In wake of Orlando, Mexico's LGBT rights debate changes tone

A same-sex marriage proposal has sharply divided Mexicans. But the attack on the Pulse gay nightclub has spurred unprecedented call-outs of hate language, including a renewed push to end an anti-gay slur commonly used at soccer games.

Edgard Garrido/Reuters
Mexico's Foreign Affairs building is illuminated in rainbow colors in tribute of the victims of the gay nightclub mass shooting in Orlando, in Mexico City.

Mexico has been caught up in a public debate on same-sex marriage since the May 17 proposal by President Enrique Peña Nieto to make it a constitutional right. It’s exposed some unsurprising rifts in one of the most Catholic countries in the world, with the local clergy publicly calling on parishioners – and calling out the government – to reinforce the church’s moral standing and reject the move.

But following the massacre targeting a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. last weekend, Mexico’s conversation about LGBT rights seemed to shift.

Headlines went from a focus on arguments against same-sex marriage – or the church’s celebration of what it said was the ruling party’s related big losses in recent local elections – to a different take: “Homophobia kills,” and “Gays, fanaticism, and murders in Orlando.” A long-defended Mexican soccer chant that hurls a gay slur at opponents has faced growing calls to be put to rest once and for all, and a government employee who focused on human rights in the state of Jalisco was swiftly fired after posting praise for the death of so many LGBT individuals in the Orlando shooting.

And on the heels of the attack, which left 49 dead and 53 injured, the federal government here made the unprecedented move of calling out the church for using language about the LGBT community that incites hate.

“I hope that in this country we’ve left behind the circumstances that have hurt us, not calling on intolerance or rancor. Not generating or seeking out hate – this doesn’t work for anyone. The tragedy in Orlando, Fla., should be the best example to make clear that this is not the path forward,” said Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, the secretary of the interior.

He said the church has a right to express its opinion, but the discourse needs to avoid encouraging hate, adding that the federal government was seeking an opportunity to speak with the clergy face to face. 

“The Federal government has never said anything like this before,” against hate speech and intolerance toward the LGBT community, says Gloria Careaga, professor of sexuality and gender at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and a collaborator with local LGBT-rights NGO Fundación Arcoíris. “I think these statements are directly related to what happened in Orlando and … are very important.” 

But Mexico is walking a fine line between a growing awareness of LGBT rights and business as usual. A poll by the daily El Universal this week found that the nation is closely divided when it comes to support for same-sex marriage, with 49 percent against and 43 percent for the legal change here.

Not everyone agrees Orlando will change much in Mexico’s battle for equal rights, particularly as the tragedy recedes into the distance. Same-sex marriage “will probably be passed at some point, but it’s not yet a priority on the national legislative agenda,” even after Orlando, says Alejandro Schtulmann, president of Emerging Markets Political Risk Analysis, a consultancy in Mexico City. “And the rhetoric between the church and the government won’t necessarily translate to actual friction. The church and the [ruling] PRI have a long history of being critical [of one another].”

Some see the federal government’s moves in support of same-sex marriage and against the church’s alleged hate speech as little more than political maneuvering.

The church in Mexico is “an unquestionable force,” says Elio Masferrer Kan, a religious expert at the National School of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. “So the conflict front and center with the church is an intelligent strategy on the part of the government to avoid getting to the bottom of the bigger, more complicated question in the country” of violence, kidnappings, and organized crime.

Focusing on LGBT rights and constitutional protection of same-sex marriage may also be more an effort to show the international community that Mexico respects human rights after several high-profile blunders, like the botched investigation of the disappearance of 43 teacher’s college students in 2014, observers say.

But for Ms. Careaga, the motivation for the support is less important than the government’s actions, which she says moved a few steps forward this week. She’s found that following Orlando, the public has also clued in further to the threats of hate speech and hate crimes.

A shooting at a gay club in the state of Veracruz last month that left seven dead and seriously injured more than 10 others is getting renewed attention as to whether it was in fact organized-crime related, as initially stated, or a crime of hate. Between 1995 and 2015 there were 1,310 murders considered hate crimes in Mexico, according to the Citizen Commission against Homophobic Hate Crimes and NGO Letra S.

According to an editorial in El Universal this week, what happened in Orlando was a reminder of how far individuals can go when fueled by irrational hate toward those who are “different.”

But, “in Mexico, we are making a mistake if we limit the debate about what happened in Orlando only to the US scope. Gun control is more strict here and the proportion of foreigners is much lower than in any country that has suffered terrorist attacks. However, homophobia is an evil that’s deeply rooted in Mexico…. How far does one have to go between negating someone’s right to live their sexuality as they please and taking away their life? It’s hard to measure.”

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