The Brazilian Supreme Court’s recognition of same-sex unions in early May marks the latest victory for gay rights in Latin America. The Court’s ruling grants equal legal rights to same-sex civil unions as those enjoyed by married heterosexuals, including retirement benefits, joint tax declarations, inheritance rights, and child adoption. While the Supreme Court did not go so far as to legalize gay marriage, gay rights groups such as Rio de Janeiro’s Rainbow Group have nevertheless praised the decision as an “historic achievement.”1 The decision passed 10-0 with one abstention, but the justice who abstained had previously spoken in favor of same-sex unions.
An Unlikely Victory
As the world’s largest Roman Catholic country, Brazil was an unlikely venue for such a promising gay rights victory. The Roman Catholic Church has actively fought proposals for same-sex unions in Brazil, arguing that the Brazilian Constitution defines a “family entity” as “a stable union between a man and a woman.”2 The Catholic Church responded to the recent ruling with outrage. As Archbishop Anuar Battisti put it, the Supreme Court’s decision marked a “frontal assault” on the sanctity of the family.3
The Catholic Church is losing its power in Brazil, which helped pave the way for the Supreme Court’s recent decision in favor of homosexuals. Nevertheless, homophobia retains a tenacious grip on Brazilian society. Despite the fact that the nation boasts the world’s largest gay pride parade, the LGBT movement has been unable to achieve fundamental progress and quell discrimination at a societal level. For instance, Marcelo Cerqueira, the head of the Gay Group of Bahia, claims the country is “number one when it comes to assassination, discrimination and violence against homosexuals.”4 Additionally, in a disconcerting report, the Gay Group of Bahia found that 260 Brazilian gay people were murdered in 2010, exemplifying the level of hostility towards homosexuals.5 Because of this discriminating environment, gay rights activists traditionally have had little success in Brazil. Most notably, Congress disregarded proposals for gay rights legislation for nearly ten years.
The Supreme Court’s recent ruling was therefore a major turning point after a history of protracted, unsuccessful struggles. The judicial decision was made in response to two lawsuits, one of which was filed by Rio de Janeiro Governor Sérgio Cabral and the other by the Office of the Attorney General. While Congress repeatedly ignored requests for equal rights for gay Brazilian citizens, the Supreme Court argued that “Those who opt for a homosexual union cannot be treated less than equally as citizens.”6 In this way, by appealing to the judicial system, the LGBT movement was able to achieve success despite deep-seated hostility throughout Brazilian society and in other branches of the government.
Latin America’s Gay Rights Revolution
Professor Omar Encarnación of Bard College calls the recent string of gay rights legislation in Latin America a “gay rights revolution.”7 Brazil’s ruling came on the heels of several other noteworthy gay rights victories in Latin America, such as Uruguay’s legalization of same-sex civil unions in 2007. Shortly thereafter, in 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American nation and eighth nation worldwide to legalize gay marriage. Other landmark decisions in the past few years include Uruguay’s decision to allow all men and women, regardless of sexual orientation, to serve in the military and Mexico City’s legalization of same-sex civil unions.
The recent surge in gay rights victories throughout Latin America is altogether stunning, considering the region has generally been regarded as very homophobic. The Catholic Church has traditionally been a formidable enemy to gay rights movements in the region, but the secularization of much of Latin America has led to the impressive expansion of opportunities for gay rights movements.
Yet this success of gay rights movements throughout Latin America cannot be attributed solely to the declining importance of religion in the region. It is equally important, if not more so, to recognize the vital roles played by gay activist groups and the dynamic strategies these groups employ. For instance, gay rights groups in Brazil were able to reverse legislation banning gays from the workplace by forming partnerships with progressive businesses. In recent years, the use of social media has provided much of the gay movement’s momentum by enhancing activist groups’ ability to communicate and spread information. For instance, as Javier Corrales notes, by simply posting a video of a hate crime in San Juan or of a gay wedding in Argentina on YouTube, gay rights groups have been able to reach thousands of people and garner support.8 These innovative strategies have brought success despite a notably hostile environment towards homosexuals.
Through a comparison with the United States, we can see how remarkable the success of gay rights in Latin America has been. Latin America is marked by a much more homophobic environment than the U.S., according to a survey conducted by Mitchell Seligson and Daniel Moreno Morales.9 However, although the U.S. has lower levels of societal discrimination towards gays, it is hard to imagine that the United States would completely legalize same-sex civil unions or gay marriage on a national scale. The fact that this legalization occurred in several Latin American nations, despite the formidable opposition there, makes these recent rulings even more significant.
Furthermore, the recent victories for gay rights exemplify the considerable progress toward the region’s consolidation of democracy. The three Latin American countries that have now legalized same-sex unions—Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay—were each ruled by repressive military regimes just over two decades ago. Even Colombia, which is one of the region’s worst human rights violators, granted same-sex unions equal rights regarding social security benefits and inheritance rights in 2007. The fact that gay liberation movements have been successful in these unlikely places is a testament to how far these countries have progressed in recent years.
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