rights more than many regions, particularly in the Global South. The past two decades of advances indicate that the 21st century will be a time of great progress and equality for the LGBTQ community in the region.
Fifteen of twenty countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela) have some type of protection or laws that defend and promote the rights of their LGBTQ citizens. Argentina has led the way. In 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to allow same sex marriages and unions. And, as of May 2012, transgender people in Argentina are now allowed to legally change their name without the authorization of a doctor.
The changes in Argentina go beyond just the granting of rights, though. Given the economic discrimination and marginalization that transgender communities suffer—often shunted off into informal jobs and prostitution and disproportionately the victims of violence—these new laws will bring transgender individuals out of the shadows, increase their life expectancy and standard of living and improve their mental health.
Since former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner made her country a safe zone for LGBTQ rights, other Latin American countries have started to follow her lead. Brazil is usually considered one of the most stratified and racist countries in the world, with the country deeply divided economically by class, gender, and race. The trend is no less true for Brazil’s embattled LGBTQ community. Transgender people have it especially hard, with Brazil considered the “world’s deadliest place to be transgender.” In 2010 alone more than 250 LGBTQ people were murdered due to their sexual and gender orientation. However, São Paolo is also home to one of the largest gay pride parades in the world, an indication of popular tolerance of the community and its rights. Changes in a country do not have to be solely legal; in fact, without tolerance, the legal protections, while important, are not enough. In this regard, Brazil has made great strides.
Uruguay has also made significant advances in LGBTQ rights. It was one of the first countries in Latin America to allow same sex unions in December of 2007. Another first for Uruguay happened in 2009, when the legislative branch passed an anti-discrimination law, protecting LGBTQ persons from gender and identity discrimination. That same year Uruguay passed a law permitting transgender people to legally change their name, as is in Argentina. The law allows the name change to be made without the biological change—through reassignment surgery—though it limits individuals from changing their names again within five years. The limit presents a potential source of discrimination for people who are gender fluid (meaning their gender changes with their mood, sexual attractions, and partners at the time).
Despite the advances, there are still strong institutional opponents to the expansion of rights of LGBTQ individuals. Churches throughout Latin America have opposed many of the laws mentioned above. Official Catholic Church doctrine holds that homosexuals are sinful and maintain that marriage should be between one woman and one man. Despite signs of tolerance by Pope Francis those restrictions remain the church’s official position and, in many countries, Catholic authorities have openly opposed and worked against laws extending rights to LGBTQ communities.
Equality always comes at a high price. But discrimination reaps a higher cost, like the 250 humans killed in Brazil for no reason other than their sexual orientation or sexuality. Those shocking, raw numbers obscure the daily personal and economic suffering of many others and their family members. The past advances have helped to grant basic rights of marriage, health care, and a security to many in the LGBTQ community of Latin America, but not all. Though long overdue, freedom and equality is on the march, legally, socially and economically… but it will be a long march indeed.
Mackenzie Hardin is a political science major at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.