It can no longer be denied. Latin America, at least in the most urbanized and populated areas, is coming out. Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay as well as some states in Mexico have already legalized gay marriage. Chile, Ecuador and Colombia have all approved civil unions. As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to issue a decision that could legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, the ruling would be met with a shrug in many parts of Latin America.
So what accounts for the rapid shift in a region that long followed the Roman Catholic Church’s dictates on social policy?
One major reason has been the spread of social media across the region. True the disappearance of authoritarian governments, the decline of Catholicism, and the growth of cosmopolitan cities such as Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City have played a major role. However the use of social media to spread the message of gay rights and circumvent traditionally conservative mainstream media outlets has been key.
“The LGBT movement has used social media to give their own perspective of certain events and they have also used it to coordinate their activities much more rapidly than they could in the past,” says Elisabeth Jay Friedman, director of Latin American studies at the University of San Francisco.
To be sure, there is still plenty of hostility to the gay rights movement in Latin America. Central America and the Caribbean have been particularly resistant. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that at least 80 percent of respondents in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador opposed gay marriage. In Jamaica and Haiti, violent attacks against gays are still sadly common.
Still, online tools have allowed the gay community to interact without fear of being ostracized, and permitted access to a range of services, from gay history archives to HIV/AIDS counseling. In countries such as Argentina and Colombia, where the Internet reaches more than half the population, being gay a much less isolating experience.
“Gay groups across Latin America have exploited the Internet to create a gay cyberspace of almost boundless benefits,” says Omar Encarnación, a professor of political science at Bard College, in a recent article for the Americas Quarterly. “The relative low cost of email, blogs, websites and social networks has allowed a myriad of gay organizations to develop an active online presence.”
YouTube has been one player in the cultural shift. Gay rights activists have learned that a single video on the platform can be much more effective and powerful than marches or political speeches. “Anytime there is an LGBT-related video out there, LGBT groups share it with hurricane force,” Encarnación writes. “A video about a hate crime in San Juan, or a video of a gay wedding in Argentina, or a video of a homophobic declaration by a bishop in Mexico is instantly watched and deconstructed.”
New platforms have also sprung up in the region. Among the most successful is GPS GAY, a free app that allows its 200,000 members to interact, find gay-friendly businesses, watch online movies and read news about the gay-rights movement. The Uruguayan founders, Rosario Monteverde and Magdalena Rodríguez, came up with the idea two years ago after realizing that there were no chat services for the LGBT community to gather and interact. “The gay community has deeper interests than simply dating,” says Rodríguez, in an interview with Global Journalist.
One of the main reasons for its success is because it offers a safer online environment for the LGBT community than platforms like Facebook, which can attract homophobic comments.
“On Facebook many people don’t feel safe enough to express themselves and say who they really are,” says Monteverde. “Many of them have more than one account and won’t be able to meet and find other people in their community.”
Despite the online success, Friedman, of the University of San Francisco, says social media is no more than a tool that has helped accelerate a change in attitudes that was already under way. “Making technology the number one factor for this cultural shift would somehow undervalue all the ground work and political lobbying done by the LGBT movement for decades,” she says.