On Tuesday, May 26, Costa Rica made history. The country became the first nation in Central America, and the sixth in the Latin American region, to legalize same-sex marriage.
“Today we celebrate liberty, equality and democratic institutions. Let empathy and love…[allow] us to move forward and build a country where there is room for everyone,” affirmed President Carlos Alvarado in a tweet that same morning.
The legalization of same-sex marriage is a monumental victory for Costa Rica’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. But its significance extends far beyond its national boundaries. Latin America is one of the most progressive regions in the world when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights. However, there is still much to be done to advance the movement. Costa Rica’s achievement is a remarkable harbinger of positive change to come for the LGBTQ+ Latin American community, but it is also a realistic reminder that such change will not come effortlessly, especially for Costa Rica’s Central American neighbors.
In an interview with The Politic, Juliana Martínez—professor at American University and prominent Latin American queer studies researcher—said that the region’s great success in supporting the LGBTQ+ community has been due to a variety of factors, in particular that “the framework that has been used in [Latin America] to advance LGBTQ+ rights [has been] a constitutional framework.”
“The vast majority of changes have occurred in the context of post-dictatorship constitutions,” Martínez said. “Most Latin American countries have new constitutions. As a result of the human rights abuses experienced in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s [under dictatorships], there was a wave of democratization…and what new constitutions all had in common was a human rights background. So they seek to protect individuals.” This provided a good foundation for LGBTQ+ movements to grow.
This is true for much of Latin America, but it is especially so for many countries in South America, which have often suffered from notoriously ruthless authoritarian regimes such as that of Argentina’s Jorge Rafael Videla, Chile’s Augusto Pinochet and Uruguay’s Juan María Bordaberry. Yet—as mentioned by Martínez—a correlation can be made between the countries’ post-dictatorial legal frameworks and their current status in terms of LGBTQ+ rights. Today Chile, Argentina and Uruguay are some of the region’s leading queer rights defenders. The latter two nations have also already legalized same-sex marriage.
Central America had its own share of late twentieth century dictatorships. However, unlike in South America, the aftermath of these dictatorships did not usually result in effective reforms to its legal-political frameworks. In my home country, Nicaragua, the Somoza dynasty spent more than four decades committing a great variety of human rights abuses. The transition of power from the Somozas to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional or FSLN) through the Nicaraguan Revolution was brutal, and resulted in more than 50,000 casualties. In the following years, the FSLN focused on consolidating power and its popular support. Human rights were of little importance, and as the current dominant political force in the country, the FSLN has actually committed many violations themselves. Today, Nicaragua is still ruled by a dictator.
Costa Rica has had no modern dictatorships other than the relatively short tenure of Federico Alberto Tinoco Granados in the late 1910s. Yet its trajectory towards becoming a leading LGBTQ+ rights defender has not been easy.
Uriel Quesada, current Interim Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Loyola University New Orleans, is an expert in Central American queer studies. He is especially knowledgeable about the LGBTQ+ community in Costa Rica, his home country. In an interview with The Politic, he described the impact of the legalization as “huge,” and expressed that its success was “not a coincidence, [as it came forth] after many years of activism.”
The historic event was a product of decades’ worth of arduous campaigning and advocacy. Quesada told The Politic that “in the case of Costa Rica, modern activism began and was especially strong in the 80s, which was also around the start of the AIDS pandemic. People began demanding more protections for the LGBTQ+ community, and [the movement] continued.”
Costa Rica’s accomplishments in this area are even more extraordinary when taking into account the environment they were achieved in. The country remains a very conservative one, with strong ties to tradition and religion despite recent progressive governments. The presidency has been dominated by politicians of center-left parties such as the Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana) and the National Liberation Party (Partido Liberación Nacional) for the past 14 years. However, a poll made by the National University of Costa Rica found that six out of every ten Costa Ricans do not support same-sex marriage.
The topic of queer rights has long been polarizing for the Costa Rican population, and ideological divisions have intensified in recent years due to the growth of the country’s LGBTQ+ movement. This can be seen, for instance, in the variety of opinions reflected in the replies to President Alvarado’s celebratory tweet regarding the legalization. Though the message received a significant amount of positive responses, it also received many negative ones.
“I am not in favor of this because…[same-sex marriage]…is a sin,” one reply to the tweet said. “Read the Bible…may God forgive and have mercy on you all.” Another user stated that the decision “will have a terrible influence on children. There is no doubt that we are in a moral, spiritual, economic and social crisis.” Another commented that “Costa Rica will be filled with curses due to it recognizing same-sex marriages as something normal. Ask God for forgiveness!”
Costa Rica’s progression towards greater rights for people of all genders and sexual orientations has been tumultuous. Hostility towards queer individuals can be traced back 600 years. As a colony, the territory that is now Costa Rica was under Spanish imperial rule, and subject to its legal jurisdiction. A major precedent was established under the unified authority of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon—devout Catholics—who had no tolerance for behavior they considered to be immoral or heretical, such as sodomy and homosexuality. Through the Inquisition and several royal codes of law, such as the primera Pragmática contra la sodomía, they encouraged harsh punishments and death for those they considered sinful.
The impact of the monarchs’ legacy on the region cannot be overstated. Gabriela Arguedas Ramírez, a queer studies expert, human rights researcher and professor at the University of Costa Rica, told The Politic that “what we call Latin America today is a project of imperial political-religious expansion. It has been that way for more than five centuries. It is difficult to erase that.”
Costa Rica’s animosity towards queer people continued after independence in 1821 under strong Catholic influence, which remains to this day. Little progress was made until the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Same-sex sexual activity became legal in 1971. Many anti-discrimination laws against queer individuals were established in 1998, and same-sex civil unions were legally recognized in 2006. In 2008, President Óscar Arias even decreed a National Day Against Homophobia.
In the late 2010s, major advances took place—especially under the leadership of President Luis Guillermo Solís. On May 18, 2016, the administration made a consultation to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—the highest judicial institution of the Americas—regarding several matters relating to sexual rights and gender identity.
In a landmark decision released a year later on November 24, 2017, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights strongly rebuked discrimination, and declared that the human rights of queer individuals were protected by the American Convention on Human Rights. It ruled that transgender individuals should be allowed to change their name and image to fit their gender identity and that all homosexual individuals should have the same rights as heterosexual people, including the right to marriage. By extension, the decision also meant that all Organization of American member states—which includes all of Latin America—were compelled by law to follow the Court and eventually ensure that their domestic legislations aligned with the contents of the decision.
Martínez commented that it was “highly unlikely that most, much less all, Latin American countries would comply with the mandate” due to its complex implications, but that the momentum provided by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling was significant. Martínez added that the decision would “create a legal framework that is useful for activists, and create political pressure and leverage.”
Costa Rica acted quickly. After the ruling, progressive local activists and politicians used the landmark decision to spur the movement forward. They pushed for the government to comply with the mandate, and successfully took the issue of same-sex marriage to the national Constitutional Court, which then ruled in favor of marriage equality on November 26, 2018. Due to the controversial nature of the issue, the Court gave the country’s legislature 18 months—until May 26, 2020—to discuss any details or potential changes to the process; if there weren’t any by the deadline, same-sex marriage would automatically become legal on that date.
The order was met with much opposition—especially from conservative policymakers—who attempted to thwart the legalization in many ways such as through proposals to further delay the deadline. They failed.
Quesada expressed pride in how far Costa Rica has come in terms of queer rights. He told The Politic that he remembered attending Costa Rica’s first ever marches in support of the LGBTQ+ community years ago, which had consisted of gatherings of around 20 people in the capital’s famed Plaza de la Democracia.
In 2019, over 100,000 people attended Costa Rica’s Pride March.
Quesada added that the legalization of same-sex marriage is not the end for the Costa Rican LGBTQ+ movement, but rather, a new beginning.
“The next activism is probably going to be more about specific issues, not large ones such as same-sex marriage,” Quesada told The Politic. “Trans rights, for example. Also […] protections and rights for the elderly LGBTQ+ community, who are very vulnerable.”
Arguedas Ramírez also believed that the movement would further grow in Costa Rica after the legalization of same-sex marriage, and affirmed that going forward it was of utmost importance for activists to work on a “strategy that has to be much wider, and has to recognize the intersectionality in the Latin American LGBTQ+ community.”
“The great majority of [queer people] suffer discrimination and marginalization not just because of their sexual orientation and gender, but also because of many other reasons such as poverty, and lack of opportunities to access education and obtain employment,” Arguedas Ramírez said. “There is a confluence of forms of oppression, which depend on the country, that affect [queer people] that has to be addressed.”
Costa Rica’s legalization of same-sex marriage represents extraordinary progress. It has already had a major impact on the Latin American LGBTQ+ community. On Friday, June 12, Ecuador followed Costa Rica. Its Constitutional Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, citing the Inter-American Court of Human Rights landmark decision as a legal precedent.
Costa Rica’s respect for proper rule of law is admirable, and its historic event sets an example for the rest of Central America. However, the reality is that real change for the queer community in the region will take time to materialize. Central American society is so fragmented when it comes to LGBTQ+ issues—especially along religious and political lines—that effective dialogue, cooperation, and concrete action between different factions is difficult. This results in an ideological impasse that only delays the making of policies and decisions that could be life-changing—not to mention life-saving—for queer Central Americans.
Religion is a major point of polarization in the region. Though Latin America as a whole has been influenced by Christianity, “Central American countries [in particular] have had very powerful evangelical Christian groups who have worked in the last 30 years….and have very successfully mobilized to stall any rights and progress in the LGBTQ+ community,” said Martínez.
“The process of secularization that Europe underwent had space to develop. That process hasn’t even begun here in Central America,” Arguedas Ramírez told The Politic. “Think about this. Central America has spent more time being a predominantly Catholic region than it has spent being a region of actual republics.”
For me, Costa Rica is just a seven hour car ride away—but it could not be more different than Nicaragua, where I live. In my experience, both passive and active discrimination against those in the LGBTQ+ community is widespread, as is the case in other Central American countries. Lighthearted exchanges of homophobic and transphobic slurs are commonplace. In high school, a classmate of mine once responded with genuine confusion when he was called out for his comments. “I was just joking around,” he said.
To many Central Americans, the issues of the LGBTQ+ community are exactly as my peer had described: just a joke. The problems that affect thousands of queer individuals are often not taken seriously, and they are not prioritized.
Many simply do not believe that LGBTQ+ issues are important. It is not difficult to see why. After all, Central American countries have had their own abundance of social, economic and political issues to address. El Salvador, for instance, has been dealing with widespread gang violence for decades. Belize has been experiencing erratic environmental disasters, with some areas suffering from one of the worst droughts in the country’s history and others seeing sudden increases in flooding. Honduras’ underprepared healthcare system has been stretched thin due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, and the president recently contracted the coronavirus himself. The economies of Guatemala and Panama have suffered due to COVID-19 as well, and the latter country has seen a 21 percent drop in ship crossings through its Canal.
Faced with a variety of problems that threaten their livelihood, it is not surprising that Central Americans often view LGBTQ+ issues as insignificant or even frivolous. They are often inclined to believe that investing time and resources into resolving such problems is a waste—that these should instead be allocated to the settling of matters that impact them more directly. This idea, coupled with the potential belief that their spiritual and moral values are being repressed, often promotes resentment from the general population towards the LGBTQ+ movement.
Central American leaders must approach the resolution of queer issues with intersectionality in mind. Social problems will affect everyone, but their negative impacts will be more acutely felt by a queer person enduring the burden of multiple interconnected forms of socio-cultural oppression. Those in power should establish strong socio-economic foundations that will not only be beneficial for all citizens, but also facilitate the progression of LGBTQ+ movements and contribute to the wellbeing of vulnerable queer people.
A key action is to solidify political-legal frameworks. Nations should first possess the means to function as a healthy democracy to be able to address its domestic issues thoroughly and effectively. Central America has long suffered from political problems such as high levels of corruption, electoral fraud and money laundering. This obstructs a government’s ability to operate well. In such environments, individuals also do not have access to many basic human rights and civil liberties, which hinders large-scale activism and societal change. Without democratic elements such as proper elections, freedom of expression and freedom of press, opportunities for oppression can become plentiful, and opportunities to oppose it can become scarce.
“We need to strengthen our democracies,” Martínez said. “In Latin America, as in the United States, democracy is under threat. We are seeing a rise in new authoritarian governments, from both the right and the left, which align themselves with religious communities to push back against human rights, especially those of women and the LGBTQ+ community.”
Whether it is through civil society—perhaps one backed by foreign non-governmental support—or institutional reforms, making sure democracy flourishes should be a top priority for a country. This will firmly establish a system of government optimal for enforcement of rule of law, as well as for protection of citizens’ rights and freedoms. In turn, this would facilitate judicial processes, changes to laws and challenges to constitutional courts. It would also allow for greater dialogue and unified action.
A solid political-legal framework would be supported by other components as well. For instance, it would include a robust, well-funded education system that would not only contribute to poverty alleviation and increased social mobility, but also to the destigmatization of LGBTQ+ issues. The spread of knowledge regarding the queer community, as promoted by school curricula, would help normalize sexual diversity and dispel stereotypes. There would also have to be a more distinctive separation between the church and state. These two important areas of Central American society should provide mutual support, but not influence or interfere with each other. Government actions should be impulsed by rationale and citizens’ best interest in mind rather than bias, partisan affiliation or personal opinion.
Certainly, constructing these Central American political-legal frameworks is easier said than done—especially since they would vary depending on each country’s unique situation regarding LGBTQ+ rights. Yet taking gradual steps to starting this long process would be helpful in providing comprehensive societal progress in the long-term. Institutional reforms and legal victories are important mediums to advance LGBTQ+ rights, but without complementary cultural changes, such activism will only continue to exacerbate pre-existing societal divides.
Central Americans should be patient with advancing LGBTQ+ rights, as there are many obstacles in the way of doing so, but they must not become complacent. Costa Rica’s legalization of same-sex marriage is a wonderful achievement, but it is not enough. There is still much left to do—not just in the country, but throughout the region. True momentous change will be achieved through grit, optimism, innovation and relentless effort. It will take time, but it will have been worth it. Central America can, and must, continue to do better to ensure that individuals of all backgrounds are able to reach their full potential.
There is no denying it: LGBTQ+ rights are human rights. It is imperative that all of Central America—not just parts of it—begin to treat, protect and enforce them as such.