08/21/2012 03:49 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Chilean Paradoxes: LGBT Rights in Latin America

Over the past few years there have been important milestones advancing LGBT human rights in Latin America. Recognition of civil unions in Brazil and Uruguay, same-sex marriage in Mexico City and Argentina, laws protecting gender identity in Chile and Bolivia, and historic, progressive legislation in regard to gender identity in Argentina. These advances question old stereotypes of the region as a conservative macho culture dominated by the Roman Catholic Church.

The fight for LGBT human rights in Latin America is full of paradoxes. When Mexico City legalized same-sex marriage, only 29 percent of the city's population supported the right to adoption by same-sex partners. In Ecuador the Constitution prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation yet bans same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Gay marriage is legal on a case-by-case basis in Brazil, but transgender people continue to be targets of violent crime. In Costa Rica the president of the Legislative Assembly's Human Rights Commission expressed his belief that homosexuality is a sin that can be treated. Clearly, homophobia and transphobia are widespread in the region.

Chile: A World of Latin American Paradoxes

When the Chilean socialist president Michelle Bachelet took office in 2006, LGBT groups saw an opportunity for advancing their rights in a country with rigid cultural conservatism. But ironically, most of the debate and legislation around LGBT issues had to wait until Sebastián Piñera, Chile's first right-wing president since Pinochet, took office.

Three issues received particular attention: An anti-discrimination law, prompted by a ruling in the Karen Atala custody case, in which the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the State of Chile, and the homophobic murder of Chilean youth Daniel Zamudio; a bill for same-sex civil unions and a ban on same-sex marriage; and the announced health coverage of sex-reassignment surgeries by the country's public health plan.

A Quest for a Comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law

An anti-discrimination bill in Chile, introduced in 2005, had been languishing in Chile's Chamber of Deputies for almost seven years. It wasn't until March 2012, shortly after the brutal killing of Daniel Zamudio, that LGBT associations, along with international organizations, called for the prompt passage of the law. Putting more pressure on the government, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Karen Atala, a Chilean judge who, in 2005, had been denied custody of her children by the Supreme Court, solely because she was living in a lesbian relationship.

The Chilean Constitution acknowledges equality, but the principle of non-discrimination had not been included in any type of prohibited conducts. The bill that "establishes measures against discrimination" aimed to ban "arbitrary discrimination" and includes gender identity and sexual orientation as categories protected against discrimination.

In April 2012 a Joint Committee reviewed the bill, and although the law was "not what we wanted in every point," the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation (Movilh) declared their support. Concretely, the Joint Committee approved involving the State in actions against discrimination, giving a preventive dimension to the bill. Both houses of the government approved the bill with large margins. Movilh, Iguales Foundation, and other LGBT organizations celebrated the bill.

However, there is still criticism of the law. Some members of the board of the Iguales Foundation consider it a "hybrid of principles" already stated in the Constitution. The Organization of Transsexuals for the Dignity of Diversity (OTD) denounced the lack of concrete actions and the exclusion of affirmative action in the anti-discrimination law. A major critique is that it allows discrimination if other fundamental principles are invoked, such as academic freedom or freedom of religion.

When President Piñera signed the law on July 12, 2012, MUMS Chile, the Movement for Sexual Diversity, tweeted: "Strong and Clear, we don't have to thank or applaud politicians for a mediocre law. Let's protest!"

Civil Unions? Yes! Gay Marriage? No

The President's Bill for Civil Unions: In May 2011 president Sebastián Piñera advised Congress to pass legislation to "protect and safeguard the rights of unmarried couples, whether of the opposite or the same sex." The measure was key in Piñera's presidential campaign manifesto and caused heated debate. He acknowledged that other forms of relationships are effective and that the State is obligated to recognize, protect, and respect those partnerships.

The bill, entitled Acuerdo de Vida en Pareja (AVP), would give homosexual couples and unmarried heterosexual couples the same inheritance and certain social welfare and health-care benefits as married partners. However, many activists claim the bill maintains privileged status for heterosexual married couples. The bill is pending debate in parliament.

The Independent Democrat Union's Move to Ban Same-Sex Marriage: Mr. Piñera has been clear on the fact that his initiative does not change the concept of marriage, saying, "I deeply believe that marriage is by nature between a man and a woman." Two days after Piñera sent the bill to Congress, members of Chile's Independent Democrat Union (UDI, a conservative political party) introduced a constitutional amendment seeking to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

The amendment would add to the Chilean Constitution that "in guaranteeing and protecting the family, only one man and one woman have the right to marry." Supporters insist the amendment is necessary to soothe fears that the AVP is a prelude to the legalization of gay marriage.

Movilh's Push for Legislation: In January 2011, in an unprecedented move, Chile's Constitutional Tribunal agreed to hear a case involving three same-sex couples challenging the decision of a Civil Registry official who refused to grant a marriage license to same-sex couples and recognize a marriage celebrated outside Chile. The case is part of a push by Movilh to challenge the constitutionality of the Civil Code, which defines marriage as being between one man and one woman.

In November 2011 Chile's Constitutional Tribunal rejected the arguments as "inapplicable." The vote came down 9 to 1. Only one judge stood for a broader definition of marriage. The case was also rejected by a local court in Santiago, on the grounds of the "impossibility of gay couples to procreate" and because "homosexual conduct is a cause for divorce." Movilh took the case to the Supreme Court in December 2011 but was again turned down. The Court ruled, "Control of the constitutionality of laws belongs to the Constitutional Court. It is not feasible for this court to unravel whether Article 102 of the Civil Code conforms with constitutional norms."

In April 2012 Movilh announced that it would denounce the Chilean State to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Sex-Reassignment Surgeries and Gender Identity

In May 2012 the Health Minister of Chile, Jaime Mañalich, announced that starting in 2013, public hospitals would offer sex-reassignment surgeries covered under the country's public health plan, the Fonasa (National Health Fund).

The cost of the operations will depend on the patient's income bracket, with the poorest citizens able to get sex-reassignment surgeries for free. Benefits will include psychiatric therapy, endocrinology, and surgery for people wanting to "recover their true sexual identity," according to Mañalich. The procedures will be performed in public hospitals in Santiago, Concepción, and Valparaíso.

The announcement has sparked controversy. Members of the trans organization OTD complain that the announcement could have negative impact on the country's image of transgender people. Felipe Salaberry, a member of the UDI, criticized the announcement, arguing that there are "more urgent changes and modifications" that need to be addressed. Zuliana Araya, president of Afrodita, the Transgender Union of Valparaíso, is glad that the government is "opening its eyes" but disagrees with the inclusion of a psychologist or psychiatrist in the procedure.

There is no specific law that would allow legal name and sex reassignment for transgender people. The decision must be backed up by medical and legal documents and is left entirely up to the Tribunals; there are currently two bills in Congress that address gender identity (Proyectos de ley sobre identidad de género). The first one was introduced in 2008 by representative María Antonieta Saa, the second by senator Alejandro Navarro in 2012, aiming to allow transgender men and women to change legal name and sex without the need of sex-reassignment surgery.

The paradoxes, advances, and setbacks of LGBT human rights in Latin America are perhaps nowhere as clear as in Chile.

For additional information and resources, visit this post on the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission's blog.

Para leer este artículo en español, mira: "Paradojas Chilenas: Derechos LGBT en América Latina"