The Rough Guide to South America cites Sanitago as being one of the few cities in the continent that offer a ‘safe and welcoming haven for any sexual orientation’. On the surface, that might even be true. Bustling Bellas Artes and bohemian Bellavista boast a number of gay and lesbian clubs, bars and cafes.
However scratch behind the surface even a little and the truth rears its ugly head. A billboard in the Metro I spotted a few weeks ago (paid for by www.masrespeto.cl) gives you an idea: ‘61% of Chileans have little or no respect for homosexuals’. 61% – a figure that surely puts into question the notion that Santiago welcomes gay and lesbian travellers with open arms.
It’s all relative I suppose. Perhaps in comparison to more conservative rural areas of Chile or other South American countries, Santiago is a liberal oasis. However, coming from Manchester, England, the homophobia here is hard to swallow. This weekend, Manchester is celebrating its annual Gay Pride festival in the very centre of the city. http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/s/1134315_city_shows_its_pride
Saturday was the traditional parade around the city with over 70 floats which included gay men and women from the local police force and fire stations. As every year it was watched by thousands of people including families, grandmothers and children. Of course, Manchester has its share of homophobia too, just like anywhere, but the sheer number of openly gay businesses, charities, politicians, events and TV programmes in the city are testimony to its open-mindedness.
Today in English class in downtown Santiago, I mentioned that Manchester was celebrating Gay Pride. One of my students immediately responded, “I don’t like gays”. She told me that she’d seen a similar parade in Canada and that she hadn’t liked it because there were too many lesbians there. She thought that lesbians were women who “made the decision to be lesbian because they wanted to be fashionable or because they were too ugly to get a man”. She said this without shame or without thinking for a moment that anyone might have a different opinion. She was a young, educated woman who firmly believed that homosexual was not something you were, but rather something you decided to be.
It wasn’t the first time I’d come across such blatant homophobia. I recently went out for some drinks with a group of young Chilean university students. During the course of the conversation, I mentioned that I had gay friends. “So you’re gay then?” “No, I just have gay friends”. This took a while to sink in. I talked about Manchester and the fact that gay marriage and gay adoption were accepted in England. The same girl chipped in, “Oh, but gay parents have gay babies”. I asked her how, with that logic, straight parents had gay children, but she didn’t answer. Perhaps she was the daughter of the taxi driver who, during my first month in the city, pointed out two guys together and told me that there weren’t men, they were ‘gays’. Worse still, on the computer terminal in the staff room at work, I was blocked from reading an article on the internet about Germain Greer because it contained the words ‘gay rights’.
I’m not gay, lesbian or even bi-sexual, but it saddens me deeply that such conservative, bigoted and hateful attitudes exist here. For me, a person’s sexual orientation is something they are born with. If a guy prefers to be with another guy, I really don’t see how that’s different from his preference for white wine over red, or liking the colour blue more than the colour green. You can’t choose who you fall in love with any more than you can choose your family or your neighbours.
Some will no doubt blame homophobic attitudes here on the fact that Chile is a relatively new democracy after years of dictatorship or on the influence of the Catholic Church. Others may blame the lesbian and gay community for being too passive and not standing up for their rights. But to be fair to them, with the attitudes on display here, who can blame them if they’re still in the closet?
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