Violence Still Prevalent Despite Progress on LGBTI Rights in Latin America


As 2012 came to a close, Sao Paolo joined the jurisdictions that allow same-sex marriage. The joy this news elicited is absolutely warranted. However, it may cover up the fact that equal marriage rights do not mean the end to hostility against those who aren’t straight.

Arguably nowhere is this truer than in Latin America.

First the good news. Latin America has been making unprecedented advances on same-sex marriage and related issues these past couple of years. Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, as the first country in Latin America, right after Mexico City (the largest metropolis in the region) did the same in 2009. In early December 2012, Saba Island in the Caribbean followed suit, and Uruguay’s lower house passed a same-sex marriage bill. And then, as mentioned, later in December, Sao Paolo did the same. Meanwhile, the transgender rights regulations that were pushed through by Argentina’s government earlier in 2012 are considered some of the world’s most progressive.

Bearing all this in mind, one might be excused for thinking that Latin America is an accepting and safe place to live for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people.

That would be the wrong conclusion.

For decades, those who don’t look or act straight have been targeted for violence across the region. Brazil has been dubbed “the world champion in the murder of homosexuals” and earlier this year the brutal murder of an openly gay man in Chile highlighted the surge in violence against gay men and transgender individuals in particular. The main LGBTI organization in Peru, MOHL, notes that every 5 days a lesbian, gay, or transgender person is killed in that country. In 2011, the leader of an LGBTI organization in Mexico was beaten to death. Meanwhile, in December 2012 the Peruvian police put forward new regulations that prohibited police officers from having sex with a same-sex partner in a “scandalous” manner.

While this ban was almost immediately repealed after public uproar allegedly caused a split in the cabinet on the matter, it offers a clue to how support for same-sex marriage can co-exist with extreme violence against LGBTI populations. And that clue is the word “scandalous.” In essence, what the repealed regulation sought to control was not so much sex with a same-sex partner or same-sex relationships, but rather how those relationships would “look” in the public eye.

It is this same logic that is at play when individuals targeted for violence and murder in Latin America (and elsewhere too) are those who most visibly challenge gender norms: transgender men and women, “effeminate” men, “butch” women, or androgynous individuals who do not easily fit into a gendered box. These individuals are primarily being punished for not conforming to prevalent gender norms in their appearance and public behavior, rather than their private lives. Within this logic, same-sex marriage can be seen as conformity rather than revolt: it is an indication that same-sex couples are “just like” different-sex couples and therefore not threatening the status quo.

Of course, anyone who has ever dated someone of their own gender in Latin America will know that hostility extends far beyond those who don’t conform to prevalent gender-norms. Holding hands in public for two men or two women is a transgression some believe merit violence regardless of what each of the two looks like. This, apart from the obvious fact that nothing can or should excuse violence against any of us for any reason, including gender expression and sexual orientation.

This situation should serve as a reminder that legalizing same-sex marriage can only get us part of the way to full respect for LGBTI diversity and rights.

And perhaps more to the point, the coexistence of same-sex marriage and brutality against LGBTI communities in Latin America should make it clear that we must attack the larger fallacy at stake: the notion that only those who look, speak, talk, think, and live like the majority deserve equal rights and protection.

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