Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Web Exclusive

Latin American Gays: The Post-Left Leftists

Reading Time: 12 minutesGay rights activists in a number of Latin American countries have achieved surprising and significant victories in recent years.
Reading Time: 12 minutes

Activists March for LGBT Rights in Santiago de Chile, Photos Courtesy of the Movimiento de la Diversidad Sexual

Reading Time: 12 minutes

When most straight people are forced to think about gay people, they usually think of one thing first, sex. A political scientist might focus instead on a different question:  how do gays perform in politics?  Judged from their political achievements this past decade, the answer is, at least for Latin American gays:  they’re pretty good.

The political achievements of LGBT groups in Latin America in the 2000s are remarkable.  Examples include: decriminalization of homosexuality (now complete in all Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil); laws against sexual-orientation discrimination (Brazil 2000, Mexico 2003, Peru in 2004); extending the same rights and obligations to same-sex couples as heterosexual couples (e.g., Buenos Aires 2002, Colombia in 2009); granting access to health benefits, inheritance, parenting and pension rights to all couples who have cohabited for at least five years (Uruguay); and constitutional bans against discrimination on the basis of gender, sexual  identity or HIV status (Ecuador 2008).   In the last two years alone the speed of change picked up, with most countries witnessing a significant legal change in the direction of more gay-friendliness, including the now famous Mexico City law recognizing gay marriage and adoption rights. [Please see index of chronology attached.] 

What is remarkable is not that change has happened, but that it has happened against such formidable odds. As Moreno Morales and Mitchell Seligson make clear in the current issue of Americas Quarterly, Latin America is still homophobia-land. Their poll shows that between half and three-quarters of the population in most Latin American countries exhibit disturbing levels of intolerance toward homosexuals.  This attitudinal intolerance is by no means the only barrier that LGBT groups face in politics, but it alone is reason enough to be awed by the political victories that LGBT groups have achieved.

So how did they do it?  How has a movement comprising such a tiny and often invisible minority managed to introduce major changes in a region where homophobia—at home, at school, at work, and at church—is so entrenched?    The answer is—innovative politics. LGBT groups have adopted some of the most innovative political strategies—in action and thinking—among social movements in contemporary democracies. Although LGBT groups are decidedly on the left, many of their strategies depart substantially from conventional leftist strategies. These strategies are worth highlighting and maybe even emulating. Here is a sampling. 

1.    Embrace, not hate, globalization. Whereas the traditional left in Latin America has never quite come to terms with globalization, always responding to it with various forms of negativity ranging from suspicion to extreme repulsion—LGBT movements have adopted a more relaxed response:  leverage globalization. LGBT groups systematically use resources provided by globalization and markets to enhance their bargaining leverage. For instance, they use traditional and new media such as the Internet to actively monitor — and adapt to local circumstances — the strategies adopted by LGBT movements elsewhere on the planet. They welcome tourism as an economic force that can turn both the state and the business sector more LGBT friendly (ilga.org, spartacusworld.com, damron.com, rainbowtourism.com, hotelinteractive.com). LGBT groups have learned that demonstrating (even exaggerating) the spending power of LGBT voters and consumers allows them to earn allies in government and business. LBGT folks specialize in buycotts (more so than boycotts) and this makes them debit-card pressure groups par excellence. LGBT groups also consume international cultural products voraciously and guiltlessly. A lesbian group in Colombia even named itself after Ellen DeGeneres. In short, LGBT groups are globalization users rather than globalization bashers, and this allows them to win allies across different sectors and to learn about best practices from multiple sources.

2.    Party hard. A major mistake made by Latin American leftist social movements in the late 1990s was to disdain all things partisan. This generated a lot of unnecessary bad blood between parties and social movements that resulted in too much misallocated energy that helped neither group. LGBTs don’t seem to display this hostility toward parties. Yes, they recognize that parties are inefficient, corrupt, and frequently anti-gay. But whenever they see the chance to work with a party—in a legislature, a ministry, or a mayor’s office—they seize that opportunity without hesitation. They of course gravitate toward leftist parties, but not dogmatically, so that collaborations with non-leftist politicians do happen. In Argentina, for instance, LGBT groups have worked with the non-leftist mayor of Buenos Aires on behalf of civil unions. This pragmatism toward party life opens political opportunities for LGBT groups that more antiparty and dogmatic leftist movements often miss.

3.    March hard. Like good old leftists, LGBT groups understand the power of a massive protest, especially in the streets. But their approach to taking the streets is not to go on strike, interrupt traffic during rush hour, shut down schools and hospitals, or vandalize private property, but rather, throw an annual gay pride march. A gay pride march achieves all the empowering feats that any protest is meant to achieve, with almost none of the inconveniences. For anyone who has ever missed a flight, a school day, an appointment, or a medical procedure due to a street protest or a strike in Latin America, there is no question that street protests can be pretty annoying, even if the cause is endearing. Protests have serious negative externalities, but gay pride marches minimize them. They occurred only once a year. They are even scheduled on weekends so as to minimize disruptions. Furthermore, gay pride marches have a different tone than your traditional protest marches. Gay pride parades do express angry demands, empower the weak to feel strong, and raise visibility—as do all protests—but they are essentially festive affairs.  Marchers wear flamboyant costumes or very little costumes, thus providing entertainment for all tastes.  Local fashions and international trends are on full display. This festiveness and showiness gives Gay pride marches an intrinsic popular appeal that other leftist marches lack. Gay pride marches are a show of muscle, in every sense of the word. In Brazil, the Sao Paulo Gay Pride parade, certified by Guinness as one of the largest on earth, is now a global, not just a local, tourist attraction. According to the parade’s website, you can buy a 4-night package to attend this year’s event for $428. Converting protest into a crowd-pleasing, trouble-minimizing, tourist affair is politically brilliant, not to mention unique.

4.    Wage wars peacefully. LGBT groups are engaged in an epic battle against homophobia. Like good old feminists, they are in a life-long struggle on behalf of gender and sexuality rights, and like good old human rights groups, they want equal treatment for all. But LGBT groups avoid two excesses associated with die-hard feminist and human-rights groups. They avoid launching wars against men in general, a problem that besets many feminist claims, and they avoid adopting too punitive an agenda, an excess that many human rights groups often commit. Yes, LGBT groups are at war against homophobia, but they avoid converting this into a battle against a male-dominated order. This applies more to gay men than to lesbians, but most lesbians recognize that a non-homophobic man is a precious ally to cultivate rather than a patriarch figure to attack. Likewise, LGBT groups are involved in a fight against human rights abuses, especially hate-based violence, but they don’t exactly concentrate on punishment and retribution, but rather in developing deterrents. Avoiding a battle of the sexes and showing restraint toward wrongdoers saves LGBT groups from spreading unnecessary panic.

5.    Think anti-establishment; act intra-establishment. Like good old radicals, LGBT groups are motivated by anti-establishment, even utopian goals. To hope for a world free of homophobia has got to be one of the most idealistic goals of our times, and yet, all LGBT groups are committed to nothing less. LGBT political groups are thus as radical as they come. But their approach to changing the status quo is not exactly all that radical. Rather than destroy the status quo, they seek to work the status quo. Every time they encounter an institutional barrier, they search for openings elsewhere in the system. If the executive branch is impenetrable (as in Colombia), they work the national courts. If the national courts are impenetrable (as in Brazil and Chile), they work the bureaucracy. And if both are impenetrable, they shift locations. Sometimes, LGBT go abroad to lobby international organizations such as the United Nations, hoping this lobbying will have a boomerang effect. Other times they simply shift their target toward a new province, as occurred in Argentina in 2009, when a gay couple facing a legal challenge to marry found a province that would marry them. LGBT are not so much institution killers as they are institutional loophole-searchers, which is a rare trait in the category of anti-establishment politics.

6.    In battling conservatives, be fiercely conservative. The most significant development of LGBT politics in the Americas in the 2000s was the eruption of the marriage issue.  This was never the top preference of LGBT groups, neither in the United States, where this issue began, nor in Latin America, where this issue has since become quite central in some of the larger countries. In terms of things for which to fight, LBGT across the Americas in the early 2000s would have preferred different battles, such as workplace discrimination. But LGBT groups immediately discovered the political advantage of embracing the marriage issue. It gave them a conservative argument to use against their conservative foes. Fighting conservatism with conservatism has proven to be a real coup. It pushed conservatives into the odd position of opposing a conservative stand (the desire to stabilize monogamy). It also disarmed conservatives by ridiculing their claim that the gay agenda is all about promoting sexual licentiousness. And it revealed loudly that conservatives, in denying gay rights, are in reality defending separate legalities, which most reasonable people find awkward, or even inherently contradictory.  LGBT groups excel like few other groups in changing ideological colors depending on the ideology of their foes, which a type of artistic creativity put to work in politics.

7.    Draw business lessons. LGBT groups are succeeding in politics also because they are drawing lessons from the business world. From the ad industry, to give one example, LGBT groups have drawn the lesson that nothing sells like the creation of status symbols. Thus, LGBT groups have created the notion that being pro gay is a symbol of being modern, cosmopolitan, and hip. The notion that gay is chic does not always catch on, but every once in a while, it produces a knock out. A good example occurred in the 2009 electoral race in Chile when, to everyone’s amazement, the center-right candidate Sebastián Piñera appeared in a TV ad standing next to a gay couple. Whether this ad was sincere or not is an important question, but it is also important that this ad illustrates the status symbol strategy at work. For Piñera, appearing pro-gay proved to be a useful device to convey that he was a new, superior, modern type of conservative.

8.    Pop!  Pop Culture is the new Populism. Like good political strategists, LGBT movements understand the advantages of appealing to all sectors of the population, and specifically, to both the privileged and the underprivileged. The old left in Latin America tries to create this cross-sectoral political alliance by promising too much from the state, a strategy that often flops and disappoints. LGBT groups have developed a less error-prone approach. They use pop culture as the new populism. Like few other groups involved in contentious politics, they understand that nothing unites the nation more than a catchy pop song,  video, movie, film festival, novela, scandal, or comedy sketch on prime-time TV, especially if there is a covert or overt LGBT subplot. In Cuba, a soap opera with a gay theme was a huge hit in 2006. Critics call this attention to pop culture, or farandulería, by LGBT folks a sign of frivolity. But politically, there is nothing frivolous about its results. Pop culture has proven time and again to be an effective way to transform cultural norms, and LGBT groups have continued to prove that they have a distinctive flair for this political art form.

9.    This revolution will be YouTubized. LGBTs not only do well as shapers of pop culture, but also as users of the latest medium to transmit pop culture: YouTube. Anytime there is an LGTB-related video out there, LGBT groups share it with hurricane force. Thus, a video about a hate crime in San Juan, or a video of a gay wedding in Argentina, or a video of a homophobic declaration by a bishop in Mexico is instantly watched and deconstructed in the LGBT cyber world. If the slogan of the twentieth century was a picture is worth a 1000 word, LGBT groups understand that, in the twenty-first century, the new slogan is, a Youtube video is worth a thousand mítines políticos. And one reason that LGBT groups are so good at exploiting this new medium is that they are flooded with young people, who are competent users of new technologies. In terms of membership and message, there is no question that LGBT groups target the young directly, and this youth-orientation is another distinctive asset that they bring to politics.

10.    The next gay revolution:  Liberté, egalité, (p)maternité. The next LGBT revolution will not only be YouTubized, but it will also involve another remix of traditional and non-traditional icons of the Western world. LGBT groups know that their ideological forté is to focus on old-fashioned principles of the Enlightment–liberty and equality. Much of their success stems from their refusal to privilege one principle over the other, as the hard left and hard right often do, but rather, to always portray the fight for LGBT rights as a struggle for freedom and equality simultaneously. LGBT in the Americas are now launching their next struggle—the fight for p/maternal rights. Once again, they will use iconic emblems (liberty and equality) to transform a traditional aspiration of humans (the desire to raise a family) into a new democratic right:  the right of LGBT people to adopt children. As with other battles, the fight for LGBT parental rights will be tough, because homophobia remains entrenched everywhere, starting with one’s own household and sometimes going all the way to the presidential palace. At times, this homophobia manifests itself proactively rather than behind the scenes, as when the president of El Salvador, Antonio Saca, endorsed a proposal to outlaw gay marriage and adoptions in 2006. But the success thus far of LGBT groups, and the proven effectiveness of this time-tested ideological-branding scheme, there is no reason to be excessively pessimistic. Even in El Salvador, Saca’s initiative got defeated.

In sum, what we have here is more than just amateurish politics. Like few other leftist social movements, LGBT groups have developed ingenious responses to some of the most pressing issues of our time:  unrestrainable globalization (exploit it), strained political parties (respect them), unevenly-performing democratic institutions (fix them and work with the fixed ones), rising religiosity (talk the language), political cynicism (mobilize the young), attention deficit disorder for the written word (YouTubize everything), machismo and homophobia (rebrand the concept of gayness), increasing corporatization of citylife (buycotts). Most members of LGBT groups started out feeling ostracized, but they responded by working the system and building alliances with the system’s untouchables. Because they are ideologically on the left and yet their responses to these challenges depart from traditional leftist responses, LGBT groups could very well be considered the first post-left leftists of the twenty-first century.  

The strategies of LGBT groups, as with all innovations, are neither infallible nor immune to criticism. There is an inherent contradiction, for instance, in a movement that fights for equality by simultaneously relying on status categories of hipness and cosmopolitanism, to mention just one problem. It is not entirely clear either that all these strategies are especially impactful or appropriate for low-income communities. No doubt, philosophers have ample material here for debate in the years to come.

But there is no question that LGBT groups are emerging as the superstars of politics. Their approaches are succeeding in unexpected ways, especially considering the odds against them. LGBT groups will not win all their battles, but they have already revolutionized the way we ought to think about effective contestation in twenty-first-century democracies. As in so many other domains, LGBT folks in politics have proven to be, yet again, epochal trend-setters.

Javier Corrales is Associate Professor of Political Science at Amherst College, Massachusetts, and a member of the editorial board of Americas Quarterly, where he published “Markets, States and Neighbors” in the Spring of 2009. He is the co-editor of The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America (Pittsburgh University Press, May 2010).

LGBT Victories in Latin America 2008-2009

–    February 2008 – Venezuela. The Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court issues a ruling that, on the one hand, recognizes that discrimination against sexual orientation is unconstitutional, but on the other hand, states that there does not exist constitutional protection for same-sex partnerships; only the legislature can confer such protections. 
–    March, 2008 – Nicaragua. A reform of the Penal Code legalizes same-sex relations and ends an anti-sodomy law.
–    March 2008 – Brazil. Police estimate that more 3 million people participated in the 12th annual Gay Pride March; both the Sao Paulo government and Petrobras sponsor the march.
–    June 2008 – Brazil. President Lula launches the “First National Conference of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals, Transvestites and Trasnsexuals in Brasilia.
–    June 2008 – Cuba. New president, Raúl Castro, authorizes offering free sex-change operations for qualifying citizens, a policy change advocated by Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education (presided over by President Raúl Castro’s daughter, Mariela Castro).
–    August 2008 – Panama. Government repeals a 1949 law criminalizing gay sex.
–    September 2008 – Ecuador. Voters approve the country’s 20th constitution. Article 11 bans discrimination on the basis of “gender identity,” “sexual orientation,” and “HIV status” (but still defines marriage as the “union between man and woman,” Art. 68).
–    December 2009 – United Nations. The United Nations General Assembly affirms that international human rights protections include sexual orientation and gender identity. The statement is read to the Assembly by Argentina; 12 of the 66 countries that signed on were Latin American.
–    January 2009 – Mexico. In a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court rules in favor of a man-to-woman transsexual requesting the reissuing of a new birth certificate that would not reveal the change in her sexual identity.
–    January 2009 – Colombia. The Constitutional Court upholds a lower court opinion that same-sex couples must be accorded the same benefits as heterosexual couples in common-law marriages. This ruling grants same-sex couples equal pension, survivor, immigration and property rights.
–    February 2009 – Bolivia. New constitution bans discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (but only recognizes “marriage” and “free unions” as occurring “between a woman and a man”).
–    February 2009 – Chile. The Unified Movement for Sexual Minorities (MUMS) organizes the first-ever mass wedding for sexual minorities in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
–    September 2009 – Uruguay. With a 17-6 vote the legislature approved a bill that ends restricting adoptions to married couples, what many interpreted as paving the way for adoptions by same-sex couples. Earlier, Archbishop Nicolás Cotugno of Montevideo condemned the bill as going ”against human nature itself, and consequently, … against the fundamental rights of the human being as a person.”
–    November 2009 – Argentina. A Buenos Aires judge ruled that it was unconstitutional for civil law to stipulate that a marriage can exist only between a man and a woman. A marriage licence was then granted to Alex Freyre and José María Di Bello.  This became the most controversial marriage in modern Argentine history, with debates on TV, marches, and hostile posters on billboards across the city. The archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, publicly criticized the city’s mayor, Mauricio Macri, for not appealing the judge’s decision to grant the marriage licence.
–    December 2009 – Mexico. In a 39-to-20 vote with five abstentions, Mexico City’s Legislative Assembly approved marriage rights for same-sex couples. In a separate vote, the Assembly also approved adoption rights by a vote of 31 to 24 with nine abstentions.

Source:  Corrales, Javier and Mario Pecheny, eds. 2010. The Politics of Sexuality in Latin America: a Reader on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Rights. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Tags: Gay Marriage, gay rights in Latin America, Javier Corrales
Like what you've read? Subscribe to AQ for more.
Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Sign up for our free newsletter