As a recent college grad back in 2001, visit signing up for a two and a half year commitment to volunteer in South America seemed like a such a huge change. Now my stint in Chile feels like it occurred a lifetime ago, and only when someone inquires why I speak Spanish or listen to Latin music do I casually mention, “Oh yeah, I used to live in Chile.”
Looking back twelve years later, I attribute this period of my life to sparking my career in social work. Yet it was also a difficult time as I struggled with my identity as a lesbian. Out of fear of losing my job, I chose to stay in the closet in Chile and pretend that I was straight in order to assimilate into their society. At the end of my volunteer period, I happily returned home to San Francisco where I could be myself again.
Returning to Chile this year, I came back with my fiance and could no longer deny my identity. By chance, we arrived at a pivotal point in gay rights for Chileans. Tragically, it took the brutal beating and murder of a 24 year old gay kid, Daniel Zamudio, to force the nation to look at the consequences of homophobic hate crimes. Daniel’s loving parents addressed the nation on television and made a plea for change.
Their plea led to action. An anti-discrimination law that Congress set aside for seven years finally pushed through in memory of the young man.
VIDEO: What happens when Lisa visits her host family? How is Chile now changing laws to protect LGBT individuals?..
We spoke to Supergay Rolando Jimenez, founder of Movimiento Chileno de Minorias Sexuales (MOVIL). He told us, “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.”
I saw the change first hand for myself when we traveled back to Arica, Chile where I participated in the town’s first Pride Parade led by a group of teenagers. Coming out in Arica while visiting my old host family made me see how much change has taken place in a decade. In a video interview with the local newspaper EL Murrocotudo, I speak in my gringo accent about my pride in returning home to Arica.
Chile is a country strong in reacting in solidarity to national catastrophes. In 2012, the country rallied back from a 9.2 earthquake that shook its capital city down to the core. In 2010, Chileans also came together to keep alive 33 miners stuck underground for 69 days. The death of Daniel has been another event that has united Chileans for the better.
Traveling from Santiago to the northern tip of Chile, you can see from our pictures and places that we love that we had a blast. As a tourist you can spend weeks enjoying wineries, outdoor adventure sports, and the beach. When I look back at my time as a volunteer in Chile, sometimes I wish I could have been bold enough to live as an openly gay women. But at least for my gay Chilean friends, now is a time of rapid change and growth. I’m proud to have once called Chile home.
***A special thank you to Superqueer Storm Miguel Florez who edited our video above.