Wednesday, October 20, 2010

LGBT Rights in Latin America

The Inter-American Dialogue today held a program called "LGBT Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean: Why Now and What Next?" The featured speaker was Javier Corrales, an Amherst College professor and co-editor of The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: A Reader on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights. The book is billed as the first English language reader on LGBT politics in Latin America. The advent of same-sex marriage in Argentina makes the volume especially timely. That development is so new it is not in the book, but Corrales explained it as possible because there is little church attendance and there are few evangelicals in Argentina. One of the commentators, Joseph Palacios, added that the church has little credibility in Argentina because of its support of the military dictatorship.

Among Corrales's interesting points about the difficulty of building an LGBT movement in Latin America is what he described as the comfort of the closet for elites. There is a double standard in married life where someone can have a same-sex relationship while heterosexually married. Because of this such people do not come out, the movement lacks elites, and the lessening of homophobia that happens when more people are out does not happen. In addition, few politicians are out. Corrales described this as a major difference from the US, where the closet is uncomfortable, the world outside is more comfortable, and so people are fed into a movement.

Macarena Saez, a Chilean human rights lawyer now a fellow at American University Washington College of Law, also spoke. Prof. Saez is one of the lawyers working on the case of Karen Atala, a Chilean judge who lost custody of her children when she came out as a lesbian. The trial and appeals court found in her favor, but the Supreme Court of Child reversed. The Supreme Court judges never met her; they simply decided, using best interests of the child language, that the children might fact stigma and so should be raised by their father. Atala's case is now before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the first case before that tribunal about discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Prof. Saez also noted that until the 1990's there was no space for an LGBT movement in Latin America because the lack of basic political rights, the numbers of people in exile, and the focus on staying alive left room for nothing else. It is great news, she noted, that there is enough democratic stability in the region that it is possibility for an LGBT rights movement to emerge.

Prof. Saez also expressed some concern about the focus on marriage. In Columbia, she noted, the law has moved in the direction of giving rights to same sex and unmarried heterosexual partners. She thought it could be a good thing to devalue marriage and shift to something more inclusive as in Canada has done. Her comments are certainly in the "beyond marriage" vein. Now that there are moves towards same-sex marriage recognition in Latin America, there needs to be a concomitant reevaluation about what relationships count. Prof. Saez pointed out that Ecuador defines marriage as a man and a woman in its constitution but could follow Columbia and make marriage matter less.

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