LGBT advocates do not speak about Latin America very often. The region is home to 625 million people and yet, it is commonly disregarded in international conferences and reports on sexual orientation and gender identity. I think it has to do with the fact that, to many, Latin America seems to be doing “well enough.”
To be fair “well enough” seems accurate to some extent. When compared to other regions of the world (primarily Africa and Southeast Asia), most countries in Latin America seem to be doing just fine in terms of liberties for LGBT people. Same-sex activity is legal in practically all the countries of the region (East-Caribbean islands aside). Same-sex marriage is recognized in Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia and Brazil. Some countries, like Argentina, have some of the most advanced legal gender recognition norms in the world. And every summer, tens of thousands fill the streets of Rio, Santiago, Montevideo, Mexico City, and many others, with joyful marches of Pride.
Behind this salubrious portrait, however, lies a lackluster reality.
The weak rule of law that persists in some countries renders their ultra-progressive legislation practically useless. In Brazil, a person is killed because of his or her sexual orientation every 25 hours. Mexico had over one thousand homophobic murders in only two decades. And the region as a whole has four out of the five countries with the highest trans and gender-diverse murder rates in the world.
In practically all 33 countries, homophobia and transphobia continue to be widespread. In some cases, such as Barbados, Jamaica, Dominica, Granada and several others, it is encouraged de facto by the state. In the rest, it is allowed, and often perpetrated by police officers, judges, politicians and civil servants.
LGBT activists in the region, however, are often left to put up the fight alone. With limited resources, multinational foundations and nonprofits often gear their international LGBT work toward Africa and Southeast Asia. The language barrier also limits the capabilities of small LGBT organizations in the United States and Europe that often do not have Spanish or Portuguese speaking staff.
Regional organizations also lack the capability to support the work of LGBT activists. At the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, for example, the LGBT rapporteurship has one staff member, or sometimes two, if they are lucky to get a fellow or an intern that year. Yet, they have 35 countries to cover (U.S. and Canada included) each of them with a drastically different reality.
In the meantime, conservative organizations have mustered unprecedented resources and are orchestrating a powerful and coordinated backlash across the region.
Earlier this month in Costa Rica, a campaign based solely on hate speech boosted evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado to the top of the first round, in the country’s presidential elections. In the past three years alone, anti-gay groups have also managed to stop a presidential reform to recognize marriage equality nationwide in Mexico; they derailed a proposed LGBT-inclusive curriculum in Peru; and most recently, they have used deceitful campaigns in Ecuador, Chile and Uruguay to launch a defense of the traditional family from the so-called “gender ideology.” LGBT rights were also under tough scrutiny in Brazil, last year, when a judge rolled back on regulations to ban “conversion therapy,” and in Chile, where the same-sex marriage bill remained stagnant in Congress.
Latin America is at a delicate tipping point. The significant progress that was achieved over the last decade could easily be lost if the region falls into complacency. LGBT advocates are working hard to impede setbacks, but they cannot do it alone. They have the courage, the will and the inspiration; but they lack the advocacy skills, the financial resources and the brand recognition that only international organizations can build and sustain.
The timing is right. In early January, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights published a landmark advisory opinion that signals the possibility to acknowledge marriage equality and gender legal recognition under the American Convention of Human Rights.
If the international LGBT rights movement supports the region and builds robust transnational networks to share information, resources and strategies, not only will the continent be able to deter possible setbacks; it can emerge as an example that may have a domino effect elsewhere in the hemisphere, and around the world.
We have to start caring about Latin America. We have to stop thinking that “well enough” is good enough for LGBT people in the region. And we have to do so now, before it is too late.
Daniel Berezowsky is an LGBT advocate from Mexico City. He is an HBO Point Foundation Scholar pursuing a master’s in international affairs at Columbia University. During his studies, he has interned at the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and at the LGBT Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.