What should have been an easy Senate vote in the early hours of Friday, June 8, turned into a loud, drawn-out political debate and a late night of dealing with filibuster threats that took debate to the early hours of Friday morning.
Last week, Chile’s Constitutional Court ruled that there was no problem with the country’s current ban on gay marriage, but offered three options for the government to implement. First, a new law could be enacted, second, the ban could be overturned via legislation, or third, a re-consultation of the law through a referendum could be approved.
Amid intense public discourse about the meaning of “traditional” and “outdated” in the 21st century, it was Chile’s opposition parties that invoked the first scenario, hoping to spark a re-consultation that would lead to a re-ban of marriage equality. Without taking a vote on the matter, however, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet remained steadfastly opposed to a ban and moved to pass a fast-track piece of legislation to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions, before pulling the bill back and plunging the nation into a heated public debate on whether or not to overturn the current law.
The result of the discussions led to a loud chant of “Lambda die! Lambda die!” from the rows of protesters, including a woman in a white jumpsuit holding a colorful sign that read, “This is the same thing as a prison sentence” against a painting of two women who appeared to be speaking with the middle finger. What transpired in the hours following the midnight vote prompted Bachelet to call for the joint session of Congress to “seriously discuss” and “deeply reflect” the outcome of the Senate debate.
At the risk of being called out as more of a “love addict” than a statesman, Bachelet knows her popularity is at risk. Her job approval rating stands at 46 percent, down from 48 percent last month. Former President Sebastian Pinera (whose approval is at 54 percent) has announced his candidacy to run against Bachelet, and Pollsters are predicting a tight election and potential defections from her coalition in order to win office. Before the whirlwind of the Senate vote, she expected to have a blowout with the Pinera campaign if the people voted. With the election just seven months away, and no clear ground for an anti-LGBTQ candidate, Bachelet will want to distance herself from the issue as long as possible and capitalize on her core support as an advocate for women and education.
Despite being vilified, queer people in Chile have always seen themselves as allies, in the run-up to the Supreme Court ruling and now during the political debates over same-sex marriage. They have shown a remarkable tolerance, from the Senate committees that came together to almost unanimously defeat the bill earlier this year, to supportive public statements by both the president and her spokesman after the bill passed the Senate on Friday.
LGBTQ people in Chile have always organized and exercised their political muscle to try to level the playing field when it comes to working for LGBTQ rights. The election of the first openly LGBTQ Cabinet-level official at the Chilean foreign ministry was very significant because it means that the LGBTQ community’s rights are no longer isolated or just for the privileged.
However, even in Chile, things are hard to come by for LGBTQ people. While the ruling has enabled the straight community to get married in Chile, for the queer community, that privilege seems taken for granted. How will all of this “progress” against discrimination and exclusion translate into equality and justice for queer people in the country? LGBTQ couples in Chile are not the norm, particularly in the southern states where it is harder to find LGBTQ people to partner with, and very few LGBTQ people own land in Chile. When Chilean gay couples entered into civil unions, it created a new class of legal partnership; but the same cannot be said for the far larger class of non-marital, informal “partnerships” that run the gamut from being existing in secret to living in constant fear of state violence and discrimination.
If we are to be politically realistic and forward thinking, it must be stated that transgender Chileans are still legally second-class citizens. The government has already tried to undo the antidiscrimination protections that have already been passed.