On Tuesday, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights urged Latin American countries to legalize same-sex marriages and unions, responding to a 2016 petition by Costa Rica’s president, Luis Guillermo Solis, who has championed gay rights. The decision, one of the most sweeping court statements on same-sex marriage in history, appeared to be the latest sign that Latin America is becoming one of the safest regions in the world for LGBT people, at least legally. Over the past two decades, many countries in the region have seen a revolution in how the law treats sexual minorities.
Yet despite all the good news on the legal front, there is a stark difference when it comes to the day-to-day realities for many LGBT people in Latin America. Even in the countries that have adopted laws that uphold and respect LGBT rights, societal attitudes remain homophobic, and violence is rampant. In some Latin American countries, a conservative backlash, led by religious groups, is trying to block further change.
This isn’t to diminish progress, which has been historic, based on nine basic standards of legal protections—from the legalization of homosexual activity between consenting adults to same-sex marriage, adoption rights, military service and the criminalization of hate crimes against the LGBT community. Most countries in the region today offer at least two of these protections. Some offer all of them.
The standard-bearers are Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia. In 2010, Argentina became just the second country in the Americas, after Canada, and the second in the global south, after South Africa, to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption rights for LGBT people. As in Uruguay, this legal achievement was made through congressional legislation, which gives it a stronger footing than when it occurs by way of judicial rulings, as in Colombia, Brazil and the United States. In 2012, again thanks to congressional legislation, Argentina’s government enacted one of the most progressive gender identity laws in the world, establishing public funding for sex reassignment surgery while virtually eliminating the red tape for transgender persons to correct legal documents—such as driver’s licenses and birth certificates—to accurately reflect their gender identity.
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