There was a time when the most important developments in LGBT rights occurred in North Atlantic countries, but since the late 2000s all of the Americas, not just the United States and Canada, have begun to set trends. As we look to 2013, here are some of the trends to follow in the hemisphere's struggle for LGBT rights.
1. The disease responds to treatment
Scholars have long argued that homophobia is a curable disease, and the Americas are proving just that. With the right treatment -- exposure to LGBT people and more information -- intolerance tends to lessen. The 2012 elections in the United States provided evidence of shifting public attitudes. For the first time ever, majorities approved same-sex marriage at the ballot box in three states and elected an openly lesbian senator. In part this shift in tolerance has been a positive side effect of a renewed national discussion about LGBT rights taking place since the mid-2000s.
Similar shifts were seen in Canada in the 1990s, and now they are visible in the rest of the region, as well. The question of LGBT rights has become an obligatory discussion topic even in presidential debates. And as expected, tolerance levels are increasing. Data from AmericasBarometer show that the percentage of respondents who approve of gay candidates for public office, while still low, has increased from 32 to 42 percent between 2008 and 2012. The theme for the 2012 São Paulo Pride Parade, "homophobia has a cure," is proving to be true.
2. Transgender issues are still an issue, but less so
Not too long ago issues of gender identity were taboo, fully misunderstood and often the subject of derision even among gays and lesbians. Today this issue has moved into mainstream political discussion, with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden calling it "the civil rights issue of our time."
Argentina has become the gold standard in transgender rights. After becoming the hemisphere's second nation to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010, Argentina in 2012 approved pioneering legislation allowing individuals to change their sex at no cost and without bureaucratic red tape. The country also produced the famously gripping film XXY (2007), an eye-opening film about a young intersex person -- a sort of Latin American Boys Don't Cry. Ontario became the first Canadian province to recognize gender identity as a human right in 2012. In the United States the American Psychiatric Association removed "gender identity disorder" from the latest edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). President Obama has made several transgender appointments and has banned job discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Even airports are changing. Transportation Security Administration managers at Los Angeles International Airport now undergo mandatory transgender sensitivity training, after a former employee filed a civil rights complaint that she was fired for refusing to dress like a man and use the men's restroom.
Transgender people remain the most vulnerable group within the LGBT community, suffering from high levels of exclusion, homelessness, police exploitation, attacks and suicide. But there have been important victories in terms of visibility, the first step toward personal and public respectability. In the United States Chaz Bono's documentary Being Chaz (2011), which also features his mother Cher, was viewed by over 705,000 people when it first aired on Oprah Winfrey's television channel in 2011. In the Latino community films like Gun Hill Road (2011) are also raising awareness. Brazil hosted its first transgender beauty pageant in 2012, and Canada grabbed attention when transgender Jenna Talackova conducted a successful legal campaign to compete in Miss Universe Canada. In Venezuela Tamara Adrián, a transgender law professor, publicly presented her candidacy to the Supreme Court, and in Cuba Adela Hernández made headlines in November when she became the country's first known trans person to hold public office.
3. Building international muscle
The push for minority rights requires global muscle. While certainly no substitute for strong domestic institutions, a supportive international environment is essential for pressing governments. Latin American countries have become leaders in this regard. In March 2012 Brazil took the lead in the first United Nations resolution on LGBT rights. The initiative was supported by Europe (except for Russia), all of North and Latin America and Thailand and South Korea. It was opposed by most Muslim and many African states. Pakistan, on behalf of the Organisation for Islamic Co-operation, which represents all Muslim states at the UN, led a walkout. In what some termed the most divisive debate in the history of the UN, Latin America was on the side of LGBT rights.
And in a historical break the U.S. State Department has promoted LGBT affairs officially since 2008, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton becoming one of the most ardent supporters of the idea that "gay rights are human rights." In a 2011 directive President Obama named the effort a U.S. foreign policy priority, particularly in response to the criminalization of homosexual acts and violence directed toward the LGBT community.
Regionally, last June, in response to requests by a coalition of LGBT groups spanning the Americas, the OAS adopted resolution AG/RES. 2721 (XLII-O/12) "Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity," calling on member states to introduce measures against discrimination and human rights violations. Furthermore, it mandates that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights prepare a study on current legislation in member states restricting rights on the basis of sexual orientation. Meanwhile, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights handed down its first ruling in the matter last year, awarding a lesbian mother in Chile damages after she was denied custody of her children because of her sexual orientation.
4. See you in court
While public acceptance -- along with greater access to elected office -- may be expanding, American courts continue to be crucial for minority rights. This has been especially true in Colombia, where the constitutional court has awarded widower benefits to the partner of a deceased priest, affirmed that same-sex couples may kiss in public and ordered Congress to settle the issue of marriage equality. In December Mexico's highest tribunal, which had already required all states to recognize marriage rights granted in Mexico City, struck down Oaxaca's code recognizing marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Same-sex couples may now also marry in the hemisphere's most populous city, São Paulo, after judges legalized gay marriage in four Brazilian states last year, with more expected in the coming months. And this year the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue important rulings on marriage equality.
In short, the region is showing that court battles matter. As long as judiciaries are open-minded and independent, they can rebuke deep-seated discrimination.
5. The threats of violence, inaction and backsliding loom large
The speed at which the LGBT rights movement has progressed may carry a cost. Laws with weak public backing risk repeal, and in those countries with low levels of acceptance, talk of LGBT issues may increase anger among some, leading to little progress on LGBT rights, as has been the case in most of the Caribbean, Central America, Venezuela, Bolivia and scores of U.S. states.
Religion remains a formidable institutional foe throughout the region. Many faith-based institutions and affiliated political parties, both Protestant and Catholic, are actually hardening their stances against LGBT rights, even while public intolerance is softening. While LGBT movements have countered these foes creatively (e.g., by couching their cause within a human rights framework and forming unexpected alliances with other traditionally conservative groups, such as business), religious intolerance is perhaps the toughest challenge ahead for LGBT rights.
Public safety, too, is a daunting problem. High-profile hate-related killings in Honduras made the country a test for the Obama administration's pro-gay foreign policy. In Jamaica a YouTube video depicted security guards beating a young man caught having sex with another man in a university bathroom, in view of cheering onlookers. Two recent reports assert that the Americas accounted for 80 percent of murders of transgender individuals in 2012, while a whopping 44 percent of the world's homophobic killings occurred in Brazil alone.
The lesson from the Americas is that, despite setbacks and obstacles, positive trends seem to outweigh the negative. LGBT rights have expanded in a vast number of jurisdictions, often outstripping the most optimistic predictions. The extent to which same-sex unions are recognized in the Americas would have been unthinkable 15 years ago. Argentina, Canada, four Brazilian states, nine U.S. states, Mexico City and one Mexican state and the tiny Caribbean island of Saba have legalized marriage equality, and Ecuador, Uruguay, Colombia and smaller jurisdictions, such as the Mexican state of Coahuila, recognize civil unions. While the struggle for LGBT rights is far from over, the Americas show us that it is winnable.