Brazil is potentially poised to become the third and largest country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage, following a judicial order on Tuesday. Argentina was the first, in 2010, after the government brushed aside objections from Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, now the pope. The Uruguayan legislature followed suit last month. Mexico City has allowed such unions since 2010, and the Mexican state of Quintana Roo since 2011.
How can we reconcile these developments with the stereotype of Latin culture as a bastion of religiosity and machismo? How is it that the continent the Catholic Church looks to as its future (along with Africa) is home to what is said to be the largest gay-pride celebration in the world, in São Paulo, Brazil?
The church’s presence in Latin America is undeniable, but its influence on social policy is nothing like that of conservative Christian evangelicals in the United States, nor have the rising numbers of Pentecostals been obsessed with homosexuality like their conservative counterparts up north. Mexico, for instance, has long emphasized separation between church and state and recognizes only civil marriage — that is, clerics can officiate at weddings, but are not empowered to legally marry couples.
Political history is another factor. Since the 1970s, protest movements helped end military dictatorships or long periods of one-party rule; this democratic opening empowered left or center-left governments that have strongly emphasized human rights and individual freedom. Rafael de la Dehesa, a social scientist at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, has shown how gay and lesbian activists piggybacked on this wave of democratization.
The recent expansion of same-sex marriage rights has come about in part through alliances of left-of-center legislative majorities with progressive executives, like Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of Mexico City, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina and President José Mujica of Uruguay. In addition, as in the United States, judges have played an important role in advancing the cause of gay equality, as evidenced this week in Brazil, where the National Council of Justice, which oversees the judiciary, ruled that notary publics may not refuse to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies. (Judicial appeals, or legislative action, could reverse the decision.)
These achievements were not inevitable; for decades the left, with ideological roots in class struggle, could be as patriarchal and homophobic as the capitalists and soldiers it condemned. So to understand why the politics changed, we must also look to society.
In the 1990s, I interviewed dozens of Mexicans, straight and gay, in Guadalajara, the country’s second largest city. They spoke about how they wanted their lives to differ from their parents’. Women wanted to be recognized as sexual beings, with legitimate desires and the ability to pursue them. Men felt the old models of machismo were constraining, not empowering. As the anthropologist Matthew Gutmann found in Mexico City around the same time, this was the first generation of Mexicans for whom machismo was a dirty word.
This desire for individual autonomy — which in some ways lagged behind the sexual revolution in the United States — extended to gay and lesbian people. The emergence of AIDS as a global epidemic coincided with a period of energetic democratization. Of course, increased visibility generated homophobic reactions, but it also motivated gays to declare their identities and organize politically.
When I arrived in Guadalajara in 1993, gay clubs were hidden from public view. By 1998, clubs populated by gay and straight patrons alike were unremarkable. When I commented to a young gay man that the bars now seemed to be filled with straight people, he replied, “Isn’t that great?” In his view, the bar was “the most fashionable in Guadalajara,” because of its embrace of sexual diversity.
To be sure, as the Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Núñez Noriega notes, this elite is a minority, but its attitudes do seep into the larger population. Mexican media, which reaches even remote rural hamlets, features telenovelas that portray homosexuality in frank (if melodramatic) terms and talk shows where tolerance is a sign of cosmopolitan modernity.
These developments not only undermine stereotypes about machismo, but also the assumption that the prominence of Catholicism makes progressive change impossible. Same-sex marriage is legal in Belgium, Portugal and Spain, and Ireland recognizes civil unions. As the United States Supreme Court debates same-sex marriage, perhaps it should consider the precedent set by other nations of the Western Hemisphere.