San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica still has a ways to go on gay rights, says LBGT leader

Sunday afternoon, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and their allies are set to meet on the Paseo Colón at noon, in downtown San José, to celebrate gay pride month with the Diversity March.  

The parade kicks off a whole afternoon of events including speeches from lawmaker Carmen Muñoz, a representative of the United States Embassy, local activists, and a concert by Mary McBride, of “Brokeback Mountain” fame. Organizers are also using the gay pride event to kick off one of the community’s most ambitious projects to date: a national campaign to legalize same-sex marriage organized by the Front for Equal Rights, an alliance of several LGBT groups.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, that LGBT groups had to meet in secret in Costa Rica. Wary of discrimination, government meddling and even violence, organizers would meet under the guise of another event or privately at someone’s home.

Despite the San José gay pride parade’s high profile, the LGBT community still faces steep hurdles. A week before organizers were set to host a two-day Diversity Festival, the first of its kind here, leading up to the parade, the City of San José pulled the $12,000 it promised for the event. During the last year, Christian politicians, like evangelical lawmaker Justo Orozco, drew wide criticism for their anti-gay statements.   

Marco Castillo, president of the Diversity Movement, sat down to talk with The Tico Times to discuss LGBT rights in Costa Rica and the group’s participation in a national campaign to propose a marriage equality bill. Excerpts follow:

TT: How would you describe the discrimination faced by the LGBT community in Costa Rica? 

MC: There is a lot of discrimination, especially against gays and lesbians who are out, especially in the workplace. It’s difficult to find work, and when they have it, it’s difficult to keep.

For transgender people, it’s much more difficult. It’s difficult for a gay or lesbian person to find work but it’s nearly impossible for someone who is transgender. You’d never see a trans person working in an office or as a teacher or whatever. Beauty salons are almost the only place that tolerate them.

Costa Rica is often honored for its respect for human rights, but the truth is, when we’re talking about sexual diversity rights, this is a lie.

What is the marriage equality bill promoted by the Front for Equal Rights?

There’s a mechanism by which the people can propose a bill to the legislature. If we can get signatures from 5 percent of the citizens, our proposal to push for a marriage equality bill will be on the docket. This bill would modify the current law so that marriage would not be defined by the sex of the couple. We’re going to start collecting signatures for this on Sunday.

Why collect signatures? Two reasons: demonstrate to legislators that there is popular support for the bill but also as part of a campaign to educate and raise consciousness. Approaching people on the street and asking for their signature means speaking with the public to convince them that there shouldn’t be discrimination. That’s the main activity following the parade.

We’re also going to be pushing for a gender law for transgender people that would recognize their chosen gender and the right to change their name.

What is the political environment for gay rights?

There have been past bills [common-law marriage, civil unions] but they haven’t gotten any traction in the legislature. Political will is a problem for us with many of the parties, even those that have anti-discrimination statements in their platforms. That goes for the National Liberation Party, the Libertarian Movement Party and the Citizen Action Party.  

We’ve been fighting for seven years to pass protections for LGBT people but they’ve floundered because of the actions of religious fundamentalist lawmakers and a lack of political will.

Homophobia has many cultural aspects that depend on the moment in history and geography but also, fundamentally, from religious factors. However, there are evangelical and Protestant churches that are not homophobic. The Lutherans have a saying that goes, “God saw diversity and said it was good.”

What do recent successes for LGBT rights in the United States and Latin America mean to the movement here?

We’re very glad about the triumph in the United States, with [U.S. President Barack] Obama and the Supreme Court. We include ourselves in that; it’s been a great motivator to us. Now, we’re going to fight for marriage equality. They are successes that were hard-fought in other countries and it’ll be difficult for us too, but we’re going to succeed, sooner rather than later, I’m absolutely sure of it.

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