Argentina’s radical gay rights movement
It shows what the U.S. could be doing better
At first glance, the gay rights movement in Argentina looks oddly familiar to an American. In the early 1970s, gays and lesbians began forming political organizations, advocating for other queers to come out of the closet, and demanding equal rights and an end to discrimination. Police repression at gay bars in the nation’s largest city lead to further politicization, as did an out lesbian appearing on television. Queers organized pride protests and parades, satellite organizations sprung up in less populated areas, and by 2009 gay marriage became the movement’s biggest issue.
What happened next might not sound as familiar. Just two years after gay marriage became legal in Argentina, the Law of Gender Equality was passed. Among other things, the law de-pathologizes trans identity, removing transphobic medical clearance requirements to change gender on their legal documents, and increasing access to gender affirming treatments through the public health system. If passing gay marriage in a heavily Catholic country — with the archbishop of Buenos Aires threatening to wage “God’s war” in opposition — seems difficult, then passing one of the world’s most progressive laws for trans rights would seem an impossible accomplishment.
Argentina’s gay rights movement is distinct from our own, and demonstrates that the same law can resonate differently depending on how it is situated in a larger political movement. Even as a vocal opponent of gay marriage in the US, it’s apparent to me that even if the change directly wrought by gay marriage is neutral at best, regressive at worst, the political logic behind it made it a justifiable and perhaps brilliant first step.
The most powerful organization is a federation of local groups of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and trans folks from across the economic spectrum, who have committed to supporting social and cultural changes that affect all or part of the coalition. In contrast, the mainstream American gay rights movement, has missed the potential for long-term solidarity in this sort of campaign, instead burning bridges and insisting that marriage itself is the ultimate goal.
A key difference lies in how the campaigns for gay marriage have been framed. In the states, visitation, property and parenting rights are always used as the standard against which the rights of gay people are measured. This framework accepts as given the monogamous, nuclear family model, no longer the norm even among straight couples. The American movement makes a sterile appeal to legal equality under the state and federal constitutions, which amounts to little more than a gutless cry for inclusion in broken institutions.
Argentina’s campaign for matrimonio igualitario didn’t rely on these kinds of comparisons, but instead asserted that gay Argentines are entitled to basic human rights. Unlike the US, “human rights” in Argentina does not recall distant conflicts, but connects to a domestic legacy marked by cycles of democracy and violence. It’s a legal demand to be certain, but it carries additional moral resonance.
From 1976-1983, Some 30,000 Argentineans were “disappeared” by the governing junta, many tortured and killed in a network of secret prisons, and untold others thrown out of airplanes during infamous death flights. Heavily targeted were intellectuals, dissidents, leftists, journalists, and of course, queers. According to Stephen Brown’s research, some 400 desaparecidos were gay.
After restoration of democracy in 1983, political organizations and other aspects of free civic life re-emerged with new vigor and high expectations, demanding a renewed respect for human rights. The call united Argentines from across the fragmented political spectrum, giving common cause to women’s groups, labor unions, political parties, and civic organizations. Although the intervening 30 years have taken their course on broad collaboration, the human rights discourse continues to build bridges on the Left, as it provides a larger theoretical and historical framework within which to situate the rights of queer citizens.
Even in the very conservative province of Salta, where I live, gay rights organizations use human rights terms to put their demands in sympathetic relief. An example: the gay rights organization La Ragone is named for former governor Miguel Ragone, who in 1976 became the first provincial governor to be “disappeared” by the rising military powers. When his gay grandson created a nonprofit to advance gay rights in Salta, he drew on the governor’s legacy and the human rights discourse to connect gay rights to the right of justice for all.
The gay rights movement in Argentina is also strengthened by social connections forged within the organized labor movement. Although union membership is declining, it remains around three times higher than that of the United States, and is constitutionally protected. The existence of powerful (if flawed) worker organizations provides a basis for coordination across left constituencies because members know each other.
Similarly, the existence of socialist parties including the Socialist Party (PS) and Socialist Workers Movement (MST), albeit with marginal electoral presence, provides critical infrastructure for building national momentum for legislative reform. The first LGBT political organization in Salta, Asociación en Lucha por la Diversidad Sexual en Salta (ALuDis) struggled in isolation until 2008, when connections in the Socialist Party brought them into the newly formed Argentine LGBT Federation. Indeed, the first president of FALGBT, Esteban Paolón, who later ran the nation’s first Secretaria de la Diversidad Sexual in the city of Rosario, was an activist in the PS, and knew ALuDis members through the party. When the fledgling NGO had no meeting space, they used the Socialist Party headquarters in Salta.
Although politics are highly centralized in Buenos Aires, the Federation attempts to include the needs of all queers in its agenda (with questionable success). On its formation in 2006, the Federation held a meeting to set a legislative agenda. Those gathered agreed that gay marriage should be the first step, but committed to focusing on issues affecting trans Argentines second. They reasoned that gay marriage was a bigger fight, and would gain queer Argentines the visibility they needed in order to easily pass administrative changes later.
Whether or not we agree with the rationale, it worked, and it could work in the states if not for rampant transphobia and short-sightedness. Over and over again the Human Rights Campaign and other Gay, Inc. nonprofits have sold out the trans community in order to make small political gains. In fights over ENDA, and on the steps of the Supreme Court, gay marriage proponents have ignored the needs of trans communities, queer communities of color, and queers living in poverty. Gay marriage in the United States is treated as an end in itself, and burning bridges between queer constituencies in the process has had few repercussions.
Right now, the Argentine movement is pressuring their Labor Ministry to create special job training programs for gay and trans Argentineans, in recognition of the increased difficulty queers face in hiring. Just this week, the Federation and Argentinean Trans Association also announced a new citizenship campaign to update the voter rolls so that improper gender designation doesn’t prevent any trans people from voting in the 2015 national elections.
Some queer activists in the States already want us to follow suit. As both Dean Spade and Urvashi Vaid point out in recent books, Gay, Inc should focus on changes in administrative law to make access to resources more equitable. This has also been the rallying cry of queer collective Against Equality throughout their small book series on marriage, the military, and prisons. These voices argue that high profile media wins in Congress and the courts have less tangible effect on the lives of queer folks than do institutional changes in the executive apparatus. Both Spade and Vaid also emphasize the value of “radical reforms,” or legislative goals which do are not knock-out blows to the system, but nevertheless build power for disenfranchised communities, and thus move in the right direction.
In Argentina, gay marriage served this function, but in America it is quite the opposite. These goals may be less sexy to philanthropists and professional nonprofiteers than gay marriage or ending DADT, but they have a profound impact on the banal functions of huge democracies, and the lives of the most vulnerable members of el colectivo queer.
Edit: changed title.