By Alan Gomez
As news of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision Monday to allow gay marriages to proceed in up to 30 states filtered down to Latin America this week, Danilo Perez reacted with a question: What took so long?
"You're telling me that we've been more progressive and liberal than the United States and Europe?" asked Perez, 70, an actor in Uruguay's capital city who's looking forward to marrying his partner of 45 years now that the country has approved same-sex marriage. "That's very surprising."
I'm spending some time in Latin America to learn about the social changes that have been taking place here in recent years. Countries including Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina and some states in Mexico have approved same-sex marriage. Others, like Colombia and Ecuador, allow civil unions.
So it's been a bit surprising to many here to see the long and difficult road that gay rights advocates in the U.S. have traveled to get to even this tenuous point.
To them, Latin America has always been the ultra-religious, hyper-conservative half of the hemisphere, and America, the land of hippies and free love. Growing up in Miami, which is pretty much the northern tip of Latin America, I can understand why they think that way.
Gay marriage wasn't even a topic of discussion in Miami when I was growing up there in the 1980s. Or in the 1990s. Or really, much of the 2000s. I saw friends struggle telling their Hispanic parents that they were gay. With so much historic animosity toward homosexuality and such intense religious fervor in that community, simply raising the issue around Hispanics usually led to a heated, one-sided argument.
It was only when I went to college in the liberal bastion of Ann Arbor, Mich., that I was surrounded by a resounding chorus of voices supporting gay marriage. I had never been around so many people who so widely accepted the full spectrum of gay rights.
Many in Latin America view the U.S. through that more liberalized lens. But the people I've met down here understand as I do that different parts of the U.S., much like different countries in Latin America, foster varying views on this contentious issue.
"If I look at the 20 states where gay marriage remains illegal, the majority of them are Republican, right?" said Gustavo Robaina, a 31-year-old who helped lead the fight for gay marriage in Uruguay. "It has to do with the cultural and moral base of each country, or each state. It's all part of the same process for us."
Robaina, a member of a group called "Proderechos," loosely translated to "Pro-rights," said that while gay marriage campaigns have prevailed in some Latin American countries, they face incredibly long odds in others. Chile, for example, has a right-leaning government as does native Uruguay, but Chileans aren't even discussing gay marriages while his country implemented them last year.
Central America is even further away. Only Mexico allows some gay marriages, and Panama didn't even pass a law eliminating penalties for same-sex activity until 2008.
But Robaina and others in Uruguay see Latin America and the United States going down similar paths toward gay marriage — rocky, agonizing, but ultimately successful.
"The United States recognizes liberty as a founding principle," said Robaina, who holds a master's degree in public policy and now plans social welfare programs in Uruguay. "So this (decision by the Supreme Court) is part of that process. It reaffirms those guarantees.
"And we feel we're convincing other countries that they at least have to have this discussion."
Credit: USA Today, www.usatoday.com