Let's talk Latin America

A Culture of Homophobia

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Tom Webb reveals why recent advances in Latin American Gay Rights laws hardly scratch the surface of a long standing problem.

A 2012 mass procession in remembrance of murdered Chilean, Daniel Zamudio

When you think of Latin America, what comes to mind? Is it Argentine steaks, the Tango, Brazilian Carnivals? Or maybe it’s football, the drug trade or possibly even the region’s historically right-wing politics. But what about gay bashing? Although the continent has experienced somewhat of a surge in the passing of laws that protect and afford equal rights to LGBT persons, it’s still unclear as to what this means at a grass-roots level. The pro-LGBT wave kicked off in 2008 with the legalization of gay marriage in Uruguay. Argentina quickly followed suit in 2010, adding full adoption rights and a series of anti-discrimination laws to boot. Even in Chile, one of the most conservative countries in Latin America, legislation forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation was passed in July of 2012. Superficially, it would seem things are looking up.

Despite all of this political noise, however, a recent study compiled by the Organisation of American States paints a much more depressing picture. It reported that one LGBT-related killing takes place every day in Latin America. If that isn’t enough to make us sit up and acknowledge that law making just doesn’t cut it, I don’t know what is. We, Latin Americans and Westerners alike, need to start seeing the problem not as petty delinquency but as a socially rooted culture of homophobia. In his article, entitled ‘La caza del gay’, Mario Vargas Llosa condemns the gruesome killing of Chilean gay activist Daniel Zamudio in 2012 (in which his fingers and genitals were cut off) and reminds us that:

“Lo más fácil e hipócrita es atribuir el asesinato de Daniel Zamudio a cuatro bellacos que se autodenominan neonazis. Ellos no son más que la avanzadilla repelente de nuestra tradición homófoba”. (It is easy and hypocritical to attribute Daniel Zamudio’s murder to four thugs that identify as neo-nazis. They are only the vanguards of our homophobic tradition.)

Without getting too bogged down in the history behind it all, it suffices to say that gender is defined in very strict terms in much of Latin America, and has been for centuries. With the colonization of the Americas came the subjugation of its native peoples. The rape of indigenous women and sublimation of indigenous male sexuality put the newly arrived European male in a position of dominance. The installation of this power hierarchy (mainly controlled and perpetuated by the imported Catholic Church), with the male as dominant, is the genesis of Latin American ‘machismo’ today. In essence, if you are a gay, bisexual or transgender person, you are threatening these established gender norms. In his article, Vargas Llosa lays bare the root of the problem,

El asunto no es político, sino religioso y cultural. Fuimos educados desde tiempos inmemoriales en la peregrina idea de que hay una ortodoxia sexual de la que sólo se apartan los pervertidos y los locos y enfermos, y hemos venido transmitiendo ese disparate aberrante a nuestros hijos, nietos y bisnietos, ayudados por los dogmas de la religión y los códigos morales y costumbres entronizados”.(“The issue is not political, but religious and cultural. We were educated in archaic times and brought up on the ignorant idea that there is a sexual orthodoxy, and that only perverts, insane and ill people do not adhere to it. We have been transmitting this strange nonsense to our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, helped by religious dogmas, moral norms and revered customs.”)

Although Mario Vargas Llosa discards politics as the potential basis of Latin American homophobia, it doesn’t help that to this day homophobic discourse is still a feature of the continent’s political spheres. On his campaign trail in early 2012, Venezuela’s presidential candidate, Nicolás Maduro, referred to his opponent as “a little princess”, suggesting that because he was unmarried he must be gay, and therefore deserving of such derogation. This kind of unabashed bigotry is a sad example of how homophobia is still patently evident in Latin America today, regardless of advances in the law.

For further commentary on homophobia in Latin American politics, see this Time article.