The following interview between Global Americans’ Executive Director Guy Mentel and Iván Chanis Barahona took place a few weeks after a Global Americans conference on the State of LGBT+ Rights in the Americas. Soon after that conference—and just before this interview—Mr. Chanis Barahona launched the campaign, “Sí Acepto” in Panama, which advocates for equal treatment of all people through legal and institutional frameworks.
About Iván Chanis Barahona and Fundación Iguales
Iván Chanis Barahona is a lawyer and human rights activist, currently serving as President of Fundación Iguales. Fundación Iguales is a non-profit organization based in Panama that promotes the observance and respect of human rights through equality and respect for diversity in society. The foundation promotes the education of democratic values based on the principles of freedom, equality before the law, and non-discrimination as fundamental elements to strengthen development and peace. Its mission is to eliminate discrimination due to sexual diversity by establishing and strengthening programs for the diagnosis, awareness, promotion, and defense of human rights. Mr. Chanis Barahona is also an advisory member to the Advisory Council of the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture (MNPT).
1. In May of this year, Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to legalize same-sex marriage. Can you speak to the work that was done in the years leading up to this victory and how replicable the multifaceted strategy employed in Costa Rica might be elsewhere?
Costa Rica is a great example for the assertion of rights in the hemisphere. For the rest of us in the region, Costa Rica has always been an example of a cultured, special nation, particularly in its respect for human rights and the conservation of the environment. Costa Rica also has a deep and abiding legacy of democracy and peace, representing—alongside Panama—one of the few countries that does not have an army. That said, it shares what many Latin American societies share: significant discrimination against minorities, especially LGBTIQ+ people. Costa Rica managed to overcome this thanks to the strength of its democratic institutions and the tireless work of civil society, which for years pushed relentlessly for equality. I especially want to recognize civil society’s organizational capacity. They understood that unity was essential to advance together in the conquest of civil marriage for same-sex couples.
2. Just over three years ago you created Fundación Iguales. How has the organization allowed you to better advocate for reforms that you believe need to be implemented to protect the LGBTIQ+ community in Panama and across the hemisphere? Do you have a specific set of goals or changes you hope to achieve?
We started working four years ago, and we were legally established three years ago. The impetus was my return to Panama after almost 10 years abroad. The reality on my return shocked me and moved me to action. Much of my work has entailed supporting the team of lawyers that initiated the marriage equality cases that reached the Supreme Court of Justice, and we have been waiting for justice since 2016. My contribution to the team is my experience working within the Inter-American System of Human Rights. It has been clear to me that civil marriage for same-sex couples is only a matter of time. In other words, the law is clear, and the international standard is even more so now with Advisory Opinion OC24/17. The legal change is inevitable. They may delay it, but it will come. Social change is more complicated. It was this latter realization that led me to the conclusion that my mission was to initiate work from civil society and to educate others about human rights.
The Foundation has become a strategic platform to communicate, participate, and positively impact the social-political reality of Panama. I am an internationalist and a diplomat, and I spent almost eight years in a multilateral system, so I quickly understood that the contributions we were generating in Panama could be shared, replicated, and consolidated with regional cooperation. For that reason, we actively participate in different networks, coalitions, and regional initiatives for the promotion of human rights. For Panama, in addition to legalizing civil marriage for same-sex couples, I aspire for us to be a country that is truly respectful of human rights, beyond just adherence to the norms of the international community. I aspire for us to be a country that is respectful of the human rights of every person residing in the country. At the regional level, we continue to strengthen the Inter-American System, and specifically the Inter-American Human Rights System. I always say that generating changes from self-representation is very important. As a gay man, I aspire for my participation in politics to be positively received, normalizing the lives of not only LGBTIQ+ people, but everyone who is discriminated against under the current system.
3. What impact will Costa Rica’s progress have on its Central American neighbors, where the rights of LGBTIQ+ people remain more embattled?
Excuses that small and/or conservative societies are not ready to recognize the rights of LGBTIQ+ people are proven to be a false premise. If Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as other societies, achieved the legal changes that cause social change, other countries can too. It also builds a vision that if we are part of systems of integration, of shared democratic principles, why should a Guatemalan lesbian couple have fewer rights than a Costa Rican lesbian couple? Furthermore, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was categorical in its ruling; there is no room for interpretation as to whether countries, in this case in Central America, may not recognize the rights of LGBTIQ+ people—it is now Inter-American law and the Central American isthmus must respect the dignity of all people.
4. Legalization of same-sex marriage in Costa Rica is—as you’ve described—a historic step forward. As you have articulated, there is still a lot of work to do, particularly with respect to anti-discrimination laws, classification of hate crimes, and protecting transgender rights. What would you say are the next steps to addressing shortcomings in those three areas?
There is a great need to focus on what you correctly mention. In our case, we long ago understood the importance of working intersectionality. There is still much to work for in terms of respect for LGBTIQ+ people. We work to give as much importance to civil marriage as we do to the identity rights of trans people. A great achievement is having Advisory Opinion C24/17, since it is a legal document that establishes the Inter-American standard on both issues, which unifies these struggles if we promote its content. Fundación Iguales’ board of directors is almost equally comprised of lesbians, gays, trans men and women, and bisexual people. Representation is important within our community. Among many other actions, I value political representation. To achieve these changes, it is important that people of sexual diversity are candidates for elected positions, for public office, and for representation in all political spaces in general. All this is also consolidated by understanding that progress in the human rights agenda requires intersectional and supportive work. The advancement in LGBTIQ+ rights also needs the advancement of other struggles such as the rights of women, Afro-descendants, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, the elderly, and democratic values.
5. In recent years, many have pointed to the dual forces of right-wing populism and the rising power of certain religious movements as the source of many new organizations, arguments, resources, and alliances that challenge new and existing progress for the LGBTIQ+ community. Javier Corrales, for instance, has written extensively about this sort of new “backlash” to LGBTIQ+ rights expansion in Latin America.
I am curious, what makes this new form of backlash—to the extent that you agree it would qualify as such—different? What sort of alliances, domestic and international, do you see forming with traditional political actors, including the Catholic Church, and what new obstacles do NGOs and activists fighting for marriage equality and other critical rights in the Americas now face?
I agree that there is a clear backlash in the region towards the rights of LGBTIQ+ people. This is undoubted, it is clear, it is established, and in many cases, it is vulgar. But this phenomenon must be analyzed by recognizing particular situations in our region. It is a fact that Latin America has had a tremendously positive and sustained development of human rights protection for LGBTIQ+ people in the last decade. Today more than 70 percent of the population lives in a territory where civil marriage is recognized for same-sex couples. And, if we look at it in the context of the Hemisphere, including Canada and the United States as well as some territories in the Caribbean, there are clear legal advances in a majority of geographic spaces. It was to be expected that the anti-rights movement would motivate, activate, and direct human and economic resources to stop this advance of freedom, to go back to what they aspire to, which is a conservative region with privileges only for some.
The amount of economic resources that are injected into small countries such as Central America to advance those anti-rights agendas is extremely dangerous as religious interests seek to obtain political space. The most serious situation is when we see entire administrations with anti-rights agendas, which is the case in Brazil, Guatemala, temporarily in Bolivia, and others who have joined a tradition of some Caribbean countries—several of whom still punish homosexuality—to seek alliances in spaces such as the OAS, to stop legal, political, and social development of non-discrimination and equality.
6. As we look toward the future of the LGBTIQ+ rights movement, how has public opinion evolved on these issues over the years? What sort of regional alliances have formed and how have NGOs and legal advocates worked together to strengthen the LGBTIQ+ movement?
Public opinion has undoubtedly evolved to greater acceptance. This is part of why anti-rights have become so active; they have lost ground. And the reason is that civil society in the region has found spaces for advancement using technology, as well as finding support from young generations who, regardless of their sexual orientation, make the cause for equality their own. We have also understood the importance of collaboration; thus, many networks and coalitions have been formed to better articulate the message, share good experiences, and prepare strategic litigation. I have had the opportunity to form Somos Familias, a group of organizations that promote the civil marriage of same-sex couples. This group has consolidated one of the most innovative projects in civil marriage activism in recent years, the “Sí Acepto” campaign. Started in Costa Rica, it has been a vehicle for the renewal of an activism based on shared values, on non-traditional faces, and supported by empathy. At the center of the campaign are videos of ordinary families who accept their gay or lesbian relatives, and the champions are their fathers, mothers, siblings, nephews, co-workers, sports partners, etc. We brought the campaign, which was a resounding success in Costa Rica, to Panama where we are already generating a necessary national dialogue, which seeks to demystify the myth that marriage for same-sex couples seeks to change religious traditions. We promote respect and family at the center of our communications. You can find out about the campaign at: https://www.siaceptopanama.com
But the advancement of LGBTIQ+ rights is not limited to marriage. It is rooted in the historical debts recognizing gender identity and expression, non-discrimination, and a life free of violence for all. Likewise, I also participate in the LGBTTTI Coalition of the OAS, where more than 60 organizations from across the region work to coordinate our efforts in the Inter-American System. The LGBT Litigation Network, which recently emerged at the initiative of Colombia Diversa and Dejusticia in Colombia, seeks to be a space for the exchange of best practices, collaboration, and support in litigation between organizations from different countries for the legal promotion of issues for the benefit of the LGBT population.
These are just a few examples of many other collaborations. Likewise, as a principle, we seek to collaborate with organizations that represent other populations such as the women’s movement, Afro-descendants, people with disabilities, and youth, among others. We also seek to include aspects such as culture and art as vehicles for sharing content on human rights.
7. If you could identify one thing that you have learned in your work that others fighting for marriage equality in their countries might benefit from, what would that be? What advice would you give to activists generally facing uphill legal and political climbs?
I think it is very important to understand what type of work, works for you. Do you enjoy it and include it in your identity? It is very important for me to be genuine and I find that you must align your work with your identity. Working in civil society should not only be a sacrifice, today we have the opportunities to make this work something that we enjoy as well as a decent job. Although the work you do is not going to give you a life of luxury, it should give you a fair quality of life and a lot of happiness.
Something I always recommend is reading, studying, and preparing. A solid academic foundation is then accompanied by strategic communication and self-representation. I personally find support through yoga and meditation to reconcile the, sometimes difficult, scenarios that this work exposes. Always be attentive to your physical and mental health and safety, and to your personal well-being and development. Something that I apply a lot is not reacting. Understand that homophobia comes from prejudice and ignorance so look for empathy. It can take effort to find it, but I try. You have to try to understand the other person; remember that patience is a virtue; and follow your intuition and take risks. You have to try.