The lower chamber of Uruguay’s legislature passed a bill legalizing gay marriage on December 12 that is expected to sail through the Senate. The law, which polls show is supported by a majority of Uruguayans, comes just two months after the country legalized abortion. Even for Uruguay, long seen as among Latin America’s most progressive and democratic countries, these measures represent a major shift in social attitudes.
Writing in the Journal of Democracy, Bard College political scientist Omar Encarnación argues that the 2005 legalization of gay marriage by Spain’s socialist government was a model for activists and legislators across Latin America. Transnational networks with ties in these cities have led the charge, using human rights language and gaining support from human rights organizations. Evidence in support of his argument is growing: the city of Buenos Aires and later all of Argentina legalized gay marriage in 2002 and 2010 respectively, as did Mexico City, in 2012. Where legislatures have not acted because of opposition from religious or other groups, activists have appealed to courts, earning recognition of important civil rights for gay couples in Brazil and Colombia. Progress in the ALBA countries, Chile, and Central America has been more limited still. Honduras banned gay marriage in 2005. Discrimination, both legal and de facto, remains an issue.
The changes in Uruguay and elsewhere indicate the need for an updated map of Latin America that reflects widely differing approaches to social issues. Secularism is an emergent force in global metropolises such as Mexico City, Buenos Aires, and São Paulo, and the Catholic Church’s dominant role in the region’s social policy and politics has diminished considerably. But the decline in the Catholic Church’s power to block gay rights does not mean a continued shift in social norms is inevitable. Evangelical faiths have exploded in parts of the continent, many of them even more conservative than the Catholic Church in opposing gay rights. Moreover, in countries that lack the strong transnational human rights networks of Argentina and Colombia, activists have fewer tools at their disposal.