In a busy electoral year—with six countries hosting presidential elections and three additional countries changing presidents—LGBT issues became very frequent topics of discussion throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Almost every presidential contender, one way or another, addressed LGBT issues. Many courts did as well, taking on controversial subjects. But the biggest discussion of LGBT in some countries was prompted not by real-life politicians and judges, but by fictional characters on screen.
Here is my selection of the most important events impacting LGBT politics in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2018.
10. An unprecedented international AIDS crisis in Venezuela. The government has simply stopped providing dollars to import anti-retroviral medication, producing near-total lack of medical treatment for HIV patients. Some NGOs estimate that 75 percent of people with HIV in Venezuela consists of mostly gay men and trans people. This AIDS crisis is now being exported. Some 10,000 of the 70,000 Venezuelans living with HIV have emigrated due to lack of medical care.
9. Pride Rising. Guyana, one of the few countries in the Americas that still criminalizes homosexuality, hosted its first gay pride parade on June 2. The event occurred peacefully and without incident
8. An assassination that says it all. Latin America and the Caribbean is notorious for its high levels of crime targeting LGBT people, Afro-descendants, poor people, young people, women, and individuals investigating human rights abuses. The assassination of Marielle Franco in Brazil encapsulated all these curses. Franco was a 38-year old Afro-descendant lesbian of humble origins who rose to become a council member in Rio. She was a frequent critic of police impunity and a defender of human rights, LGBT rights, and feminist causes. On March 14, Franco and her driver were shot dead in a targeted assassination. The murder shocked the nation and the world. A few days after, Franco’s name was mentioned in more than 3 million tweets from 54 countries. Franco’s death raised awareness about the problems of crime, hate crime, racism, and femicide in Latin America and the Caribbean.
7. Courts keep pushing…increasingly with international help. Courts continue to be the strongest advocates of LGBT rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Supreme Court in Costa Rica and two family court judges in Ecuador declared unconstitutional their respective countries’ ban on same-sex marriage. In Trinidad and Tobago (following the example of Belize in 2016), a judge declared unconstitutional the ban on sodomy. In Bermuda, a court ruled in November that a law rescinding marriage rights for same-sex couples was unconstitutional (the government can still appeal). In Colombia, courts for the first time declared the murder of a transgender woman as a gender-based hate crime, recognizing the victim as a woman. In Guatemala, the Supreme Court mandated the creation of prison cells exclusively for LGBT inmates, to protect them from harassment while incarcerated. And it’s not just national courts. International courts have also become strong LGBT advocates in the Americas. In January, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, issued a historic ruling calling Latin American and Caribbean countries to legalize same-sex marriage. In August, the Court also agreed, for the first time ever, to hear a hate crime case.
6. Trans bills. Though not as frequently as courts, legislatures occasionally become LGBT activists. And this year, legislatures sided with trans people in Uruguay and Chile with the passing of the Comprehensive Law for Trans People in the former and the Gender Identity Law in the latter. Both laws make it easier for trans adults to change their gender identity in official ID documents. In Chile, the only requirement for people 18 years and older is to have two witnesses. The Uruguayan law goes farther by mandating government entities at the national and subnational levels to reserve 1 percent of their payroll for trans people. Flexibility to change ID documents and more opportunities for formal employment are two of the most elementary demands by the trans community in the region.
5. And now, the backlash. In part as a response to court activism and the progress on LGBT rights across the region, signs of a new conservative backlash are emerging. Led by Evangelicals and conservative Catholics, citizens are getting organized to demand an end to progressive policies on gender diversity, sexuality and reproductive rights. Even in Argentina, one of the most progressive countries in terms of LGBT rights, conservative groups organized protests against legalizing abortion during this year’s legislative debate on the issue. And in Mexico, the leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador formed an electoral alliance with a conservative Evangelical party for this year’s presidential election, which he won.
4. More Cuban Pinkwashing? The Cuban government decided at the last minute in December to go slow on same-sex marriage. The communist government spent the year drafting a new constitution, with an initial plan to introduce same-sex marriage by redefining marriage as “the union of two people,” rather than “man and woman.” But in the end, bowing precisely to religious pressure, the government changed its mind. The new text simply redefines marriage as a union of “spouses” (cónyuges, in Spanish). The new draft therefore does not ban, but does not guarantee same-sex marriage. Voters are expected to approve the new text in a referendum scheduled for February 2019. The most important champion of same-sex marriage had been deputy Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuba’s ex-president and current leader of the Communist Party, Raúl Castro. The event shows the strength of homophobia in Cuba: it can block even the wishes of Cuba’s most powerful politicians. It will now be up to Cubans to decide whether to change the Civil Code to allow same-sex marriage. LGBT rights in Cuba are always controversial. Although LGBT people in Cuba enjoy more rights than in other Caribbean island, the government still imposes some of the most serious political and civil restrictions in the world.
3. Presidential elections: the good, the bad, and the monster. This was a year of many presidential elections and thus presidential debates. In most cases, LGBT themes were hotly debated (except in Venezuela, where they were hardly mentioned).
- The best news is that an openly homophobic candidate was defeated in Costa Rica (Fabricio Alvarado). The winner, Carlos Alvarado, shortly after taking office, issued an apology to the Costa Rican LGBT community for their historical persecution and ended the year signing a decree extending social benefits to LGBT citizens. In addition, potentially homophobic candidates, with open ties to Evangelicals, moderated their phobic discourse (Iván Duque in Colombia and López Obrador in Mexico).
- The bad news is that openly homophobic candidates ran almost everywhere. Worse, in Paraguay and Brazil, openly homophobic candidates (Mario Abdo Benítez and Jair Bolsonaro) won.
- But in many ways, the Brazilian election was the ugliest. The problem was not only Bolsonaro’s aggressive homo and transphobia, which he wears as a badge of honor, but also the fact that he received widespread support from voters who elsewhere tend to be more pro-LGBT: educated urbanites. One survey even revealed, shockingly, that at least a third of LGBT Brazilians supported Bolsonaro, attracted perhaps by his hardline stands against corruption and crime.
2. More representative assemblies. Latin America used to boast very few publicly out elected politicians. This is changing. Despite the conservative backlash dominating this year’s presidential elections, LGBT representation in legislatures actually expanded. Five deputies (one each in Colombia, Costa Rica, and Brazil, and two in Mexico) and two senators (one each in Mexico and Brazil) were elected in 2018. In addition, a national deputy came out (in Argentina). This brings the total number of out LGBT legislators in Latin America to 20, a new record.
1. Transfixed. The Chilean film A Fantastic Woman, about a trans woman facing rejection, played by trans actress Daniela Vega, won the 2018 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. This was a triumph for Latin American films (only two other Latin American films had won before) and for trans representation. The award transfixed Chileans. Hours before Chile’s national television broadcast the film in March, a record number of Chileans googled the terms “transgender.” The film was one reason Chile was able to pass its Gender Identity Law. Later in 2018, the very queer-friendly Mexican series, House of Flowers, became a household sensation in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. This dark-comedy/parody-celebration of Mexican soap operas, featuring gay, bisexual, and trans characters living under the aegis of a magnetic matriarch and interacting with drag queens, became one of the most watched Netflix series in Mexico. Social media has gone wild with commentary about the series. Film and television, once again, have proven to be major influencers of public discourse on gender and sexuality in contemporary Latin America.