Lesbianism is one of the issues in which Latin American feminists have been cautious. They have not wanted to get too far ahead of the people or to provoke a negative popular reaction. In 1998 interviews that I had with founders of women’s organizations in Honduras, the women leaders maintained that lesbianism was an issue that they could not possibly embrace without significant negative political repercussions, and they considered it Eurocentric for European feminists to take them to task for not engaging the issue (see “The rights of women” 11/11/13).
I have not found a great difference between Latin America and the North with respect to attitudes toward homosexuality. In both cultural contexts, there are many people who consider it unnatural and/or sinful. But public discourse toward the issue has unfolded in different ways. In Latin America, there is a much greater cultural tendency to accept people as they are, which leads to a cultural tendency toward tolerance, and much less of a tendency toward hate crimes, violence, and aggression. Nonetheless, taking into account popular definitions of homosexuality as sinful or unnatural, women’s organizations have not embraced the issue of gay rights. As a result, leaders of the popular movements in Latin America have tended to avoid the issue, without speaking for or against gay rights. In contrast, progressive movements in the North have embraced the issue of gay rights with little concern for the values of significant sectors among the people or for the negative political consequences of such a position for the progressive movements.
In Cuba, organizations have been formed recently with an agenda of gay rights, and the daughter of Raúl Castro is playing a leading role. Listening to the public discussion that has emerged, I have observed that gay rights advocates speak in a tone that is sensitive to the values of the people, hoping not to provoke a negative reaction. In discussion, for example, of the unfairness of laws of property ownership with respect to homosexual couples, gay rights advocates make explicit that they are not advocating “gay marriage.” Rather, their goal is to establish laws that are fair to all.
In contrast, in the progressive movements of the North, there is advocacy of “gay marriage.” We should reflect on the meaning of such a proposal. Marriage is a religious ceremony, and it is a ceremony that gives the union a sacred character. To propose gay marriage is to ask for popular blessing of gay unions, and not merely acceptance of it as a legally-sanctioned option for those who desire it. To advocate gay marriage is overly provocative, and it is asking of the people more than is necessary.
The progressive movements in the United States cannot afford to have the people divided over gay marriage, and they must search for a centrist position that could be the basis for common ground. Perhaps the key would be to propose that the state get out of the marriage business altogether, inasmuch as marriage is a religious ceremony, and it should not be an affair of the state. Rather than regulating marriage, the state should regulate domestic partnerships, in which two adults living together freely enter into an economic contract that designates common property. As with existing marriage laws, a domestic partnership law can regulate what ought to occur with the common property when the union is dissolved by the death of one of the partners, or by the desire to dissolve the partnership of one of the two. A new domestic partnership law would not only protect the property rights of both partners with respect to gay unions, it also would open up possibilities for a wide range of unions involving two adults living together, facilitating a diversity of legally sanctioned life styles, in which the state would never inquire concerning the personal or sexual relation between the two. The state would not sanctify any of the unions; it would legally recognize them. With a new domestic partnership law, the state would not be blessing gay marriage, but would be recognizing the diversity of life styles among the people.
We should appreciate that the issue of gay rights is not like other issues. The right of all persons to adequate nutrition and housing or the right of all nations to sovereignty are rights that no person can reasonably deny, and for this reason, popular revolutionary movements affirm consistently and clearly, without compromise or equivocation, that these rights must be protected. But the morality of homosexuality is a matter concerning which reasonable people can disagree. All human societies have norms and values with respect to sexuality, defining some forms of sexual behavior as unacceptable; as a consequence, we are all expected to control and channel sexual desires. In many societies at present, reflecting an uneven transition from traditional to modern to post-modern thought, there is no consensus among the people concerning what forms of sexual behavior are appropriate. And for this reason, a proposal for the blessing of homosexual unions divides the people.
Revolutionary processes should not enter this kind of cultural conflict among the people, and the triumphant revolutions of the world have not done so. Revolutions seek the protection of those rights that have been affirmed by humanity in a wide variety of official declarations of an international character, in representation of the diverse nations, cultures, and peoples of the world (see “Universal human values” 4/16/2014). But the quest by popular revolutionary movements for the protection of universally recognized rights provokes powerful enemies whose agenda is the maximization of corporate profits and the protection of the political and economic interests of elites. All of the people must be united and mobilized against these formidable forces, and the worst thing the movement can do is put forth a proposal that is inconsistent with the cultural values of many of the people and thus considerably reduces popular support for the revolutionary project.
Ideally, revolutionary processes should not take a position with respect to cultural debates among the people, other than to make clear that the revolutionary project will establish structures of popular democracy, thus facilitating a process of sustained popular discussion free of the distortion of particular interests, enabling the people to arrive at consensus. If such a position of deferral to the future is not politically possible, the revolution should seek a middle ground: affirming the dignity of all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, and affirming that all persons should be treated with respect and civility; and proposing a new law of domestic partnerships that would seek to legally protect the rights of all persons with respect to the distribution of common property that emerges during unions. It is a question of affirming the diversity of the people while seeking to forge the unity of the people.