Costa Rica made international news in 2015 when a family court judge recognized the first same-sex common-law marriage in Central America. Later that same year, Vice President Ana Helena Chacón announced a robust anti-discrimination policy for public sector workers employed by the executive branch. But since then, a bill to legalize same-sex marriage here has stalled under the weight of hundreds of amendments tacked on by evangelical lawmakers.
The Ombudsman’s Office, with assistance from the Dutch Embassy, invited Human Rights Watch’s LGBT Advocacy Director Boris Dittrich to visit Costa Rica in March to assess the situation. Here he met with government officials and members of the LGBT community.
Dittrich, a former member of the Dutch Parliament, introduced legislation there in 1994 that would eventually make the Netherlands the first country in the world to legally recognize same-sex marriage, in 2001. Since then, Dittrich has advocated for LGBT rights around the world, from Argentina to Russia.
The Tico Times spoke with Dittrich about the state of the LGBT movement in Costa Rica, the role of businesses in promoting LGBT acceptance, what Europe could learn from Latin America, and his own experience as a legislator fighting for marriage equality. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
TT: Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to recognize a same-sex common-law marriage. Is this is an isolated incident or the sign of a bigger change?
BD: I would call it an incident. There are some problems with the internal regulation of the [Legislative Assembly] where one member of [the Assembly] can stop the legislative process. That’s why a lot of issues stall, because usually an evangelical member doesn’t want to see progress on these subjects. But that doesn’t mean progress isn’t possible.
There are so many countries in the Americas that already have same-sex marriage, so the human rights community is looking to Costa Rica and asking, ‘Where’s Costa Rica?’ Costa Rica prides itself on being very human-rights oriented. It has the reputation for being progressive, so why isn’t Costa Rica on the list? I think that now that members of the [Assmebly] and the government realize that the international community is monitoring the situation and asking questions, that might lead to a greater willingness to address this issue.
After speaking to the groups you met with, what is your sense of LGBT acceptance in Costa Rica?
Well, I’ve only been to San José but they tell me that the city is different than the countryside. Life is quite open for lesbians and gays, there are lots of gay bars. But there is the family structure and of course the influence of the church, which is also an obstacle to acceptance.
It was very interesting to talk with the business community. They are very adamant about introducing LGBT friendly workplace policies both in their own companies and nationwide. They realized that once they started implementing these policies, their LGBT employees felt safe, were less sick, worked harder and were better motivated. That helped push other employees to work harder, too. There’s a business case to be made to have a diverse workforce. I could really see the NGO and business community getting together and creating momentum with collaboration from universities. It starts with social recognition to move toward legal recognition, which is the most important. It started with U.S. companies but it’s becoming part of the agenda for Costa Rican businesses too.
Should marriage equality be the main priority for the LGBT community here or are other issues like housing or employment discrimination more pressing?
It’s up to them. When I came here, I asked them, what is your priority? They had a wish list but legal recognition of their relationships was on top. In many U.S. states there are no laws protecting gay or lesbian people from getting kicked out of their home or being denied services. There was so much focus [in the U.S.] on marriage equality, people forgot about other issues. Now the LGBT community is diverting its attention to other issues. But here, they’re asking for legal recognition of their relationships.
Some LGBT activists here have pointed to international human rights treaties Costa Rica has signed that include LGBT people in the definition of discrimination as an argument to recognize same-sex marriage. Do you think that’s a valid legal argument?
I think it’s definitely a real argument. When you sign an international treaty you cannot pick and choose what you like. Otherwise you should do like Venezuela and withdraw from the [Inter-American Human Rights] Court. Human rights are for everybody and if the international court says these are rights everyone is entitled to, you have to live with it.
What are some of the main hurdles facing LGBT rights here?
Well, one of the main ones is that one person in the legislature can hold up a piece of legislation. That’s not just a problem for the LGBT population but other groups too. The government is fed up with it. I would say it’s a top priority for the country to change those rules. Many on the human rights committee also said that they couldn’t get their work done.
Of course, the Roman Catholic Church is also very influential and does not support the rights of LGBT people. In every religion there are progressive people and you need to identify them, reach out to them and explain why it’s important for everyone to have the same rights. That way the public can see that religion is not a monolithic block. When I worked on marriage equality in the Netherlands and a bishop would say that gay people should undergo conversion therapy, another person in the congregation would stand up and push back against those statements. That way, people can see that there’s more to it than one vision.
What are some specific recommendations from your talks with the government?
The Ombudsman’s Office, Vice President Ana Helena Chacón and LGBT groups want to move forward but weren’t sure how. We talked about having input from non-LGBT actors, whether its businesses, academia, artists or allies of LGBT people. For some people that was a refreshing, new element to the discussion.
The Ombudsman’s Office has a wonderful campaign that uses family members of LGBT people to tell people that they have the same rights as anyone else. That has proven to be very persuasive in the U.S. When you talk about yourself and your own position, people tend to ignore it. But when other people start to talk about non-discrimination it’s a new perspective. It’s a way to say this is urgent and can’t wait another 10 years.
Is there an experience from your time advocating for same-sex marriage in the Netherlands that you shared?
Many opponents to marriage equality said looking back that they were motivated by fear. They thought the world would collapse or that God would punish the Netherlands, all kinds of disasters. But after having attended gay weddings, they said they saw that it was about love and commitment, taking care of one another, responsibility. Those are values that everyone supports. People evolve. President Obama evolved on this issue and Christian lawmakers do, too.
Does Latin America stand out to you as a progressive place for LGBT rights in the developing world?
Compared to Africa, there is a huge difference. Actually, a lot of people in the West were very surprised to learn that places like Argentina and Uruguay are more progressive than Western European countries when it comes to the rights of transgender people. Argentina has the best gender recognition bill in the world. Western Europe could learn a lot from Latin American countries.