When I lived in Chile back in 2001 as a volunteer social worker, I didn’t know of a single openly out LGBT person. Certainly no one was talking about gay rights in the country, and I wondered whether I’d be able to find any Supergays here at all.
But returning to Chile this spring, my host family pointed me to Rolando Jimenez, a passionate activist with an amazing survival story. Under his organization, Movimiento Chileno de Minorias Sexuales (MOVIL), Rolando’s Supergay powers have pushed the LGBT movement in his country.
As a former victim of human rights violations during Chile’s dictatorship, Rolando has a strong survivor’s attitude and knows how to advocate for his rights. His organization, consisting completely of volunteer workers, fights for policy change against one of Latin America’s most conservative governments. We met Rolando in his office in Santiago where we asked him about Chile’s recent progressive moves to improve the lives of the LGBT community.
Out & Around: What’s it like to be gay, lesbian or transgender in Chile?
Rolando: Thanks to globalization, communication, and digital media, in a short period of time we’ve been able to change attitudes about gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals.
Without a doubt the quality of life of an LGBT individual is far better than those of my generation. Today it much more frequent that young people show affection in public. Youth fight for their rights starting in schools. There are groups now in small towns in Chile fighting for their rights.
Out & Around: What are some of the positive signs of change that you’ve seen in the last year?
Rolando: In this moment, we’re in the middle of a Census and we’ve been able to add questions that count gay and lesbian households which is something that we were denied in the last Census in 2002. In September of last year, we’ve also requested funding from the Health Ministry for sexual reassignment surgery for transgender individuals who cannot afford it.
The most important gain is that now after 7 long years of waiting, we now have an anti-discrimination law. This law protects seventeen categories of people against discrimination, including sexual orientation and gender. We’ll be able to include changes in school curriculum as well as conduct media campaigns.
Out & Around: So will this protect people in their jobs?
Rolando: Yes. Up until this year in Chile, there were no tools to defend discrimination. You could fire an LGBT person without a consequence.
Out and Around: In March 2012, a 24 year-old Chilean died of severe head trauma, a broken right leg and body burns which he suffered in a horrific homophobic beating. What was the impact of Daniel Zamudio’s death?
Daniel’s death had tremendous impact due to the brutality of his death. This demonstrated the extent of homophobia that exists in Chilean society.
In the fight for an anti-discrimination law, conservatives against the law argued that the law was not necessary because discrimination did not exist. They called it an invention of the left, despite all of our yearly reports stating otherwise. The death of Daniel showed the cruelty of hate crimes based on sexual orientation. In the end, that was Daniel’s contribution.
Out & Around: Daniel also had the support of his parents.
Rolando: Yes. His family was one of basic resources. They were a middle class family like many in this country. He had a special relationship with his mother. His death created a discussion in Chilean society about sexual orientation and discrimination.
I was at Daniel’s tomb today. There are hundreds of letters from people who didn’t know him and went to see him. The funeral was incredible. We went through all of Santiago in procession, and you could feel a true sense of solidarity.
We know that whenever a human rights group challenges a law, violence can get more extreme again this group. We never thought that it would happen to a boy who has no ties to any organization. He was an absolutely innocent boy.
Out & Around: Chile also recently made the news in the case of Judge Atala, a lesbian woman who lost one of her three daughters in 2004 because the Chilean Supreme Court said her sexuality put her children’s development at risk.
Rolando: The case of Atala was one of the most obvious cases of discrimination. The Supreme Court let homophobia dictate their decision in denying Atala her children. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights brought shame to Chile by ruling that the government must pay $50,000 in damages to Atala, in addition to $12,000 in court costs. Chile is the the first country to be found for a violation of discrimination on sexual orientation.
The ruling was clear that sexual orientation and gender should not be used to deny rights. Every time our organization has brought a case to appeals court for a discrimination case of sexual orientation, we’ve lost 99.9% of the cases. Many times they don’t even get filed. The decision of Judge Atala along with the law of discrimination has changed everything. Now we’re going to bring another case to this court of a teacher who lost her job in a public school. I am now sure that we are going to win this time.
Out & Around: What changes would you like to see in Chile?
Rolando: I would change how the Catholic church influences our conservative politics. For example, up until 2004 we did not have a law that allowed for divorce despite the fact that questionnaires showed that more than 97% of Chileans wanted the law of divorce. Because the Church is so powerful, they blocked these changes. This happens with laws of sexual diversity as well.
Out & Around: What do you love about Chile?
Rolando: I love my country. During the dictatorship I was offered to study abroad, and I decided not to go. I have had many opportunities to leave the country, but I haven’t. I think that despite painful situations like Daniel, I believe that every day it gets better. The ability for mobilization and our collective memory allows us to be able to change Chile. The society of Chile today is better than the one 5, 10, or 15 years ago. If organizations like MOVIL play the role that we need to, we can change this country totally. I’m deeply optimistic.