When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage late last month, the country joined a number of its southern neighbors in recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry. However, despite recent progress, much of Latin America, especially the Caribbean, is still home to retrograde policies on homosexuality.
The federal district of Mexico City was the first place in the region to legalize gay marriage, doing so in 2009 — one year later, Argentina became the first country to do so. The past five years have seen rapid progress, with Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia and Ecuador all extending either marriage or some legal partnership to same-sex couples. Joining the U.S. on the 2015 roster, Costa Rica also awarded its first same-sex common law marriage in June, and Chile has voted to do so in October (PDF).
However, in numerous other countries, zero protections exist for LGBTQ individuals. In some places, for example, people can be fired from their jobs for being gay.
Additionally, homosexual acts are prohibited in a few, small-population countries. The largest such country is Jamaica, where a sodomy law carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. In nearby Barbados, such a “crime” could potentially result in a life sentence, the toughest such law in the region.
Panama lagging behind its neighbors on gay rights
One of the laggards on gay rights in the region, Panama was the last Spanish-speaking country in Latin America to remove its anti-sodomy law, doing so in 2008, in part due to the campaigning of activist Ricardo Beteta.
Beteta, who began his activism on the issue in 1996, said his group, the Association of New Men and Women of Panama, is now petitioning the national legislature on bills that would provide protection from discrimination as well as a legal partnership option, but said that religious forces are making a renewed push in Panama to forestall progress.
“There’s no separation between the state and the church,” Beteta told Latin Correspondent. “And now you have the Catholic Church and the evangelical churches getting involved in public issues.”
Beteta offered the example of the Catholic Church’s push to change Panama’s common law marriage code to prohibit same-sex unions. Other countries, such as Costa Rica, have awarded same-sex legal partnerships through common law marriage.
Beteta pointed out that Catholic norms have a political legitimacy in Panama because an article in the constitution says the majority of the population is Catholic.
While legal victories have been few and far between, Beteta said he has witnessed a tremendous transformation in Panamanian society. He recalled originally getting involved in activism in the ’90s after attending a volleyball game with gay individuals. The media covered the event, and due to the homophobia in Panama at the time, individuals were afraid of being exposed, according to Beteta.
Now, through the country’s gay pride parade, organized by Beteta’s group, attitudes in the country are shifting.
“When we started there were less than 100 people [participating],” Beteta said. “And now it’s 11 years, and now we have 2,500 people show up to the parade. And I feel that’s a big accomplishment. It allows gays and lesbians, transgender individuals, to feel free to walk on the street, and to show that they are not ashamed, and that they are not afraid, and that we are more or less organized.”