Last June, thousands of Peruvians added rainbow filters to their Facebook profiles to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage. It was an inspiring time. Some gay Peruvians feel the Supreme Court ruling means it’s only a matter of time before the country catches up. But this past February police beat up a group of largely young activists near Lima’s central square for kissing in public. How can Peruvians take advantage of changing global headwinds while they suffer on the streets?
Last year’s LGBT Summit of the Americas, sponsored by the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, differed strikingly from the protest. Held at the Marriott Hotel, it gathered international participants and Peruvian intellectuals to sip champagne, nibble hors d’oeuvres, and toast the advance of gay rights. Police guarded the hotel, hors d’oeuvres were served, and Carlos Bruce*—the country’s only openly-gay Congressman—as well as *US Ambassador Brian Nichols attended.
The summit’s speakers called for economic empowerment as the path to gain LGBT rights. Ambassador Nichols promoted President Obama’s signature trade agreement—The Trans-Pacific Partnership—as a chance for LGBT Peruvians to demand inclusion in a multi- billion-dollar pie.
Peruvian President Humala eventually supported the TPP. But that didn’t stop the police from beating up gay activists. Was this hypocrisy? Looking closer, it’s clear that the fight for gay rights differs depending on what you look like.
It’s no accident police attacked the activists at the kiss-in. Downtown Lima is void of wealthy Limeños. The activists were largely young students—a stark contrast to the group of well-dressed conference attendees at last year’s summit. Leaders like those at the summit can afford to proudly demand LGBT rights. They have the privilege to be safeguarded from police violence.
Peruvian LGBT activism in a country fraught with homophobia has relied extensively on the grassroots to gain a voice in society. Many activists distinctly remember Lima’s first gay pride march, where a few dozen people were surrounded by a swarm of aggressive police officers.
Grassroots activists prefer direct action like the kiss-out to demand the government advocate on behalf of the queer community. Establishment figures like Bruce favor actions with broad-based appeal, including the popular Union Civil Ya campaign and respectable meetings like the Marriott summit.
The US Supreme Court ruling is an important sign of progress. But every country’s context is not the same. Mainstream Peruvian LGBT leaders can only take advantage of universal progress if they understand our country’s social realities. The State Department’s recent initiatives on behalf of gay rights or the public awareness of Union Civil Ya! must be accompanied by the Peruvian government and police guaranteeing LGBTQ Peruvians can be assured of their basic humanity and right to free expression.
Marco Herndon is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania and grew up between Lima and the U.S.; his senior thesis focuses on LGBT rights in Lima, Perú. A Point Foundation Scholar, he plans to become an international human rights lawyer.