Costa Rica carves a new path

By Ethan Jiang

In 1998, a Costa Rican Pride parade in the capital of San José was canceled after the president at the time, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, refused to grant a permit for the event. 21 years later, President Carlos Alvarado Quesada became the first Costa Rican President to march at the annual gay pride parade in San José, leading a group of over 100,000 through the streets. And just as the attitudes of those in power have changed, so too have the laws they enforce. This week, Costa Rica became the first Central American country to recognize same-sex marriage.

The new freedom was spurred by two landmark judicial decisions. The first, coming from the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, compelled all members of the Organization of American States (the UN of North and South America) to recognize same-sex marriage. The second ruling, issued by Costa Rica’s domestic Constitutional Court, created an 18-month timeframe to officially implement the broader international decision. While a number of members have already legalized same-sex marriage or civil unions, Cuba, Paraguay, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Peru, and Honduras all lag behind. 

The country’s new law is being celebrated both domestically and across the world. Alphonso David, president of the American nonprofit Human Rights Campaign, lauded the ruling: “Today, Costa Rica has made history, bringing marriage equality to Central America for the first time.”

However, the queer rights movement in Costa Rica is not yet in the clear. Conversion therapy remains legal, and discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation is not explicitly prohibited. In addition, geographic polarization is on the rise, and while attitudes in some urban areas are improving, others are becoming even more homophobic. 

Still, those remaining barriers pale in comparison to the ugly history of LBTQ rights in the nation. Under Spanish rule, homosexuality was criminalized and stigmatized, with broadly negative attitudes carrying over into the late 20th century. In one egregious example, an official in 1990 tried to stop an “Encuentro,” or an international meeting of lesbians, by blocking the travel of unaccompanied women into the country. When asked how security should identify lesbians at airports, he claimed that women who had short hair or wore pants should be detained.

Costa Rica’s progress is all the more surprising given lingering homophobia in a majority Catholic nation. A survey conducted by the University of Costa Rica in January of 2018 found support for same-sex unions hovering around 30 percent, likely as a result of organized efforts by religious institutions. Later that year, for instance, the Catholic Church’s Episcopal Conference of Costa Rica argued that “in the natural order of things, that basic family nucleus of society is based on monogamous and heterosexual marriage.”

Indeed, Quesada’s main opponent in the most recent presidential election was a member of the National Restoration Party, a Christian political group which staunchly opposed same-sex marriage during the campaign season. In combination with other Christian allies, the National Restoration Party controls fourteen seats in the legislative assembly and routinely filibusters legislation to block progress on LGBTQ rights.

Regardless, the ruling is now law, and hundreds of same-sex couples have already wed in the country. Moreover, the importance of this ruling is larger than one country. David continues that “other signatory countries… should follow in Costa Rica’s footsteps and adopt the Inter-American Court’s guidance by establishing marriage equality.” Hopefully, the remaining Central American states will see the new ruling as precedent and cooperate with guidance from the Organization of American States. 

This year, Costa Rica’s pride parade may be more muted as it is not yet safe to return to the streets. Yet the nation’s LGBTQ people will still celebrate, for even as many are separated, others are closer together than ever before.

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