What the world can learn from Latin America’s gay rights movement

The region has a ways to go for same-sex equality but specific cases show how coalitions, institutions and the strategic framing of demands can help create policy change.

By: /
November 13, 2015
Thousands walk down La Alameda in Santiago for Chile's annual sexual diversity march on Sept. 25, 2010. OPENCANADA/Eva Salinas

Few could have imagined, 15 years ago, the way in which the sexual rights landscape in Latin American would change.

Homosexuality has been decriminalized in all of the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries, several of them have introduced legislation that bans discrimination on the bases of sexual orientation and gender identity (some have actually included these provisions in their constitutions), many others have officially recognized civil unions between same-sex couples, and, more impressively, gay marriage has become a reality for most Latin Americans. Indeed, gay marriage is now accessible to all citizens in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay: more than 62 percent of the region’s population.

Yet, despite such undeniable progress, sexual rights have remained stagnant, or have even been retrenched in others. In terms of same-sex relationships, several countries have introduced constitutional reforms that explicitly define marriage as one between a man and a woman or have specifically banned gay marriage, thereby making gay marriage more difficult to achieve given the need for a higher threshold of legislative support to bring about constitutional reforms. But, more importantly, despite the various legislative achievements in several countries in the region, violence against sexual and gender minorities has continued apace, and the number of hate crimes against them has not abated. The sexual rights landscape in Latin America is therefore one of high heterogeneity.

The expansion of a variety of sexual rights to Latin Americans over the last decade has intrigued many international observers and commentators for it challenges widely, and deeply, held stereotypes about Latin Americans. We are invariably described as machistas, highly religious and conservative. In the academic world, several of us have endeavoured over the last several years, piercing through these shallow stereotypes, to investigate the factors behind the extension of sexual rights in the region. In my most recent book I present research that I carried out over a five-year period, and which involved interviewing more than 240 activists and government officials, that identifies the main factors that seem to explain why gay marriage has been allowed in some countries and not others. The book compares three cases: Argentina, Chile and Mexico. Gay marriage has been approved in Argentina and Mexico, but not in Chile.

My research identifies three main factors, and I argue that the confluence of the three of them explains policy change. These are: 1) the ability and willingness of activists to form coalitions and networks with a variety of state and non-state actors; 2) the type of access to the policy-making process that is conditioned by a country’s institutional features; and 3) the framing of demands in a manner that resonates with larger social debates. In the work I argue that policy change is the result of decades-long struggles to expand citizenship rights waged by numerous activists and allies. In the two cases in which we have seen policy change, Argentina and Mexico, activism has been characterized by higher degrees of organization, coalition building, and the development of more effective framing strategies in the pursuit of policy reform. The attainment of gay marriage is then a story about the perseverance and acumen of individuals to create more equal societies by expanding rights to marginalized sectors of their societies.

But agency is not enough to explain policy variance. Structures matter, and I attempt to demonstrate that activism must be placed within its structural context: the institutional framework of each country has conditioned the type of access to the policy process that proponents and opponents of gay and lesbian rights have had. Institutions are therefore a central part of the story I present in my book. Policy change has occurred in the countries in which political institutions allow meaningful access to proponents of gay and lesbian rights and over which opponents do not have formal or informal veto power to block activists’ demands.

However, equally important are the broader political environments in which activisms have evolved and institutions have been established, and access to the policy process is not enough to explain policy variance. Policy change has been effected when gay and lesbian activists and allies craft their demands in a manner that resonates with society at large and that convinces decision makers of the justness of their cause. Larger processes of democratization are crucial in these developments. The type of transition to democracy a country has undergone has conditioned the degree of political contestation that allows for a renegotiation of the terms of citizenship rights. In the cases of Argentina and Mexico, debates over what democracy is and the contents of citizenship have been an important part of their processes of democratization, allowing activists to insert their demands for sexual rights in these debates. The same has not happened in Chile.

I belong to a group of political scientists who do not believe that the study of politics is a scientific endeavour. I see it as a craft and therefore prefer the Spanish term for it: politólogo. As such, it is difficult to predict what the prospects are for the expansion of gay marriage rights in the rest of Latin America in the years to come. However, my research suggests that, in order for gay marriage to transpire, the three factors I identified will be key for the region, and perhaps far beyond.

Since activism is fundamental in pushing for these rights (these are conquered, not willingly granted by governments), it would seem that, for those who believe in progressive change in this area, strengthening gay and lesbian activism is the place to start.   

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