The United States may lead the hemisphere in progressive attitudes on gay and transgender issues, but it lags behind several Latin American nations when it comes to passing laws that protect the vulnerable community.
That divide between laws and public attitudes was on display this week as international diplomats gathered in Uruguay to discuss ways to protect gays and transgender people throughout the world.
In some ways, the gathering was a follow up to the U.N. Human Rights Council decision two weeks ago to appoint an independent expert to work with governments on ways to protect gay and transgender people.
The resolution was not put forward by the United States, but by several Latin American countries, including Argentina, Colombia and Uruguay, showing how progressive the region has come on the controversial social issue that intersects with traditional religious and cultural norms.
For some reason, in this part of the world, we’ve tended to see that evolution happen on the government side. In the U.S. it has been much more a process of change that occurs because of civil society.
Randy Berry, State Department
While the United States has made significant changes, it took decades of activism and large public acceptance before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage last year.
In parts of Latin America, it’s the governments that are driving progressive change before public opinion has shifted, said Javier Corrales, an Amherst College professor who has studied the gay rights movement across several countries.
Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and several Mexican states have legalized gay marriage. Argentina and Colombia each have a Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. Chile passed hate crime legislation in 2012. Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay allow gay couples to adopt.
But Corrales said the lack of public acceptance in the traditionally conservative and Catholic region has generated resistance and homophobia.
Much attention has been placed on Brazil, for example, which has the highest number of reported cases of violence against transgender people, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists are expected to visit next month’s Olympic Games in Brazil,where three transgender women were murdered and another survived a stabbing on a single day in January. Colombia has the fourth highest violence rate against transgender individuals, according to the United States Agency for International Development.
“The challenge in Latin America is where laws have become progressive, there is a long way to go to changing attitudes,” Corrales said.
The recent rampage at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., that left 49 people dead – including many Latinos – wasn’t lost on the attendees of the three-day global summit in Uruguay.
Randy Berry, the State Department’s special envoy for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, led a U.S. delegation to Montevideo for the conference and then continued to Colombia and Bolivia to meet with government leaders on how best to protect transgender individuals.
The challenge in Latin America is where laws have become progressive, there is a long way to go to changing attitudes.
Javier Corrales, Amherst College professor
While North America continues to be seen as a safer place than many other parts of the world for gay and transgender people because of public attitudes, Berry said the Florida attack shows how violence motivated against people because of their identity exists everywhere.
“That is the conversation we’re most interested in having,” Berry said. “The extraordinary thing is that the hate behind that attack is not so unusual.”