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Gay tolerance in LA: bad news, good news?

18 March 2010

Several of us in the Gringonet have commented on the chart published by Christopher Sabatini in Americas Quarterly.  As Inca Kola News writes,

…tolerance of homosexuality (in the above chart measured by the willingness to have an openly gay person as a politico), has not changed much in the present generation. From what I’ve witnessed in the corners of LatAm I know, that one is sad but true.

Not knowing how the question was framed, and not seeing similar statistics from non-Latin American countries (although Jamaica is included) it’s hard to assess how much of this is “normal” bigotry and how much is Latin specific. Haiti  is the only country I can think of in the Americas to have had a quasi-open gay leader, and she was imposed by outside forces (based on her reputation as a NGO administrator), and only served as Prime Minister for a couple of weeks.

I’m pleasantly surprised that Chileans are so tolerant, given that country’s claim to fame as the most socially conservative (despite twenty years of “progressive” leadership)among the Latin American nations — being the last to legalize divorce, and having the strictest abortion laws on the books among the major Latin nations.

Colombia and Mexico show the most tolerance — with over half of all adult willing to have openly gay persons as political candidates.  The good news is that at least in those two countries, age doesn’t seem to be a factor in tolerance, older people being as open (or closed) to the idea than younger people.

I’m wondering if the numbers would be all that different in the United States as a whole.  The few gay politicos of national prominence being legislators from “liberal” districts who came out after they had already become powerful and well-known for other reasons.  Here in Mexico, as in the United States, most openly gay and lesbian candidates have come from the left, generally representing better-heeled urban districts.  I can’t think of any out Federal executive-level officers, although there may be some at the state level that I don’t know about.

One major difference in Latin American political life is that one’s personal affairs are seldom even discussed.  The wife and kids (or, in our day, the spouse and/or significant other) aren’t sent out on the campaign trail, nor featured in the candidate’s propaganda.

You almost never read about a political spouse, unless — as has only recently been true — the spouse is a politician in her or his own right (like Marta Sahagún, Vicente Fox’s wife, or former PRD heavy-weight Carlos Imaz Gispert, married to AMLO’s shadow minister of environment — a post she held also in the Federal District government — Claudia Sheinbaum).

About the only political spouse, who was not a politician, who I can think of being a campaign issue (and not a very big one) was Mayra Coffingy, the Cuban-born wife of Lázaro Cárdenas Batel.  While running for Governor of Michoacán on a leftist fusion ticket (sucessfully) in 2002, his conservative opponent tried to make hay of Coffingy as a native Cuban.  This was somewhat misreported in the U.S. press as racial prejudice (Coffingy is specifically Afro-Cuban) but the attacks were more of the nature that if she wasn’t a Commie (she is, but then, what’s surprising about a well-educated Cuban marrying into a prominent Latin American political family having been a member of her own country’s ruling party) or not a “real Catholic” (which, again, given the Cárdenas clan, is to be expected).

For the most part, though, you just don’t hear about family life.  There is something pathetic about the story of María Esther Zuno, Luís Echevarrí’s wife… a reluctant primara dama who wandered around Los Pinos at a loss of what to do with her time.  It’s touching that the only time she was reportedly happy in her role was when President Richard Nixon paid a formal visit, and she… along with the equally shy and spot-light shunning Patricia Nixon spent a pleasant afternoon helping the maids.

There was almost no coverage of  the terminal illness of Andres Manuel López Obradór’s wife.  Although she was a shrewd political operator herself, almost no one knew who Rocío Beltrán Medina was, and other than mention of his sons (a car accident thrust one into the news) she was never heard of until her death in 2003.  And, there has been almost no coverage of AMLO’s   subsequent marriage and the birth of a fourth son.

When State of Mexico’s Governor Enrique Peña Nieto’s wife died under somewhat mysterious circumstances (she was only 43 years old, and probably died during an epileptic seizure) it was only important because it provided fodder for rumors about the Governor… and his fitness to govern.

One relatively recent president that I know of had a gay son (and Don Porfirio had a gay son-in-law), which was something of an open secret, but for the most part, Latin American family life and public life are separate spheres, “don’t ask, don’t tell” being the norm even for the most traditional of traditional values politicos.

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