Chile: Gays Gain Ground, but Still Lack Legal Protections

Article excerpt

By Benjamin Witte-Lebhar

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Pope's top aide and Vatican secretary of state, drew the ire of gay-rights supporters the world over last month when he essentially blamed homosexuals for the Catholic Church's well-publicized sexual-misconduct problems.

"Many psychologists and psychiatrists have demonstrated that there is no relation between celibacy and pedophilia," the Italian cardinal said on April 12. "But many others have demonstrated, I have been told recently, that there is a relation between homosexuality and pedophilia. That is true. That is the problem."

Gay-rights groups in Bertone's home country, Italy, blasted the cardinal's comments, as did the French government, whose foreign ministry condemned what it called "an unacceptable connection [between homosexuality and pedophilia]." The openly gay mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe, criticized the church statements as well, saying they "deliberately stigmatize an identity and harm the respect for diversity and individual liberty."

But perhaps nowhere in the world were Bertone's inflammatory remarks more immediately felt than in Chile, and not just because that is where the Italian cardinal actually made his comments. For homosexuals here, the incident was a glaring reminder of just how difficult it has been to gain public acceptance and equal rights in a predominantly Catholic country that did not even legalize divorce until just six yeas ago (see NotiSur, 2004-12-17).

Homosexuals have certainly made strides in Chile, which until 1998 had a "sodomy law" that basically outlawed consenting same-sex relations. Gay characters have now begun to appear in prime-time soap operas. Santiago's bohemian Bellas Artes neighborhood is very much an "open" neighborhood. An annual love parade takes place in nearby Parque Forestal. And some politicians, including recently elected President Sebastián Piñera, a conservative, are starting to voice measured concern about anti-gay discrimination.

"We've gone up and down this country and have the firm conviction that the Chilean society as a whole has evolved positively in this regard," said Rolando Jiménez, head of Chile's leading gay-rights advocacy group, the Movimiento de Integración y Liberación Homosexual (MOVILH). "We're no longer the conservative society we were 20 years ago. Things have changed dramatically because of the work of the homosexual movement itself and because of the globalization of communications."

Institutionally, however, age-old prejudices against homosexuals are still very much entrenched, spurred on by a hard-line Catholic Church that continues to influence public policy, particularly through conservative politicians from Piñera's center-right Renovación Nacional (RN) and the far-right Unión Demócrata Independiente (UDI). In March, the RN-UDI coalition--known as the Alianza--assumed power for the first time under Piñera (see NotiSur, 2010-03-26), replacing the center-left Concertación coalition of previous President Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010), which had governed Chile since the end of the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

While the Vatican tried to downplay Bertone's comments, Chilean Bishop Carlos Pellegrin of Chillán defended the cardinal's position. "What the cardinal said is a product of the fact that the majority of pedophilia cases involve a homosexual orientation, that is, homosexuals who abuse minors of the same sex," Pellegrin told the news agency Orbe. The bishop added that the controversy "has provided an opportunity for our church in Chile to offer its solidarity with the Holy See."

Lobbying for legal guarantees

MOVILH lashed back, accusing Bertone of "lying" and of "immorally using homosexuals as scapegoats. …