Photo: Chileans celebrate as the Senate votes in favor of same-sex marriage. Source: Rodrigo Garrido / Reuters.
Times are strange for LGBTQ rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. Left-wing presidents across the region, from Pedro Castillo of Peru to Luis Arce of Bolivia, have dismissed the topic, even as conservative President Sebastián Piñera oversaw the successful passage of a marriage equality bill in Chile last December.
The politics of LGBTQ rights clearly no longer fit into a left-right framework, if they ever did. To understand why some LGBTQ movements in the region have stalled while others have succeeded—and to advocate for future change—we have to look beyond party ideology.
A Divided Left
On the left, analysts have observed leaders both supporting and opposing LGBTQ rights. Last June in Americas Quarterly, Paul Angelo and Will Freeman wrote of a “new, socially conservative left” among the region’s leaders. One such leader is Pedro Castillo of Peru, who told supporters at a rally that “we have to repudiate this attitude; we have to throw this trash out,” referring to gender identity.
Unlike the socially conservative left that Angelo and Freeman describe, the “new millennial left” that Anders Beal describes in Global Americans is progressive on both social and economic issues. This group is typified by Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric—a social democrat who has firmly rejected the support of his leftist authoritarian counterparts and places identity issues on par with material concerns.
On LGBTQ rights, at least, both the socially conservative left and the new millennial left emerge from a long tradition in Latin America and the Caribbean. As Javier Corrales explains in The Politics of LGBTQ Rights Expansion in Latin America and the Caribbean, leftist movements were often as virulent in their homophobia as those on the right. In Cuba, the regime of Fidel Castro imprisoned gay men in internment camps during the years following the revolution, considering their demands for political rights to be “borgeouis decadence.” More recently, campaigners have faced state repression from leaders such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who shuttered the offices of Fundación Xochiquetzal, the country’s oldest LGBTQ rights group, last year amid his crackdown on political opponents.
At the same time, progressives such as Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and José “Pepe” Mujica of Uruguay were responsible for many of the region’s strides toward social equality in the mid-2000s and early 2010s.
A Divided Right
Parties on the right side of the political spectrum are equally split when it comes to gender and sexuality today. While Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s homophobic rhetoric and policies are well-documented, several of his center-right counterparts in the region have quietly embraced LGBTQ rights. In June 2021, Ecuadorean President Guillermo Lasso illuminated the presidential palace with the colors of the pride flag and designated a new Subsecretary for Diversity to mark International LGBT+ Pride Day. The same month, President Sebastián Piñera of Chile announced his support for marriage equality; Piñera had previously supported civil unions for same-sex couples as early as 2006.
These leaders, too, have their predecessors in Latin American history. During the Cold War, right-wing authoritarians used the force of the state to repress LGBTQ campaigners and political dissidents in comparable measure. On the other side of the ledger, center-right President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia included LGBTQ themes in the peace agreement he negotiated with the FARC guerrilla group in 2016, against the objections of religious groups and his political mentor, former President Álvaro Uribe. Mauricio Macri, then-Mayor of Buenos Aires, also shocked observers in his own party in 2009 when he declined to appeal a court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, whatever his personal convictions. Macri’s decision pressured then-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner to make her own much-delayed announcement in favor of same-sex marriage in 2010, which the Argentine Congress passed the same year.
Beyond Party Politics
Party ideology fails to explain why so many leaders on the left today have stalled on LGBTQ rights, and why other leaders on the right are advancing. To understand these trends, we have to understand that leaders operate within constraints. Ideology may often determine what policy a leader favors, but public opinion and the strength of organized pressure groups determine which policies are possible to enact. These factors constrain the policy choices available to each country in the region, regardless of whether the left or right holds office at any given moment.
Public opinion on LGBTQ rights varies widely across the continent. In 2018, AmericasBarometer surveyed countries across the hemisphere, asking respondents to rate their acceptance of same-sex marriage on a scale from one to ten. Average responses varied from 1.8 in Jamaica to 7.2 in Uruguay. Differences in public opinion offer a partial explanation for why countries like Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay have legalized same-sex marriage, while many islands in the Caribbean continue to prohibit intimacy between same-sex couples.
Fortunately, some of the factors that drive public opinion improve with time. As countries become wealthier, more urbanized, and more educated, their populations tend to converge on opinions regarding human rights. However, there are also historical factors that can cause support for LGBTQ rights to stagnate.
While most Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in the region legalized same-sex intimacy in the mid-1800s after the implementation of the Napoleonic codes, most Anglophone Caribbean countries retained their Victorian Era bans on same-sex activity even after decolonization. For these countries, the movement for LGBTQ rights can seem like a foreign imposition on domestic policy and spark a nationalist backlash.
Organized pressure groups, too, play a role in constraining leaders’ decisions. On LGBTQ rights, the most obvious pressure groups are pro-LGBTQ campaigners, whether international or local. Organizations like Chile’s Movimiento de Integración y Liberación Homosexual (Movilh) and the Jamaica Forum for Lesbians, All-Sexuals, and Gays have played key roles in their countries’ movements toward equality.
But there are also groups that have mobilized against the expansion of LGBTQ rights, none more prominently than the web of Evangelical and Pentecostal churches, whose membership has outpaced population growth in nearly every country in the region in recent years. In the words of Javier Corrales, “the rise of these churches constitutes the most important demographic change in Latin America since the 1970s.”
As Evangelical and Pentecostal churches grew in the 2010s, they formed a common front with Catholic congregations. Protestant clergy adopted the Catholic positions against abortion, and Catholic clergy took a renewed stand against LGBTQ rights. Both churches became more politically active. In Brazil, the Evangelical-Catholic coalition assisted in Jair Bolsonaro’s 2018 election. In Colombia, they stalled an anti-bullying initiative by the Ministry of Education and led the “No” campaign on the Colombian peace referendum. And in Costa Rica, they nearly brought Fabricio Alvarado, a right-wing Evangelical pastor, to power in 2018 on a campaign centered on his rejection of same-sex marriage.
The Path Forward
Given that the constraints of public opinion and organized pressure groups, and not just party ideology, matter, what should those of us who care about advancing LGBTQ rights do?
First, we should be willing to work with leaders from parties on both the left and right to advance LGBTQ rights in the Americas. As the examples of Lasso, Macri, Piñera, and Santos demonstrate, there are plenty of center-right politicians in the region who have moved their countries in the right direction. By developing relationships with both sides of the political spectrum, LGBTQ campaigners can progress no matter who is elected.
Second, we should consider how to outflank the organizations that oppose LGBTQ rights. The strongest such organizations, Evangelical and Catholic churches, often preach about the incompatibility between religion and LGBTQ identity. Progressive leaders can reach audiences who might otherwise be swayed by these messages by developing relationships with pro-LGBTQ clergy.
Third, we should be aware of the role of nationalism. When Fabricio Alvarado campaigned against same-sex marriage in Costa Rica, part of his message centered on religion, but part of it centered on self-determination. Then-President Luis Guillermo Solís had accepted a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights demanding that Costa Rica implement marriage equality. In response, Alvarado promised not only to disregard the ruling, but withdraw from the Inter-American Court altogether. As I argued last year, a better path for human rights activists is to push the boundary of human rights at the domestic level, while reserving the Inter-American system for well-established rights that governments have failed to protect. This approach is similarly applicable to the Anglophone Caribbean, where local LGBTQ campaigners might focus on the colonial origins of anti-sodomy laws and thus use nationalism to their advantage.
Left and right are poor proxies for leaders’ support of LGBTQ rights. By understanding the constraints on political leaders, advocates will be better positioned to advance human rights in the Americas.
Robert (Bo) Carlson is the Editor of Global Americans. He previously held roles at the OAS and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and has written for The National Interest and The Diplomat. You can find him on Twitter: @bocarlson1.