A Roadmap for Gay Marriage

A REVIEW BY OMAR G. ENCARNACIÓN 

The Politics of Gay Marriage in Latin America: Argentina, Chile, and Mexico
By Jordi Díez
New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, 302 pages

Despite its recent successes, the gay rights movement in Latin America is generally ignored in discussions of contemporary Latin American politics.  Even students of Latin American social movements have traditionally shunned the activism by gay rights organizations.  Consequently, it is not easy for scholars, and much less for the casual observer, to make sense of the patchwork of gay marriage laws emerging from Latin America in recent years.  In this first book by a single author on the politics of gay marriage in Latin America, Jordi Díez, a 2014 DRCLAS Peggy Rockefeller Visiting Scholar, offers his take on why gay marriage has met divergent receptions across the region.  As such, the book is both pathbreaking and a welcome addition to the growing scholarship on Latin American gay rights politics.

Argentina, Mexico and Chile, are at center of the analysis.  Collectively, these countries encapsulate Latin America’s varied experience with legislating gay marriage.  Argentina legalized gay marriage in 2010, by action from the national legislature, the first for a Latin American nation.  In Mexico, some states and the Federal District of Mexico City have moved forward with gay marriage laws, with the blessings from the courts, while other states have moved in the opposite direction by banning gay marriage.  Chile, at the time when Díez was finishing his book, managed to enact a same-sex civil unions law; but for years the country lagged behind other Latin American countries in legislating any kind of state recognition of same-sex relationships. 

Díez’s theoretical approach for explaining the divergence of gay marriage laws in Latin America draws heavily on two seminal schools of thought from the social movement literature.  First and foremost is “resource mobilization,” which emphasizes the organizational assets and capacities that social movements bring to their struggles. The second is “framing,” which stresses the arguments that social movements make to justify their demands, and the extent to which these arguments resonate with the public and the culture at large.  In keeping with these theoretical anchoring points, Díez argues that the key factors accounting for gay marriage divergence in Latin America are: (1) the strength of the network of ties linking activists to other groups society; (2) the access to the policy-making arena afforded by particular national political institutions; and (3) the resonance of the claims used by gay activists to demand the expansion of marriage rights to same-sex couples.  This theoretical framework is consistently and successfully applied to all three case studies.  

The analysis of Argentina compellingly shows how the contacts that gay activists made with members of the political class, the bureaucracy, the media and the human rights community were pivotal to the success of the struggle for gay marriage in Argentina in 2010.  Argentine gay activists were also very skilled in framing their demands for marriage less as a right for a particular minority than as a benefit for advancing citizenship and democracy in Argentina.  In addition, gay activists in Argentina benefited from several key features of Argentine politics, such as a discredited Catholic Church and the absence of “confessional” parties.  

In contrast, gay activists in Mexico and Chile were less socially and politically connected than their Argentine counterparts.  They also had the misfortune of having to face “veto” players such as a powerful Catholic hierarchy and Catholic-influenced political parties, and their messaging lacked the cultural and political resonance of Argentine activists.  For one thing, the claim that “gay rights are human rights” had less emotional pull in Mexico and Chile than in Argentina, because of the latter’s uniquely traumatic experience with human rights abuses under military rule. 

Despite offering an excellent roadmap of the emergence of gay marriage laws in Latin America, a great deal remains hidden in Díez’s analysis, and mainly because the analysis hews so close to the social movement literature. By and large, Díez neglects to consider the underlying social and political foundations that have anchored the rise of gay rights in Latin America—not just gay marriage, but also laws intended to eradicate anti-gay discrimination and to advance transgender equality.  Alongside the rise of a surprisingly effective gay rights movement, these foundations include social and economic modernization, the growing secularization of the public, the reformation of the Latin American constitutions and the judiciary, and the embrace of social liberalism by the Latin American Left.  These happenings do make an appearance in the book, especially early in the analysis, but they are not engaged in a manner that allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of why some countries have been more successful than others in legislating gay marriage.

Another criticism of the book is the light treatment of the issue of external influence, especially the diffusion of homosexual identities and politics flowing from the developed West to the developing South.  Yet this influence is essential for understanding not only why gay rights have erupted across Latin America in the first place, but also why a country like Argentina would leap over all others in emerging as the region’s gay rights leader.  While the book rightly recognizes the Argentine gay rights movement as the oldest in Latin America, not much is said about it being the most externally oriented in the region.  Even less is said about how Argentine activists have consistently tapped on international gay rights trends to fashion their own activism.

Argentina was the Latin America country most directly influenced by the 1969 Stonewall Riots.  This was not happenstance, but rather the deliberate outcome of the actions of a small cluster of activists (led by the writers Manuel Puig and Néstor Perlongher) who endeavored to bring to Argentina the energy and intellectual content of the riots, as embodied in New York’s Gay Liberation Front.  Indeed, Argentina’s Frente Homosexual de Liberación was the only truly viable gay liberation movement formed outside of the developed West.  The importance of this development is that Argentina, unlike the rest of Latin America, developed an early consciousness about gay rights activism.  Indeed, this consciousness allowed gay activists a historical rooting that has no peers in Latin America and probably nowhere else in the developing world.

 Another important external development of importance to the rise of gay marriage in Argentina was the return of a large number of gay exiles from Europe (France and Spain in particular) after the democratic transition in 1983.  They were pivotal in transporting from Europe to Argentina many of the strategies and tactics that guided the activism of the Comunidad Homosexual Argentina (CHA), the most important gay rights group in the country since the democratic transition.  While in Europe, Argentine gay activists such as Carlos Jáuregui (the CHAs’ first president) were exposed to the intellectual trends that foreshadowed the advent of the marriage equality movement in Western Europe and the United States, such as the legitimizing of gay rights as human rights and the need to incorporate homosexuality into the mainstream of society.

Finally, it is almost impossible to understand the success of the Argentine gay marriage campaign without accounting for the direct influence of Spain, the first overwhelmingly Catholic nation to legalize gay marriage, in 2005.  This influence went well beyond serving as inspiration for the Argentines.  At the request of local activists, Spanish gay activists traveled to Buenos Aires to train gay activists on how to craft their campaign for marriage equality and to testify to the Argentine Congress on the need to legislate gay marriage.  Spanish NGOs financed media campaigns in favor of gay marriage in Argentina modeled after those implemented in Spain.  Not surprisingly, the campaign for marriage equality in Spain and Argentina shared the same slogan: “The same rights with the same name.”

All of this said, the most disappointing thing about the book is how the overarching emphasis on political networking as a means for attaining gay civil rights, especially marriage, unintentionally strips gay rights politics in Latin America of much its liveliness, and, frankly, its grittiness.  Overlooked by the analysis of the Argentine case are some of the most confrontational aspects of the gay rights campaign, such as the shaming to which President Carlos Menem was subjected in 1991-92 for his refusal to legalize gay rights organizations (he eventually relented); the storming of the Buenos City Hall by activists in 1996 as city councilors were debating adding an anti-gay discrimination clause to the city’s constitution; and the liberal use of escraches (screeching), a pressure strategy borrowed from the human rights movement, to force approval of Buenos Aires’ same-sex civil unions ordinance (that 2002 ordinance foreshadowed the coming of same-sex marriage in 2010).  This in-your-face activism is noteworthy if only because it disrupts the mostly polite story that Diez tells in his book. 

None of these critiques detract from the overall coherence and utility of Díez’s work.  The book is a major contribution to the study of a very important and timely story in Latin American politics. Rather, my critique reveals how big the story of the advent of gay marriage in Latin America actually is, as well as the need to bring a richer set of analytical lenses and perspectives than those provided by the social movement literature to tease out the complexity of the Latin American gay rights experience.

Omar G. Encarnación is Professor and Chair of Political Studies at Bard College.  He is the author of Out in the Periphery: Latin America’s Gay Rights Revolution, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

See also: Book Talk