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Apples and oranges: LGBT equality here and there

26 April 2018

A study by two political scientists, published today by the London School of Economics,reveals the puzzling finding that Mexico has offered greater legal equality for LGBT people for a longer period of time than the United States. ”  I am not a political scientist, but wonder why the authors find it puzzling.

Photo: José Miguel Rosas, CC BY-SA 2.0

We haven’t had laws against sodomy since 1871, which is not surprising.  U.S. law was largely an heir to the British legal system, while Mexico, in common with other Latin American nations… largely adopted the Civil Code (“Napoleonic Code”) that had been the standard in European nations for decades before Benito Juarez got around to pushing through a standard legal system.  Our Constitution has “prohibits discrimination based on “sexual preferences” [while T]here is no explicit constitutional protection for sexual orientation in the United States.”  Thst, perhaps is surprising, until one realizes that changes to the Mexican Constitution are relatively simple, and the addition of “sexual preference” to the wording of the first article was included (with some controversy) along with several other enumerated classes of non-discrimination to conform with the then standard South African Constitution of 1996 and other then more modern legal thinking.  And, yes, we did have nation-wide recognition of same-gender marriage before the United States… by a few months, anyway.

What is puzzling isn’t that Mexico was more forward in these matters, but that the United States was so retro.  The authors, Caroline Beer – a professor of Political Science at the University of Vermont – and Victor D. Cruz-Aceves – a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Christian-AlbrechtsUniversität zu Kiel (Germany), focus on two areas to account for what puzzles them:  politics and religion.  They seem to be making assumptions about both based on superficial similarities, rather than focusing on the profound differences that separate the two North American national cultures.

Of course the political systems are different.  The United States has had for the last 175 years only two political parties of any significance, both relatively capitalist and centerist.  The “left” in the United States has no comparison to the “left” in a country that went through a major revolution only a century ago, and in which Socialist and Fascist parties have both been major forces over the years, and U.S. style “liberalism” is centerist or center-right in our politics.  Beers and Cruz-Aceves, to their credit, do note that as a “new democracy” (under the assumption that multi-party electoral politics is the definition of democracy) we probably are more proactive in demanding rights, and perhaps are more vocal about it, what they miss is the long history of Mexico’s obsession with “modernity”.

Going back to the first republic, and the fights between the Yorkista and Escosia masonic lodges, Mexican politics has pivoted around a pole of modernity and conservativism.  And, even when conservatives were in power (as during most of Santa Anna’s era), the conservatives were always preoccupied with emulating the Europeans. , while attempting to preserve traditional privileges.  Extending rights to LGBT persons was no threat to the elites, and was “modern” as well.  That we followed European examples in extending basic rights to LGBT persons then, was hardly a radical move.

There were some religious objections, especially from the Church hierarchy, but — as the authors of Religion, the state, and the states explain why Mexico has stronger LGBT rights than the US note, for historical reasons, the “wall of separation” between Church and State is much higher here, and we like it that way. What I thought was a weakness in their comparison though, was an assumption that “Religion” (as a political factor) would have about the same meaning in the two societies. The conservative religion in the United States is Evangelical Protestantism, while in Mexico it is Roman Catholicism. Beers and Cruz-Aceves are absolutely spot-on in noting that, in the United States, religious belief is more likely to be given as a reason for a political posture (although, on the issue of same-gender marriage, it is popping up in the Mexican presidential campaign as well), but that is not entirely due to the just the historic taboos on using religion here to justify policy. Puritans have always been more concerned about the moral standing of the community than the Catholics, for whom private “sins” that don’t affect the community as a whole are generally overlooked (or at least, can be confessed and forgiven). And, in Latin America, we have always had a much more relaxed view of religion, seeing it as a culture, rather than as a personal statement.

Where I think the authors go wrong is in their thesis statement: “Common stereotypes about Mexico’s macho culture might lead us to expect that the legal landscape for gay rights in Mexico would be far less egalitarian than in the United States,” What “macho culture”? This is a culture of extended families, under the watchful eye of matriarchs. Yes, sexism is rampant here, but within the family, women rule. Within extended families, of course there are LGBT members, and the family (and the family matriarch), even if otherwise a conservative Catholic, carves out an exception for Her family. Add too, “compradizo”… “buddy.ship” if you will, or even “bro-mance”. Close, life-long friendships between unrelated persons of the same gender are the rule, not the exception. That these are sometimes sexual is a given, and no one thinks otherwise.

(As an aside, WTF is “macho” anyway? I’ve never seen anything defined that distinguishes this supposedly Mexican trait from sexist assumptions anywhere else on the planet, and … as the word was only used to describe bulls or other male farm animals until the late 1960s, the pseudo-Spanish coinage of Robert McAlmon and Ernest Hemingway back in the 1920s … to reference the attitudes of SPANIARDS, not Mexicans… I wonder if using the word “macho” — even if to say it is a stereotype — doesn’t suggest that the authors’ puzzlement isn’t just that they themselves are biased in their assumptions to begin with).

These notes may seem critical or nit-picky, but my intention is not to denigrate the fine work the pair has done. If anything, it’s the best I’ve ever seen on this particular topic.. not so much the specific question of why LGBT equality was obtained (at least legally) in Mexico sooner than in the United States, but why the Mexican policy can, and does, change with less political and cultural upheaval than that of our larger, supposedly tolerant and pluralistic, northern neighbor.

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