Earlier this month, I traveled to Peru for a week and a half to experience Machu Picchu and get a glimpse of one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. It was my second time in South America - two years ago, I studied abroad for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and got to check out tons of cities and areas throughout the country.
Peru and Argentina are both amazing countries, and traveling in each country offered an incredible experience, but I couldn't help but notice a major difference between them: Whereas in Argentina, gays and lesbians were everywhere - marching in parades, partying in bars, and walking down the street - in Peru, they were almost nonexistent. The only rainbow thing I saw all week was the flag of Cuzco - the typical "big city" hub for Machu Picchu tourists (the flag is nearly an exact replica of the Pride flag).
In Buenos Aires, I could go to a different gay club every week if I wanted to. There was a gay community center. Gay issues were covered in the city's newspapers. Hell, marriage equality passed two weeks after the end of my semester. Even in smaller Argentine cities, like the youthful, student-heavy Cordoba, I was able to have fun and make out with guys in boliches or clubs without fearing for my safety.
In Peru, my guide books warned me that gay and lesbian travelers should be cautious about any sort of public declaration or demonstration of homosexuality. And on GayPeru.com, the unofficial hub for LGB visitors to Peru, the number of LGB-friendly establishments fit on a very small webpage. Granted, last year, Lima hosted its tenth-annual Pride parade, and some openly gay politicians have sought elected office, but the overall vibe is that the LGB community experiences limited acceptance in Lima and less throughout the rest of the country.
I know it's hard to get a gauge for how tolerant or accepting a place is when you visit for a week, but it still struck me as significant that the gay culture, which was everywhere and impossible to ignore in Argentina, was so invisible in Peru.
And the differences aren't limited to cultural pervasiveness.
In Peru, consensual homosexual activity is legal, but most relationship rights aren't on the table. A civil unions bill was proposed in 2011, but it quickly died, and two presidential candidates in 2011 voiced support for relationship recognition for same-sex couples before losing the race. The eventual victor, Ollanta Humala, who took office in July 2011, opposes legal relationship recognition for same-sex couples. One of the primary LGBT organizations in Peru, is still quite small (although their Facebook presence is quite impressive). The country, dominated by Catholicism, is largely traditional, so polls on marriage equality continue to demonstrate little support. Interestingly, anti-gay discrimination is illegal.
In 2010, Argentina became the first country in South America to legalize same-sex marriage. Gay and lesbian relationships are fully recognized, gays and lesbians can serve in the military, and adoption is permitted by same-sex couples. One of the country's last LGB-specific frontiers involves anti-discrimination legislation, which has been proposed. Activists in the country are also making a push for gender identity-inclusive anti-discrimination legislation.
Not all of South America is as LGB-friendly as Argentina, but many countries are on the right track. Uruguay is relatively progressive, with gays and lesbians able to serve in the military, enter into civil unions, and adopt. In Brazil, same-sex couples have the same rights as married, opposite-sex couples. And in Chile, relationship recognition has been proposed multiple times in the last few years, gaining more and more support each year.
Peru is certainly not the only country in Latin America that's a little behind its neighbors. Paraguay, Bolivia, and Ecuador all maintain constitutional bans on same-sex marriage, and cultural tolerance or acceptance is certainly tricky in several other countries as well. But it's interesting to look at how the continent is progressing (or not).
Can the cultural and legal progress of LGB issues in some countries - Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay - prompt change in neighboring countries? And how can these countries learn from each other?
And maybe most importantly - if Cuzco insists on keeping a variation of the Pride flag as its regional symbol, shouldn't some attention to gay issues be a part of the deal?