LatAm gays reach high govt offices

Published: March 10, 2012

BOGOTA, Colombia — Tatiana Pineros is a man by birth and a woman by choice.

Pineros, 34, is also a high-powered public servant who manages a $360 million budget and nearly 2,000 employees in Colombia’s biggest and most powerful municipal government.

Her appointment by Bogota’s new mayor to head the capital’s social welfare agency was remarkable for how unremarkably it was received by Colombia’s predominantly Roman Catholic public.

Across Latin America, public acceptance is gradually growing for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, officials. It’s a phenomenon that has accompanied activists’ broader struggle to win rights to marry, adopt children or share financial benefits with same-sex partners, and to transform the way socially conservative nations view and treat gays.

"It’s all about the mobilization of groups demanding their rights," said Colombia’s best-known gay activist, Marcela Sanchez. "It didn’t just spring up spontaneously."

Ecuador’s new health minister, Carina Vance, can attest to the change. She has a master’s degree in public health from the University of California, Berkeley. She is also openly lesbian.

Before being named in January, Vance, 34, campaigned as an activist against clinics accused of using coercion to try to "cure" gays of their homosexuality. Her ministry is now investigating those alleged practices. She told a TV interviewer last month that "we will take action against those responsible."

Brazil’s first openly gay national lawmaker, Rep. Jean Wyllys, was elected last year, and activists say six other openly gay people have been elected to public office in Latin America’s most populous nation.

Wyllys, who first gained fame on the Big Brother reality TV show, has so far failed to pass legislation against homophobic insults and discrimination. His nemesis in the battle has been the Congress’ evangelical Christian caucus.

Despite Wyllys’ rise, openly gay Brazilians are rare in appointed positions. The gay community was outraged last year when a heterosexual was named to head the gay rights division in the federal Human Rights Ministry. The heterosexual never took the job, which remains unfilled.

Luiz Mott, an anthropologist and founder of the Grupo Gay da Bahia, said many more homosexuals are in government posts but have kept their sexual orientation private in a kind of self-censorship.

Advances have also been made in other countries but through appointment or complicated election laws that allow legislators to win their posts without being directly elected.

Mexico, for example, has one gay national lawmaker, Congresswoman Enoe Margarita Uranga Munoz, who ended up high on the list of candidates for seats that Mexican law allots to parties by their share of the vote.

Sen. Osvaldo Lopez, the only openly gay member of Argentina’s Congress, was named in July to replace a senator who died in an auto accident.

Lopez’s country and Brazil are the only in Latin America to permit gay marriage nationwide, though Mexico City also allows it under a law promoted by Uranga before her election to Congress.

Same-sex couples also have gained rights to inherit from their partners or share insurance due to court decisions in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico City.

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