In March, 24-year-old store clerk and gay activist Daniel Zamudio was attacked in a public park in Santiago, Chile, beaten intermittently for hours, carved with swastikas, and left for dead. He finally got to a hospital, struggled for three weeks, and then died.
Observers are calling him the Chilean Matthew Shepard, because the brutal murder has launched a national discussion about LGBT rights. An antidiscrimination law that has been languishing for seven years is even speeding through the National Congress despite conservative lawmakers warning it will lead to same-sex marriage, among other horrors.
On Easter Sunday, the Nobel prize-winning writer, Mario Vargas Llosa, spoke out in an op-ed called “Hunting Gays.” He did more than the usual handwringing denunciation of violence; he published an indictment of all Latin America, whose countries, “without a single exception,” he wrote, repress, persecute, and marginalize queers “with the open and massively enthusiastic support of the general public.”
He went so far as to say the murder of Daniel Zamudio was not just a random attack by four neo-Nazi wannabes, but the expression of “a culture that had the time-honored tradition of presenting lesbians and gay men as sick or depraved creatures that should be kept at a preventatively safe distance from normal people because they corrupt the healthy social body, inciting it towards sin, and to moral and physical degradation…
“This idea of homosexuality is taught in schools, is transmitted in the heart of families, is preached from pulpits, disseminated in every means of communication, appears in public discourses, in radio and television programs, and in plays where ‘faggots’ and ‘dykes’ are always grotesque characters, out of place, ridiculous, and dangerous, altogether worthy of the disgust and repulsion of decent, ordinary, normal people. The Gay is always “the Other,” the one that negates and frightens us, but also fascinates, like the gaze of the cobra that freezes the innocent bird.”
He went on to talk about how anti-LGBT violence was common in the entire region, including his own homeland of Peru, where on average one LGBT person is killed per week. And because the political left keeps harping on the swastika angle, he emphasized that homophobia isn’t just a problem of the conservative right or religious institutions. In the 1980s, the two armed movements that wanted to establish communism in Peru systematically executed homosexuals in every town they captured, just like the Spanish Inquisition.
He also, importantly, called homophobia and machismo “two sides of the same coin.” And said they have to be attacked simultaneously.
Vargas Llosa is a respected public intellectual, and this op-ed published in Spain’s el País is almost as important for queers worldwide, especially in Latin America, as Hillary Clinton’s recent speech in Geneva declaring that LGBT rights are human rights. He didn’t mince words or come up with excuses. He put the blame where it belongs — on culture, which he said should be changed even if it is like moving mountains.
Vargas Llosa’s op-ed comes a couple of weeks after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Chile’s 2004 Supreme Court decision to separate a lesbian mother from her three daughters was in violation of the American Convention on Human Rights, which assured her right to equality and non-discrimination. It was the first time the court has ruled on a case of discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the Chilean government has agreed to abide by the decision.
The court affirmed that “sexual orientation and gender identity are protected categories in the American Convention under the phrase ‘other social condition’ established in article 1.1,” and that legal decisions can “diminish or restrict, in no way, a person’s rights because of their sexual orientation.”
The court also found the Chilean government, through its Supreme Court ruling, “internationally responsible” for violating other principles found in the Convention, including the right to privacy, the protection of family, and the right of children to be heard.
The ruling stemmed from a 2002 custody battle between Judge Karen Atala and her ex-husband, Jaime López Allende, that got increasingly bitter after she began living with her girlfriend. After two rulings in her favor, the Supreme Court of Chile intervened and gave custody of their three children to López Allende, arguing that because Atala was a lesbian, the children were in a “situation of risk”… blah, blah, blah.
Although the ruling will not automatically return custody to Atala, it is definitely a forward step for the whole continent. The Vargas Llosa piece is a reminder, though, that legal equality won’t solve all our problems as long as our cultures nurture hate and disgust toward LGBT people. As long as we comprise only a handful in every hundred, LGBT people, as “The Other,” are easily subjected to the mainstream’s perverse fascination and fear.