Eighteen years on – the gay rights movement in Chile

(This article is now available in Spanish)

Celebrations of the 2009 Gay Pride event in Santiago came to their peak in Plaza de Armas on Saturday June 27 as around 10,000 attendees enjoyed six hours of spectacular entertainment including live music, dance acts and comedy routines.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Iván Núñez

Gay Pride events occur all over the world on the last weekend of June in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots in New York City on June 27, 1969. On that day police raided the Stonewall Inn gay bar in Greenwich Village, provoking the gay and lesbian community to fight back and resulting in five days of protests and riots. From those violent beginnings grew the gay rights movement as we know it today.

Chile’s leading gay rights group, the Movement for Homosexual Liberation and Integration (MOVILH), wasn't launched until 1991 when they began their work for the recognition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) rights. MOVILH centralized the movement in Chile and it is only since then that the gay rights movement has made itself heard, but there is still a long way to go before the LGBT community achieves legal and social equality.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Iván Núñez

According to Juan Hernández, secretary general of MOVILH, the group began by promoting knowledge about LGBT issues and denouncing prejudice. "Over the years, the objectives were extended towards the equality of rights on all planes; social, legal, cultural, economic and political; within this framework the fight for equality goes on," he told Revolver. Homosexual acts were decriminalized in 1998 by a modification to Chile's penal code article 365. However, the age of consent for homosexuals remains higher at 18 than the heterosexual age of consent - 14 with some restrictions.

Traditionally a conservative Christian country, Chile's advances towards equality under the law are balanced by indications of an institutional homophobia that remains a long way from being erased. One example is the high-profile case in 2004 of mother and judge Karen Atala Riffo who was denied custody of her children by the Supreme Court of Chile because of her sexual orientation. The State ruled that the "conduct of the mother, who opted to cohabit with a partner of the same sex, with whom she proposed to raise her daughters, was deemed inadvisable for the girls’ upbringing and a risk to their development in the current context of Chilean society." Her case, which she brought to the attention of international human rights organizations, is pending before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.

Hernández stated that "religious influence, especially of the Catholic Church and Opus Dei, is historical in our country and persists even now in perceptions of many areas of sexuality - one of those being homosexuality.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Iván Núñez

It is this religion that accuses the LGTB population of being sinful; maintaining that the only way to be "saved" is by remaining celibate." He also attributes to religious pressure the delay in passing the Anti-Discrimination Law that has been in Congress since 2005.

However, MOVILH believes that the negative influence of religious groups on social beliefs is diminishing. "The Catholic Church and Opus Dei are becoming less influential on society in regards to views about sexual minorities. According to diverse surveys the majority of Chileans do not think that homosexuality is a sin," said Hernández.

A recent Ipsos poll told a different story – 65.2 percent of the 1008 Chilean adults interviewed between March and April 2009 for the report said that they are against same-sex marriage, and 72.5 percent would not allow same-sex couples to adopt. All possible candidates for Chile's upcoming presidential election have been open to discussion on LGBT issues. "All have been in favor of civil unions but the three possible candidates who lead the polls, Frei, Piñera and Enríquez-Ominami, all reject adoption by LGBT couples," said Hernández. "They are only meeting us half-way."

"It is the State that are getting left behind. It is the same as in the case of divorce laws (divorce was only made legal in Chile in 2004) – all the country wanted it to be legalized, but the State did not listen to national feeling. Of course we have had important legal and political victories such as legalization of homosexual relations between adults as well as guarantees of equality in education, health, work and housing, to mention a few of our campaigns, but it is still true that the best advances have occurred in society."

Santiago Chile
Photo by Iván Núñez

The future of LGBT rights in Chile is hopeful, explained Hernández. "[The discrepancy in age of consent] is a violation of human rights and it is in that sense that we have hope that it will change in the future. We are working with much force towards change thanks to the endorsement of the Embassy of Holland."

"We will continue to fight legally to correct cases of discrimination that affect the LGBT population. We will continue working so that the law against discrimination is approved. We will do the same with the civil union law that we have already drawn up. Education plays a crucial role, because we are convinced that when more is said about sexuality and human rights in the classrooms it will reduce discrimination. To this end we have created an educative manual on sexuality and gender that we have distributed in schools of the Metropolitan Region."

MOVILH are currently involved in talks with each of the possible presidential candidates before they give their full support to one of their campaigns, and their decision may turn out to make a considerable difference to the outcome of the election. A majority of the 10,000 attendees at Gay Pride were young people, a group that has been targeted by campaigners as possible floating voters and, if they follow MOVILH to the ballot box, could potentially decide Chile's next president.


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