Photo: Eduardo Leite (L), Governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, with his boyfriend, Thalis Bolzan. Source: O Globo
This year brought a number of welcomed changes on behalf of LGBT rights, as well as reminders of challenges ahead. Homophobia is still rampant, and in some sectors and governments, it may be intensifying. A new report documented the economic costs of homo- and transphobia in the Caribbean, and the numbers are staggering. On the positive side, Brazilians learned they have a gay governor; evidence is surfacing that LGBTQ acceptance is expanding in some countries; the status of LGBTQ people in sports continues to make positive headlines; and Chile adopted full marriage equality.
Here is my list of the top ten LGBTQ stories from Latin America and the Caribbean in 2021.
10. MAQA: Make the Americas Queer Again
In a departure from the Trump years, the Biden administration is returning to the Obama-era policy of placing LGBTQ issues at the center of human rights promotion in the Americas. In April, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris mentioned that violence against LGBTQ people is one of the root causes of migration in Central America. During her June visit to Guatemala, Harris met with representatives from Visibles, a local NGO defending LGBTQ rights, and the Association of Garífuna Women Living with HIV/AIDS.
9. (Homophobic) Culture is Not Static
A new report published in 2021 shows that social attitudes toward LGBTQ people can continue to change with time, in either direction. In countries that at some point achieve a critical mass of social acceptance of LGBTQ people, with time, this acceptance actually increases (e.g., Argentina, Brazil, Chile). By contrast, in countries that don’t reach such a critical mass of support, acceptance toward LGBTQ people can stagnate (e.g., Peru) or even decline (e.g., Jamaica). This research suggests that it pays to reinvest. Pro-LGBT activism is essential to change social attitudes, and once a threshold of social acceptance is crossed, reinvesting in more pro-LGBT campaigns can yield new payoffs in terms of expanding acceptance. In those countries, campaigns by homo- and transphobes seem not to make huge inroads. However, the reverse may be true in countries that never managed to achieve a critical mass of societal support for LGBTQ rights. In these less-accepting countries, the campaigns by homo and transphobic movements may have a greater impact than elsewhere.
8. Gay Gaucho
Eduardo Leite, 36, governor of the gaucho state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil (population 11.3 million), came out publicly: “I am gay…. And I am proud of that.” While widely celebrated by many people on social media, Leite’s disclosure was somewhat controversial because, while in the closet, he supported Brazil’s publicly homophobic president, Jair Bolsonaro. Leite’s coming out is nonetheless important because in the Americas there are few openly-out elected leaders, and in Latin America in particular, even openly-out politicians are rare. Leite has since expressed regret for voting for Bolsonaro and has disclosed that he has presidential aspirations.
7. The X Factor
Argentina became the first Latin American nation to introduce the option X as one of the gender preferences that citizens can select in national identity documents and passports. The new system was introduced through a presidential decree. X will refer to “non-binary, undetermined, unspecified, undefined, not informed, self-perceived, nor recorded; or another meaning with which the person who does not feel included in the masculine/feminine binary could identify.” The International Civil Aviation Organization, the agency that sets regulations for passports, already allows the X category; about 12 countries including the United States, India, and Nepal have adopted this system.
6. Gay Brain Drain
A new report concluded that English-speaking Caribbean nations are losing between US $1.5 to $4 billion a year (2.1 to 5.7 percent of collective GDP) in missing tourism, productivity, and brain drain as a result of anti-LGBTQ laws and attitudes. One of the report’s innovations is to study the cost of homophobia and transphobia by surveying the diasporic community, among other demographics. Many English-speaking Caribbean nations have LGBTQ-unfriendly conditions, including bans on homosexuality, non-recognition of civil unions, and high-levels of public intolerance. That said, the region continues to take positive steps in favor of acceptance. The Cayman Islands, a British Overseas Territory (pop. 71K) held its first Gay Pride in July. Guyana de-criminalized cross-dressing in August.
5. Change That Tune
The International Federation of Association Football, FIFA, sanctioned the men’s national football team from Mexico twice in 2021. The reason is that fans continue to use the homophobic word “puto” in their chants. In Mexico, the term is often used as derogatory slur for a gay man. Fans have been chanting the word during opposing goal kicks for years. FIFA’s sanctions this year included monetary fines and a ban on spectators at various important games. The Mexican federation has been sanctioned for this chant so many times since 2015 that it is “difficult to keep count.”
4. When All Else Fails, International Tribunals Can Help
Two separate tribunals affiliated with the OAS—the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights—made landmark decisions advancing LGBT acceptance. In February, the Commission made public a previously confidential ruling that Jamaica violated the rights of a gay man and a lesbian with its 1864 law banning homosexual acts (the Offences Against the Person Act, otherwise known as the “buggery” statute). LGBT activists hailed this ruling as a landmark case that could prompt the government to decriminalize homosexuality. In June, the Court found the government of Honduras responsible for the killing of a transgender woman in 2009 and ordered the government to pay reparations to the family and to do more on behalf of the trans community. This ruling is important because Honduras is one of the countries in the Americas with the highest rates of reported hate crimes against the trans community.
3. Latin Greek Godxs
Of the 186 openly LGBTQ athletes that competed at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, 29 were from Latin America and the Caribbean. This was a record for both the world and the region. With 18 athletes each, Brazil and Canada sent the world’s second largest LGBTQ delegations, after the United States (36 athletes). Two athletes each from Argentina, Mexico, Chile, and Puerto Rico, and one each from Trinidad and Tobago, Peru, and Venezuela also competed.
2. State-Led Homophobia Continues to Be Another Virus of Our Time
While Latin America has made impressive gains in combatting state-led homophobia since the 2000s, a few governments are seriously lagging. In January, Venezuelan military officials raided the offices of Azul Positivo, an NGO offering services for HIV/AIDS patients in Maracaibo, arresting five staff members on charges of fraud and money laundering and prompting outcries from international organizations, including the United Nations. In July, the Cuban government arrested or harassed a number of LGBT activists who supported the widespread protests of July 11, including Maykel González Vivero, editor of Tremenda Nota, a newsletter covering LGBTQ issues. In August, the Nicaraguan government shut down 15 NGOs, including Fundación Xochiquetzal, the country’s oldest pro-LGBTQ rights group, as part of its vicious, pre-electoral crackdown. In addition, state agents and pro-government civic groups conducted 54 acts of aggression against members of the LGBT community between January and September. In El Salvador, president Nayib Bukele boasted that the reforms to the constitution he is planning to introduce will include a number of new presidential rights, including the right to re-election, but will not include same-sex marriage (and abortion rights), proving that not all millennials are that liberal. Peru’s newly-elected president, Pedro Castillo, a left-wing populist who was a rural teacher before becoming president, publicly expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage during the campaign and stated that LGBTQ issues are not a priority.
1. The Right Thing To Do
Chile became the eighth Latin American nation to legalize same-sex marriage, following the steps of Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Mexico, which has same-sex marriage in 24 of 32 states, as well as Mexico City. The Chilean decision is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, it represents the second time a center-right president in Latin America endorses the change (the first one was Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia). In Chile, center-right president Sebastián Piñera declared his support for the bill in June, as well as his desire to treat the issue with urgency. This was instrumental for getting congressional approval this year. Second, it is the third case in Latin America of approval via national legislature rather than by court mandate. Chile represents one of the fastest transforming countries in the world in terms of LGBT rights. Fewer than nine years ago, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights famously indicted Chile’s anti-LGBT policies when it ruled in favor of Karen Atala, a mother who had sued the Chilean state for losing custody of her sons for being a lesbian. Since then, Chile has established military service rights for LGBTQ people, anti-discrimination laws, anti-hate crime laws, civil unions, adoption rights laws, gender identity laws, and now, marriage equality. A famous Chilean expression al tiro, meaning right away, may very well describe how Chile transformed itself into one of the world’s most important champions of LGBT rights not long after it was sanctioned.
Javier Corrales is Dwight W. Morrow 1895 professor and chair of Political Science at Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He is the author of The Politics of LGBTQ Rights Expansion in Latin America and the Caribbean (Cambridge Elements, Cambridge University Press, 2022).