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'Chile's Matthew Shepard': country rallies around gay rights after murder

The brutal murder of 24-year-old Daniel Zamudio has sent support for gay rights soaring in Chile, which has lagged behind many of its neighbors in addressing discrimination.

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While Chile is ahead of its South American peers on economic output per capita and controlling violent crime, it is falling behind on gay rights. Neighboring Argentina began to allow gay marriage in 2010, and Brazil prohibits most discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.   

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Gay sex was illegal in Chile as recently as 1999, while Brazil allowed it as of 1831, according to a report by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. Bolivia, Colombia, and Ecuador all have constitutional provisions forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, while no such laws exist in Chile.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has put Chile on notice that it needs to do more to protect gays and lesbians. A binding March 21 decision told Chile to compensate a mother who lost custody of her three children because she is a lesbian. The decision, which said Chile had violated the rights to private life, equality before law, and rights of the child, also instructed the country to educate civil servants about gay families.

The real delay to gay rights in Chile may be culture more than law. After Zumudio’s funeral, about a thousand mourners gathered for a march to the site where he was attacked. One woman yelled from a passing bus, “Go home,” using derogatory terms for homosexuals, while others on the bus laughed.  Later, the march ran into a rally of soccer fans, who picked that moment to sing a cheer referring to a rival team with racist, sexist, and homophobic slurs.

Asked whether they supported gay rights, several of the soccer fans said yes. They said they saw no contradiction between chanting insults and supporting gay rights.

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