'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.

Roberto Candia/AP
Mourners of Daniel Zamudio, a young gay man whose attackers brutally beat him, accompany the hearse carrying his remains to a cemetery in Santiago, Chile, Friday.

Thousands of mourners thronged the family of 24-year-old Daniel Zamudio as they carried his battered body to his grave on Friday, a month after a violent attack apparently motivated by anti-gay sentiment.

As the family drove through Santiago, bystanders threw flowers, cheered, and chanted for justice. The brutal murder has shocked Chileans and has sent support for gay rights soaring in a country that has lagged behind many of its neighbors in addressing discrimination based on sexual orientation. The case spurred the government to fast-track an antidiscrimination law that has been stalled in the legislature for seven years.

“It’s a historic day. Thousands of people came out to mark a 'before' and an 'after' for the country,” Jaime Silva, a lawyer representing Zamudio’s family, said in an interview at the funeral. “This crime grabbed attention for its brutality. It was the most brutal attack we’ve seen since the days of the dictatorship. And it was utterly senseless. If it happened to Daniel, it could happen to you or me or any one of us.”

Zamudio was assaulted March 3 by four men in a park, one of whom apparently knew Zamudio was gay. According to doctors and a confession by one of the alleged attackers, they beat him severely and carved swastikas into his skin. He bled in the park before being taken to a hospital a block away, where, three weeks later, he died.

Like the killing of Matthew Shepard in the US in 1998, the case has brought discussions of gay rights out of private homes and university campuses and into mainstream politics. If anything, the Zamudio case has had a bigger and more immediate impact, as the assault and eventual death took place in the capital, where TV stations profiled Zamudio's family and made his social-media photos into widely recognized icons.

Chile has seen attacks on gay, lesbian, and transgender people before, but none has brought out so much support for the family and such universal condemnation of the attackers, says Zuliana Araya, of the Aphrodite Transgender Union in Valparaiso.

“I think it’s the swastikas,” she said. 

Still, there is no guarantee that the gay community’s call for a law against discrimination or hate crimes will be passed. Legislators of the conservative UDI party have said they don’t want to open the door to adoption by gay couples. “Through this window, someone could come along tomorrow and claim that there is discrimination against two people of the same sex who want to adopt a child, to which I am completely opposed,” Felipe Ward, a UDI senator, told the TVN network.

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.   

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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