The Pink Tide of Gay Rights in Latin America
This article is part of Canvas’ LGBT History Month mini-issue.
An Ipsos-Mori poll recently demonstrated the phenomenal success that the gay rights movement has had in changing societal attitudes towards homosexuality in Britain. This led to some commentators referring to the gay rights movement as being the most successful social movement in Western history.  Certainly, this is borne out by the phenomenal advances made in legislation in Britain, in early 2013 it is easy to forget that as recently as 1987 legislation was passed to prevent the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools in Britain. 
During the same decade, the situation for gay people in Latin America was considerably worse. During the 1980s, gay Cubans were hounded out of public sector jobs and many were expelled for the ‘bourgeois perversion’ of homosexuality during the Mariel Boatlift.  In the context of a political situation in which there was very little respect for human rights, the treatment of LGBT communities in right-wing dictatorships was even worse. During the dictatorship in Argentina, hundreds of gay Argentinians were imprisoned, tortured, raped and killed because of their sexuality. The anti-Communist Argentinian junta also formed morality brigades to ‘purge’ gays from the streets.  In Colombia, both left-wing and right-wing paramilitaries targeted homosexuals as part of their programme of ‘social cleansing’. 
Given the extremely hostile ideological and governmental climate towards gay people in Latin America, it is perhaps not surprising that societal attitudes concerning homosexuality continue to lag behind Western countries such as Britain. With the exception of Argentina and Uruguay, clear majorities in all Latin American countries are uncomfortable with LGBT political candidates. More worryingly, this continued intolerance persists amongst the young and appears to be at least in part a consequence of a surge of young Latin Americans’ conversions to homophobic Protestant sects. 
Yet, in spite of these seemingly overwhelming odds, gay rights activists have won victory after victory in Latin America. Homosexuality is now legal in all Spanish-speaking countries and Brazil; discrimination on the basis of sexuality is illegal in Brazil, Mexico and Peru, and same sex marriage is now legal in Argentina, Mexico City and some states in Brazil.  In the coming months, both Colombia and Uruguay are expected to pass legislation legalising same sex marriage.
So, despite a hostile societal attitude to homosexuality and a very recent history of violent state homophobia, how have activists sympathetic to gay rights achieved so much?
The example of gay rights social movements in Western Europe and North America may have been influential. Argentine legislators used the Spanish legalisation of same sex marriage as a blueprint for their own legislation. The Spanish Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transexuals and Bisexuals have talked about a “domino effect” of progressive legislation in Latin America emanating from the legalisation of same sex marriage in Spain.  While important, this explanation alone cannot explain the current favourable climate to gay rights in Latin America. The example of gay rights in Western Europe and North America certainly hasn’t had much of a positive effect in Sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa.
Far more influential than examples from abroad has been the tactical brilliance of gay rights activists in Latin America. In a fantastic example of the way in which social movements can leverage globalisation, gay rights movements have also drawn upon economic incentives in order to pressure and encourage governments into passing LGBT-friendly legislation. In the wake of the 2001 Argentinian economic collapse and subsequent currency devaluation, gay business groups sought to rival Buenos Aires as a destination for Western gay tourism. The potential influx of much needed foreign capital persuaded the city’s authorities to create a climate favourable to the LGBT community.
Following the collapse of guerra sucia dictatorships across Latin America, gay rights activists have benefited from the rebirth of Latin American civil society and the popularisation of human rights discourse. In Argentina, for example, gay rights activists were able to draw on the support of well-respected left-leaning human rights groups such as the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo by framing their own disenfranchisement within the same discourse that described the persecution of other groups during Argentina’s military dictatorship. Unlike other social movements, Latin American gay rights activists have shown willingness to frame their politics in a way that transcends the left-right dichotomy. While legislation favourable to the LGBT community has tended to follow the election of left-wing ‘pink tide’ governments, as in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina there are exceptions to this trend. In Buenos Aires, after lobbying by gay rights activists, conservative mayor Mauricio Macri helped to enact same sex civil unions.
While the left-wing ‘pink tide’ governments have made significant progress in the area of gay rights following the fall of the guerra sucia dictatorships, elsewhere leftist ideology has probably been an impediment to progressive legislation. Fidel Castro has admitted blame for the widespread persecution of homosexuals and Cuba has long since moved on from the days in which homosexuality was labelled a ‘bourgeois perversion’. Still, despite a recent ‘pinkwashing’ exercise aimed at appeasing concerns from otherwise sympathetic admirers of Cuba, in a country where there is no independent civil society progress has been glacial.  Despite a broad mandate and a willingness to take on deeply entrenched conservative interests, in Venezuela Hugo Chavez has thus far been reluctant to champion the cause of LGBT rights. As pro-Chavez commentator Edward Ellis notes, “on the topic of gay rights, the constitution is silent, indicative of the historic malaise of cultural machismo.”
In a few cases, there have been regressions. Following the 2009 coup against democratically elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, the LGBT community has been systematically persecuted by the state. Nevertheless, the overall trend is positive and 2013 promises to be another good year for LGBT rights in Latin America. The gay rights movement in Western Europe and North America may well be the most successful social movement in history, but the gay rights movement in Latin America surely cannot lag far behind.
Written by James Donnelly