Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Latin America, LGBT Legal Rights Grow, but Attitudes Shift More Slowly

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

In Latin America, LGBT Legal Rights Grow, but Attitudes Shift More Slowly

Article excerpt

When Mexico's president announced a proposal to enshrine same- sex marriage in the Constitution this week, he bolstered Latin America's standing as a global leader in promoting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.

Mexico will become the fifth Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriages, should President Enrique Pena Nieto's proposal be approved. And it would follow a string of initiatives to strengthen LGBT rights and protections in the region: Ecuador in 2008 approved one of the world's only constitutions that bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, while Argentina legalized adoption for same-sex couples in 2010, and Chile passed hate crime legislation in 2012.

But while laws have changed dramatically, social attitudes have at times been left to play catch-up.

In Brazil, for example, which grants constitutional protections to the LGBT community, the former president of Brazil's Chamber of Deputies and his supporters late last year called for a "heterosexual pride" day, and there have been high-profile incidents of targeted violence. Local nongovernmental organizations in Central America and Mexico are reporting more LGBT migrants fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in search of safer living conditions.

According to the latest data from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, from January 2013 to March 2014 there were 770 acts of violence committed against LGBT individuals in Latin America, resulting in nearly 600 deaths. And despite all the legal efforts, Latin America has the highest rates of violence against the LGBT community in the world, according to the NGO Transgender Europe.

The gap between laws on the books and public attitudes toward LGBT rights and protections - though not unique to Latin America - has raised questions about what tactics are most effective in driving change. Unlike the United States, for example, where gay- rights movements spurred social and piecemeal legal change for decades before the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage in 2015, in most Latin American countries the laws changed first - and often via high court decisions. Yet even when there's pushback, data show that legal measures often have driven changes in attitudes at home or in neighboring countries. The reason, some analyst say, is that they created an opportunity to bring into the open a discussion that is often hidden.

"The big issue is, if you have these laws changing faster than public opinion, do we then see public opinion changing more quickly once the laws are imposed?" asks Javier Corrales, a professor of political science at Amherst College who studies sexuality and LGBT rights in Latin America. "There is some early evidence that the answer is 'yes.' The process of getting constitutions changed and laws changed produces public debate. And debate can produce changes in opinion."

Rights-based constitutionsLatin America has a history of rights- based constitutions, many written following the military dictatorships and government oppression of the 1970s and '80s. The constitutional changes were meant to prevent crimes like widespread disappearances or politically motivated killings from happening again. But they also became key tools for LGBT activism in many countries here.

If activists petitioning for public support for same-sex marriage, for example, "got to Congress and ran into a wall, they could go to the courts," says Omar G. Encarnacion, professor of political studies at Bard College in New York and author of "Out in the Periphery: Latin America's Gay Rights Revolution."

"In some countries, society and political systems can handle this on their own, and in other cases - like Brazil and Mexico - where political systems can't seem to deal with it and society isn't there yet, courts intervene" to uphold these rights-based constitutions, he says.

The change in social acceptance has been notable in several Latin American countries. …

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