James Stranko, Advisor to the Clinton Global Initiative and author of Avenida America on LBGT Rights in the Americas
Back then, he was just a bishop on the bus. But he was a nervous bishop on the bus.
Argentina was on the brink of a comprehensive marriage equality bill—the first of its kind in Latin America—and this unsettled the Buenos Aires archbishop. The year was 2010, and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio found himself caught between a rapidly-changing Buenos Aires and a deeply traditional Vatican. The bishop spent frantic nights debating how to reconcile disapproval from Rome with his increasingly indifferent flock.
Emerging from his own internal conclave, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope, offered his own half-way solution; an uncomfortable combination of Jesuit, compassionate tolerance and the tin-ear of an out of touch church. He quietly advocated for Cristina Fernández’s government to advance civil unions in lieu of full marriage equality.
Cardinal Bergoglio lost the battle, and Argentina approved a same-sex marriage bill later that year. But for his troubles, he got a clear picture of the writing on the wall: Latin America—deeply Catholic and historically conservative—had emerged at the forefront of marriage equality, anti-discrimination protection, and cultural acceptance for LGBT individuals in the developing world.
From Argentina, which has the world’s most comprehensive laws protecting transgender individuals, to Mexico, whose Supreme Court beat the United States to the punch in declaring same-sex marriages performed in one state valid throughout the country, to Colombia’s sweeping anti-discrimination laws, much of the region has quickly progressed towards greater LGBT acceptance and equality.
Hecha la ley, hecha la trampa
As is all too common in Latin America, broad chasms still separate the letter of the law and its enforcement, and vast social and economic differences between urban and rural, and rich and poor Latin America are important roadblocks. Finally, just because Cardinal Bergoglio could not sway public policy does not mean he could not sway his followers, and the laissez-faire attitudes one finds in the tonier quarters of Buenos Aires often stop on the other side of the tracks.
Latinobarómetro, the leading non-profit social research organization in Latin America, last conducted a survey on perceptions of homosexuality in the region in 2009. While the results may have moved marginally in the last four years, that survey found a lukewarm LGBT reception. One question asked “On a Scale of one to ten, how justifiable is homosexuality?” In nearly all surveyed populations, the median fell below five. The challenge of matching legal victories with public opinion victories remains unmet.
Numbers tell an incomplete story
As many global observers of LGBT rights may expect, acceptance in Latin America directly correlates with education levels, and the degree of religious dedication. Broadly speaking, those with less of the former and more of the latter hold less tolerant views, while those with more education and less frequent religious attendance hold more tolerant views.
The influence of religious affiliation is debatable, though clear trends show that protestant evangelical Latin Americans hold more hostile views than their Catholic, Jewish or non-religious countrymen. Most interestingly, those practicing African-derived religions register acceptance levels near those of atheists and agnostics—perhaps a nod to anecdotal evidence that attitudes towards homosexuality were mainly the product of European legal and religious structures.
A Regional Perspective
Outside of traditionally defined Latin America (Mexico, Central America, South America, along with the Dominican Republic and Cuba), conditions are rather different. Gaps are most evident in the former British colonies, mainly in the Caribbean, where LGBT individuals are routinely subject to harassment by both private individuals and their government. From Jamaica to Belize to Guyana, ‘buggery’ laws passed down from the colonial governments have fostered broad social disapproval.
While some of the Caribbean countries have begun to revisit laws on the matter, social views remain intransigent and discrimination can turn deadly. In Jamaica alone, hundreds of violent anti-gay attacks have occurred in the last several years, including the strangling death of Britain’s consul to Montego Bay in 2009. Beyond the attacks, gays and lesbians in the Caribbean are subject to broad discrimination and exclusion, both from employers job and family members.
And serious differences permeate the region
The proliferation of evangelical churches, many funded and run by American organizations, are one important driver of homophobia in the Caribbean. Similarly, as reflected in Latinobarómetro’s statistics, there is a wide gap between the compassionate, condemning stance of the Catholic Church and the zealous conversion techniques of many Christian fundamentalist churches.
As has occurred in Argentina and Uruguay, among Latin America’s most Catholic affiliated but least religiously active countries, the church’s teachings have slowly fallen out of step with the opinion of mainstream Catholics. Meanwhile, those who have chosen more devout paths have left Roman Catholicism for more conservative religions, opening up an important gap that implies less of an growing denominational divide and more of a divide between evangelical churchgoers and “cultural Catholics”.
At the same time, Argentina and Uruguay lead the region in educational performance and attainment, two crucial variables that influence opinion as tracked in the Latinobarómetro survey.
The chart above shows their exceptional characteristics in the region that ultimately led them to be pioneers on same-sex marriage. The combination of educational attainment, income, and secularity makes a difference, and with few exceptions (like the Dominican Republic), same-sex marriage support by country closely tracks income per capita.
Now that Latin America’s governments are awash in increased tax revenue from commodity sales and taxation from growing economies, they are investing in education, modernizing their societies at a rate unseen in the region in many decades—a spending spree that is leading to long term, perhaps incremental, transformation.
In many less accepting countries and sub-groups within more tolerant countries, much remains to be done to promote societal acceptance alongside legal protections. But just as Cardinal Bergoglio debated how to handle his Church’s losing battle with the Argentine Congress, he grappled with the same cold calculus that many LGBT rights advocates and observers see. He understood that Latin Americans often become less religious as they become more educated, and that as they become more educated they become less tolerant of intolerance.
Making the bold step to advocate for civil unions within a hostile Church, he tried to navigate the unwavering tide of progress sweeping the region.
Maybe popes are infallible after all.
James Stranko advise the Clinton Global Initiative on Latin America and is the Editor-in-Chief of Avenida America. Follow him on twitter @extranjero