Chile’s matthew shepard case: how a brutal murder changed thecountry’s mind about gay rights

On the evening of March 3, 24-year-old Daniel Zamudio was walkingthrough a park in Santiago, Chile, when a group of men beat,mutilated and left him for dead because he was openly gay. Zamudiodied from the shockingly brutal attack weeks later — but hisdeath resuscitated legislation to increase legal protection forvulnerable minorities in Chile, including homosexuals. It was, in fact, a watershed national moment. While other LatinAmerican countries from Mexico to Argentina had begun to codify gayrights, ultra-conservative Roman Catholic Church leaders had thusfar kept similar measures from gaining any traction in Chile. Butas the Zamudio horror made Chileans realize just how oppressedhomosexuals were in their South American nation, momentum began toturn.

When the long-foundering anti-discrimination legislation, nowknown as the Zamudio Law, finally passed last month, its supporterslept into each other’s arms in the Chilean Senate gallery. “Today,”said Rolando Jiménez, director of the Movement for ChileanSexual Minorities (Movhil), Chile has taken a historic step towardmitigating the injustices that affect excluded social groups.” For all its economic success, Chile’s rigid cultural conservatism,as much as its isolated geography, has long made it an outpost ofthe western hemisphere. But passage of the Zamudio Law may signalnot only a growing acceptance of gay men and women, but thecoming-of-age of a generation intent on breaking with the strictCatholic mores that steer the country’s society and politics.Suddenly, a once invisible gay and lesbian community has beenthrust into a national conversation about sexual orientation, andmany analysts attribute it to the influence of Chileans youngenough not to remember the brutal, right-wing military dictatorshipof General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990. (Read “When Bullying Turns Deadly.”) That young cohort, says Silvia Lamadrid, a sociology professor atthe University of Chile in Santiago, is considerably less inhibitedabout challenging authority — as witnessed the past two yearsby the massive student protests against Chile’s education system.”I think Chile might look something like Spain after Franco” inthat regard, says Lamadrid.

“These young people aren’t afraid.” Asif anticipating that trend, current center-right PresidentSebastián Piñera even spoke in support of gay rightsduring his 2009-10 election campaign in a bid to assure the countrythat he wouldn’t take Chile back to its reactionary past. And yet, once Piñera took office, it was evident thatactually turning that rhetoric into reality still wasn’tpolitically feasible. Young Chileans too, says Lamadrid, are awareof how far their society still has to go, especially when sexeducation is largely absent from even public schools and divorcewas legalized less than a decade ago. “In Chile, you can do manythings as long as you don’t commit the vulgarity of making itpublic,” says Lamadrid. “What happened to Zamudio could [still]happen to anyone who makes himself too public.” Karen Atala found that out eight years ago when she lost custody ofher children for daring to live openly with her lesbian partner.The Chilean Supreme Court awarded custody to her ex-husband, citingthe “psychological harm” the children would suffer if raised bylesbians. Face Lifting Machines

What’s more, the court predicted the girls would “becomeconfused about gender roles and suffer discrimination andisolation.” In March, while Zamudio was in a coma, Atala won herappeal before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, whichordered the Chile government to pay her $50,000 in damages and$12,000 in court expenses. Veteran Chilean school teacher Sandra Pavez is still waiting forjustice. In 2007, even though Pavez was a public school teacher,the Catholic Church was able to rescind her certificate to teachreligion simply because she’s openly a lesbian. Her dismissal,after 20 years in the classroom, stirred parents and students tosupport her Supreme Court challenge, which ultimately failed. A generation ago, a setback like that was enough to silencehomosexuals. IPL Laser Machines Manufacturer

But Pavez takes solace in a future under the ZamudioLaw. “I think we are seeing Chile becoming a more tolerant countrythat respects people for who they are and not what they do in theirprivate lives,” she says. Chileans like her felt a certainbittersweet satisfaction earlier this year when Young and Wild , a film based on the cathartic writings of CamilaGutiérrez, a Chilean lesbian, won the top internationalscreenwriting prize at the eminent Sundance Film Festival.Gutiérrez was raised an Evangelical — and when herparents found out that events depicted in Young and Wild were inspired by their daughter’s life, they stopped speaking toher. Still, the Sundance recognition and the supportive tweets ande-mails that poured in from around the world and inside Chile werevindication for Gutiérrez and Chile’s gay community —punctuated by the Zamudio Law weeks later. China Cryolipolysis Machine

Before putting herinternal conflicts on paper, says Gutierrez, “I was used to livinga double life, and I had this illusion that I would be able toperpetuate that double life.” That illusion of keeping homosexuality out of sight may finally bedissipating. Perhaps the best political evidence, says AndresFoffia, executive director of Fundacion Iguales (Equals Foundation)in Santiago, was Piñera’s decision to push Congress tofast-track the dormant anti-discrimination legislation this springafter Zamudio’s death. “At the public level,” says Foffia, “thediscussion has only just begun.” Chilean legislators, in fact, saythey’re finally set to debate the President’s bill to legalize gaycivil unions. See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

See the Cartoons of the Week.

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