LGBT advocates do not speak about Latin America very often. The region is home to 625 million people, and yet it is commonly disregarded in international conferences and reports on sexual orientation and gender identity. I think it has to do with the fact that, to most, Latin America seems to be doing “well enough.”
To be fair, “well enough” seems accurate to some extent. When compared to other regions of the world (primarily Africa and Southeast Asia), most countries in Latin America seems to be doing just fine in terms of liberties for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Same-sex activity is legal in practically all the countries of the region (eastern Caribbean islands aside). Same-sex marriage is recognized in Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia, and Brazil. Some countries, like Argentina, have some of the most advanced legal gender recognition norms in the world. And every summer, tens of thousands fill the streets of Rio, Santiago, Montevideo, Mexico City, and many others, with joyful marches of Pride.
Behind this salubrious portrait, however, lies a lackluster reality.
The weak rule of law that persists in most countries renders their ultraprogressive legislation practically useless. In Brazil, a person is killed because of his or her sexual orientation every 25 hours. Mexico had over 1,000 homophobic murders in only two decades. And the region as a whole has four out of the five countries with the highest murder rates of trans and gender-diverse people in the world.
In practically all 33 countries, homophobia and transphobia continue to be widespread. In some, such as Barbados, Jamaica, Dominica, Grenada, and several others, it is encouraged de facto by the state. In the rest, it is allowed and often perpetrated by police officers, judges, politicians and civil servants.
LGBT activists in the region, however, are often left to put up the fight alone. With limited resources, multinational foundations and nonprofits often gear their international LGBT work toward Africa and Southeast Asia. The language barrier also limits the capabilities of small LGBT organizations in the United States and Europe, as they often do not have Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking staff.
Regional organizations also lack the capability to support the work of LGBT activists. At the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, for example, the LGBT rapporteurship has one staff member, or sometimes two, if the rapporteurship is lucky enough to get a fellow or an intern that year. Yet the rapporteurship has 35 countries to cover (the U.S. and Canada included), each of them with a drastically different reality.
In the meantime, conservative organizations have mustered unprecedented resources and are orchestrating a powerful and coordinated backlash across the region. In the past three years alone, they managed to stop a presidential reform to recognize marriage equality nationwide in Mexico; they derailed a proposed LGBT-inclusive curriculum in Peru; and most recently, they have used deceitful campaigns in Ecuador, Chile. and Uruguay to launch a defense of the so-called traditional family against what they term “gender ideology.” LGBT rights were also under tough scrutiny last year in Brazil, where a judge rolled back a ban on“conversion therapy,” and in Chile, where the same-sex marriage bill remained stagnant in Congress.
Latin America is at a delicate tipping point. The significant progress that was achieved over the last decade could easily be lost if the region falls into complacency. LGBT advocates are working hard to impede setbacks, but they cannot do it alone. They have the courage, the will, and the inspiration, but they lack the advocacy skills, the financial resources, and the brand recognition that only international organizations can build and sustain.
The timing is right. In early January, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights published a landmark advisory opinion that signals the possibility to acknowledge marriage equality and legal gender recognition under the American Convention of Human Rights.
If the international LGBT rights movement supports the region and builds robust transnational networks to share information, resources, and strategies, not only will the area be able to deter possible setbacks; it can emerge as an example that may have a domino effect elsewhere in the hemisphere, and around the world.
We have to start caring about Latin America. We have to stop thinking that “well enough” is good enough for LGBT people in the region. And we have to do so now, before it is too late.
A version of this commentary originally appeared in the Washington Blade.
DANIEL BEREZOWSKY is an LGBT advocate from Mexico City. He is an HBO Point Foundation Scholar, currently pursuing a master's degree in international affairs at Columbia University. During his studies, Daniel has interned at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and at the LGBT rights division of Human Rights Watch.