The rainbow tide

Spreading gay rights show the clout of a secular middle class. WITH her eyes ablaze under a mop of boyish hair, Yoalli Lora sums up the lessons she has learned from years battling Mexican authority. “In Mexico the laws don’t work unless you create a scandal.”

WITH her eyes ablaze under a mop of boyish hair, Yoalli Lora sums up the lessons she has learned from years battling Mexican authority. “In Mexico the laws don’t work unless you create a scandal.” She says this forcefully enough to turn heads at the genteel Sanborns restaurant in Mexico City where she is tucking into enchiladas. Her mother flinches, but not because of the attention. “Oh my love,” she says. “You are only 14, yet you already know this.”

Yoalli may be young, but her defiance has the timbre of experience. At eight she realised that she was a lesbian, and at 13, grief-stricken over a forbidden love, she confided in her sympathetic parents. Yet her all-girls school in Mexico City tried to stamp it out of her. Yoalli was told to use a more feminine hairstyle, not to touch other girls “except on the shoulder”, and to visit the lavatory only in the company of a member of staff.

This year she left the school, worn down by stress. But she got her own back. Supported by a lesbian pressure group, Metal Muses, she staged a protest outside the school gates that attracted national attention. After the intervention of Mexico’s National Council for the Prevention of Discrimination (Conapred), a federal body, the school apologised to her on October 5th.

Yoalli’s triumph reflects the success of a gay-rights movement that has swept Latin America in the past half-decade, hurdling religious and cultural obstacles. Mostly it has focused on same-sex marriage. Since Spain provided an example by legalising gay marriage in 2005, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have followed suit. In June Mexico’s supreme court issued a ruling enabling homosexuals to bypass state laws preventing them from marrying, just weeks before its counterpart in the United States, with far more fanfare, legalised gay marriage. The Americas now rival Europe as the most gay-friendly region in the world.

The picture remains patchy, however. The Pew Research Centre, a think-tank, says that although around half the population in the biggest countries support same-sex marriages, in Andean countries such as Colombia, Peru and Venezuela about two-thirds are opposed. In Central America resistance is higher. And in 11 Caribbean countries homosexuality is illegal.

Both Catholic and evangelical churches resist change. Notwithstanding Pope Francis’s rhetorical flourish on homosexuality—“Who am I to judge?”—as an Argentine bishop he tried to block the legalisation of same-sex marriages. In Mexico the Catholic church makes its objections graphically clear. In a recent editorial entitled “Why does the church oppose ‘gay marriage’?”, the archdiocese went into detail to explain why an anus is not “designed” for sexual intercourse, whereas a vagina is.

Yet the courts are giving gays the upper hand, even faster in some cases than in the United States. This is partly because marriage in Latin America is more a civil institution than a religious one. Also, democratisation across the region has produced a string of new constitutions that accentuate human—and hence gay—rights.

This enables left-wing governments to make support for homosexuality part of their social-justice agenda, whereas in their Marxist past it was considered a threat to revolutionary machismo. Cuba, for example, used to lock up homosexuals. Now gay parades are led by Mariela Castro, daughter of the president, Raúl, and sex changes are paid for by the state. Some diehards, such as Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, refuse to budge. But laws around the region increasingly target discrimination. This summer a Mexican bishop was forced to apologise for equating gay marriage with bestiality.

From an economic perspective it is a bountiful tide. The “pink peso” is behind a string of new businesses, restaurants and bars. Gay tourism is on the rise. And tolerance has a tendency to grow. In some places, the LGBT community has spread its wings to call itself LGBTTTI: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Trans-sexual, Transvestite and Intersexual (having both male and female physical characteristics).

Backing for gay rights is still largely a middle-class phenomenon. In a deeply unequal region, its champions are mostly the urban and globalised types who equate it with modernity. The young also tend to be more tolerant than their parents, Yoalli’s family notwithstanding.

As her case shows, homosexuals still meet powerful official resistance. In the poorer parts of Brazil, Mexico and elsewhere they sometimes face terrible violence. But their sexuality transcends social divisions. Middle-class though most activists are, the change in attitudes is sure to spread ever more widely.

The Economist |

Top
We use cookies to improve our website. By continuing to use this website, you are giving consent to cookies being used. More details…