Fifty years of fighting for LGBTI rights in Latin America

July 5, 2018
While there have been some major legislative advances for LGBTI rights in Latin America, there is still much to be done.

Just days before the world began celebrating Pride Month, Chile passed a law allowing transgender citizens to change their name and sex on state registries without needing a sex-change operation. At the same time, Ecuador recognised a lesbian couple's legal right to adopt a child.

These and other monumental LGBTI legal precedents in Latin America recall the struggles of the queer and transgender revolutionaries who began the movement more than 50 years ago.  

Gay liberation

Argentina was at the forefront of gay pride in Latin America. Gay men in Argentina created Nuestro Mundo (Our World) in 1967, considered South America's first public homosexual organisation. In 1971, the Homosexual Liberation Front formed and two years later they started to publish the region's first gay magazine, Somos ('We Are').

But Argentine society experienced a backlash against human rights, including those of gays, lesbians and trans people, during the military government's Dirty War (1976-83) in which up to 30,000 people were disappeared or killed.

Though Brazil was living through its own dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, the gay community – and society in general – was experiencing a shift toward democracy by the late 1970s. A gay newspaper, Lampião (The Lamp), began publishing in 1978 and a year later, São Paulo homosexuals formed the first openly gay organisation, Somos. This was followed by a flurry of new gay and lesbian groups in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Curitiba and the Amazon.

The Feminist-Lesbian Action Group staged what is considered Brazil's 'Stonewall' at Ferro's Bar in São Paulo, in 1983. 

Gay activists managed to organise in Chile under the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship (1973-90). Integracion (Integration), the country's first gay group, was founded in 1977.

The country's first lesbian organisation, the Feminist Lesbian Collective Ayuquelen, founded in 1984, was important to homosexual and feminist rights.

It did not seek to assimilate into conservative society like its predecessors. Instead, the group of women who led it were revolutionary, forming the organisation after the highly conservative and patriarchal 1980 constitution had made any transgressions against the state, family and the Catholic church “illegal”.

Ayuquelen became a small but critical organisation that worked to not only advance lesbian and gender rights but also helped return democracy to the country.

Like its South American neighbours, Mexico began to experience its own wave of gay rights movements in the 1970s. The Homosexual Liberation Front was Mexico's first gay organisation, forming in 1971.

By 1978, several other LGBTI rights organisations had formed, advocating for freedom of sexual expression not only in Mexico but in the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions.


HIV/AIDS began to shake the Americas in the 1980s and ’90s. The burden fell heaviest on the already socially discriminated gay, lesbian and trans communities.

Across Latin America, the Catholic Church, so embedded in the region's social ethos, claimed the disease was a “divine intervention” to punish people for their gender and/or sexual orientation. Rights organisations had to not only fight discrimination but also the stigma of a disease that was so inaccurately linked to the gay and lesbian community.

Despite, or perhaps in part because of this health epidemic, the ’90s also became a decade when more people publicly began to express their gender and sexual identity.

The annual Mix Brazil Festival of Sexual Diversity was launched in 1993. Rio de Janeiro – widely considered one of Latin America's most LGBTI-friendly neighbourhoods – held Brazil's first Gay Pride parade in 1995, followed by Sao Paulo in 1997.

During this decade, trans communities also became more visible. The ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association), formed in 1978, became ILGALAC: the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association for Latin America and the Caribbean.

As the LGBTI community gained a presence in the public sphere, they also gained political ground.

Equal marriage rights

Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalise same-sex marriage in 2010. Mexico City legalised same-sex marriage that same year, and it was approved across the country last year.

In 2013, equal marriage rights was legalised under progressive governments in Uruguay and Brazil. By that time Brazil had already become the first Latin American country to legalise adoption for same-sex partners, doing so in 2010.  

Fighting Chilean conservatism, former President Michelle Bachelet pushed hard to legalise same-sex marriage last year, just months before she left office.

Unfortunately, Central American countries have either no laws to provide equal rights to the LGBTI communities, or have punitive laws against them.

Honduras banned same-sex marriage and adoptions in 2005 and El Salvador is working on similar legislation.

Costa Rica finally legalised same-sex marriage and transgender rights this year, but only after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ordered it to do so.

Hate crimes

One of the most pressing issues at the moment in LGBTI communities is the fact that its members are being murdered in record numbers by virtue of their sexual and gender orientation.

Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide reports that of the 2115 murders of transgender people worldwide between January 2008 and April 2016, 78% of them took place in Latin America, with Brazil experiencing the highest rate of killings.

Between 1980 and 2006, 2680 gay men and lesbians were murdered in Brazil for their sexual orientation, and only 10% of their killers served jail time, according to the Human Rights in Latin America Digest.

By 2012, Brazil's gay and trans community was living in a virtual state of emergency as one LGBTI person became a victim of homophobic murder every 24 hours.

Each year it gets worse: last year, 445 LGBTI Brazilians were murdered, up 30% from 2016.

The IACHR has urged administrations to take strict action against homophobia, but to little avail.

Though nearly all South and Central American countries have some legal regulation that bans anti-gay discrimination, these do not always protect trans people and often are not widely enforced.

No country, except Argentina, has an explicit law that calls it a hate crime to kill a person based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Argentina made history in June, in a bittersweet victory for the LGBTI community, by using this law to convict 25-year-old Gabriel David Marino to life in prison for “transvesticide”. He brutally murdered transgender activist Diana Sacayan in her Buenos Aires apartment in 2015.

Though the law had been used to convict three times prior, this was the first time the judges used the term transvesticide in Argentine legal history and was one of the heftiest sentences given for this type of crime.

While there have been some major legislative advances for LGBTI rights in Latin America, there is still much to be done.

[Abridged from TeleSUR English.]

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