Gay Rights Gain Ground Around Globe

After eight years together, Gilberto Aranda and Mauricio List walked into a wedding chapel in the Mexico City neighborhood of Coyoacán last April and tied the knot in front of 30 friends and relatives. Aranda's disapproving father was not invited to the springtime nuptials. For the newlyweds, the ceremony marked the fruit of the gay-rights movement's long struggle to gain recognition in Mexico. The capital city had legalized gay civil unions only the month before. "After all the years of marches and protests," says Aranda, 50, a state-government official, "a sea change was coming."

The sea change spreads beyond Mexico City, a cosmopolitan capital that is home to a thriving community of artists and intellectuals.

The growing maturity of the gay-rights movement in the West is having a marked effect on the developing world. In the United States, the Republican Party is in trouble in part because it has made a fetish of its opposition to gay marriage. At least some gays in big cities like New York question why they are still holding "pride" parades, as if they were still a closeted minority and not part of the Manhattan mainstream. Since 2001, Western European countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain have gone even farther than the United States, placing gay and lesbian partners on the same legal footing as their heterosexual counterparts. And now, the major developing powers of Asia, Latin America and Africa are following the liberal road—sometimes imitating Western models, sometimes not—but in all cases setting precedents that could spread to the remaining outposts of official homophobia.

In Mexico, the declining clout and prestige of the Roman Catholic Church have emboldened gay-rights activists and their allies in state legislatures and city councils to pass new laws legalizing same-sex civil unions, starting with Mexico City in November. The rising influence of tolerant Western pop culture has encouraged gay men and lesbians to proclaim their sexuality in gay-pride marches like the one in the Brazilian city of São Paulo in June, which drew 3 million participants, according the event's organizers. It was the largest ever in Brazil.

Western models also helped inspire South Africa to legalize civil unions in November 2006, thus becoming the first country in the developing world to do so. In China, the trend goes back to the climate of economic reform that took hold in the 1980s, ending the persecution of the era of Mao Zedong, who considered homosexuals products of the "moldering lifestyle of capitalism."

Among left-wing movements in many developing countries, globalization is a favorite scapegoat for all of the planet's assorted ills. But even those who resist the West's basically conservative free-market economic orthodoxy are quick to acknowledge the social liberalism—including respect for the rights of women and minorities of all kinds—that is the West's main cultural and legal export. "I think it helped that Spain and other parts of Europe had passed similar laws," says longtime Mexican gay-rights activist Alejandro Brito. "These types of laws are becoming more about human rights than gay issues."

Key people have hastened the trend in some countries. Some activists single out a few political celebrities for de-stigmatizing their cause, including Nelson Mandela, who readily embraced British actor Sir Ian McKellen's suggestion that he support a ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual preference in South Africa's first post-apartheid constitution, and former prime minister Tony Blair, whose government was the first to recognize civil partnerships between same-sex couples. They also point to activist judges in Brazil, South Africa and the European Court of Human Rights, who have handed down landmark rulings that unilaterally granted gay, lesbian and transgender communities new rights. These include a judicial order that gays be admitted into the armed forces of European Union member states.

THE BIGGEST AND PERHAPS most surprising change is in Latin America, the original home of machismo. In 2002, the Buenos Aires City Council approved Latin America's first-ever gay-civil-union ordinance, and same-gender unions are the law of the land in four Brazilian states today. Last year an openly homosexual fashion designer was elected to Brazil's National Congress with nearly a half a million votes. In August a federal-court judge in the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul broke new legal ground when he ordered the national-health-care system to subsidize the cost of sex-change operations in public hospitals, thereby putting sexual "reassignment" on par with heart surgery, organ transplants and AIDS treatment as medical procedures worthy of taxpayer support.

By the year-end, Colombia could become the first country in Latin America to grant gay and lesbian couples full rights to health insurance, inheritance and social-security benefits. A bill containing those reforms is working its way through the National Congress at present. And even Cuba has turned a corner. In the 1960s and early 1970s homosexuals in Cuba were blacklisted or even banished to forced-labor camps along with Jehovah's Witnesses, Catholic priests and other so-called social misfits. HIV patients were locked away in sanitariums as recently as 1993. Several Cuban cities now host gay and lesbian film festivals. The hit TV program on the island's state-run airwaves last year was "The Hidden Side of the Moon," a soap opera about a married man who falls in love with a man and later tests positive for HIV.

The push for "more modern ways of thinking" about minorities, feminists and homosexuals has roots that go back to the political ferment that shook the region in the late 1960s and 1970s, says Braulio Peralta, author of a 2006 book on gay rights in Mexico, "The Names of Rainbow." But it has gained in recent years, due in part to troubles in the Roman Catholic Church, which includes eight out of 10 Mexicans and long stood opposed to any attempt to redefine marriage laws. Last November, the Mexico City Legislature took up the civil-union law just as the country's top cardinal, Norberto Rivera Carrera, was facing charges that he had sheltered a Mexican priest accused of sexually abusing children in California. The prelate chose to stay under the radar as the vote loomed. "The Catholic Church was facing a credibility crisis," says longtime Mexico City-based gay-rights activist Brito. "So many of its leaders including Rivera knew that if they fiercely opposed the gay-union law, the news media would eat them alive."

The change in attitudes is most vivid in the sparsely populated border state of Coahuila, an unlikely setting for blazing trails on gay rights. The left-wing political party that rules the national capital has made few inroads here. Yet soon after the state's young governor, Humberto Moreira Valdés, was elected in 2006, he backed a civil-union bill modeled on France's pacts of civil solidarity, and in the state capital of Saltillo the progressive Catholic bishop added his support. The 62-year-old prelate, Raul Vera, says he was comfortable doing so in part because the bill stopped short of calling for same-sex marriage. "As the church I said we could not assume the position of homophobes," he says. "We cannot marginalize gays and lesbians. We cannot leave them unprotected."

That seems to be the prevailing consensus in South Africa's ruling party. The constitution adopted by South Africa after the African National Congress (ANC) took power in 1994 was the world's first political charter to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In November 2006, the national Parliament overwhelmingly approved a civil-union bill after the country's constitutional court called for amendments to a 44-year-old marriage law that denied gay and lesbian couples the legal right to wed. In pushing for approval of the Civil Union Act, the ruling ANC shrugged off both conservative opposition parties and religious leaders, some of whom accused the government of imposing the morality of a "radical homosexual minority" on South Africans. President Thabo Mbeki had been blasted by gay rights activists in the past for trying to downplay his country's raging HIV/AIDS epidemic, but on the issue of same-sex civil unions his government stood firm.

The sweeping terms of the 2006 Civil Union Act placed South Africa in a select club of nations that have enacted similar laws and that, until last year, included only Canada, Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands. But there are glimmers of change in other nations. China decriminalized sodomy a decade ago and removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 2001. Police broke up a gay and lesbian festival in Beijing in 2005 but took no action last February against an unauthorized rally in support of legalizing gay marriage. The Chinese Communist Party has established gay task forces in all provincial capitals to promote HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. And in April a Web site launched a weekly hour-long online program called Connecting Homosexuals with an openly gay host. It is the first show in China to focus entirely on gay issues.

Tolerance, however, by no means spans the globe. Homosexuality remains taboo throughout the greater Middle East. In most of the Far East, laws permitting gay and lesbian civil unions are many years if not decades away. In Latin America, universal acceptance of homosexuality is a long way off. Jamaica is a hotbed of homophobia. Even in Mexico, the first couple to take advantage of Coahuila's new civil-union statute were fired from their jobs as sales clerks after their boss realized they were lesbians. The new Mexico City law grants same-gender civil unions property and inheritance rights, but not the right to adopt children.

Even Mexican gays who still struggle against daily bias see signs of improvement, however. In 2003 José Luis Ramírez landed work as a buyer at the Mexico City headquarters of a leading department-store chain, and things were going swimmingly until he brought his boyfriend to a company-hosted dinner with clients. "My boss's face just dropped," recalls Ramírez. Ramírez was subsequently denied promotions and left the company last year. But sexuality "isn't an issue" with his current employer, a new household-furnishings retailer.

Tolerance is now the majority, at least among the young. A 2005 poll by the Mitofsky market-research firm found that 50 percent of all Mexicans between the ages of 18 and 29 supported proposals to allow gay marriage. Karla Lopez met Karina Almaguer on the assembly line of a Matamoros auto-stereo factory. The two became the first Mexican couple to marry under the civil-union bill; Lopez, now 30, is a mother of three. She urges more gays and lesbians to follow her example and come out publicly. "I felt strange at first because people would judge us and look at us from head to toe," she says. "But I now feel more secure and at ease." If more political leaders, clergymen and judges act to legitimize folks like Karla Lopez, the new mood of tolerance will surely proliferate across the planet in her lifetime.

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