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Chile’s LGBT movement wins historic victory with approval of civil unions

Chileans celebrate the passage of a civil union law on Jan. 28. (Twitter/Orbitagay)

Chileans celebrate the passage of a civil union law on Jan. 28. (Twitter/Orbitagay)

Rarely, do we activists get the opportunity to take out our rainbow flags and banners, not to stage a demonstration, but to celebrate. On January 28, Chilean activists had that rare opportunity: after four years of intense work by LGBT organizations, a civil union law was passed by Congress.

As activists in Chile, we felt this moment would never come. Living in a highly conservative society, in which the Catholic Church has great influence, we thought civil union was a dream that would never to be realized.

But yesterday Congress surprised us. With 78 votes in favor and just nine against, the civil union law was overwhelmingly approved. Starting July 2015, the first same-sex couples will be able to celebrate their union.

Two organizations have been key to this success: Fundación Iguales and Movilh. Supported by a broad base of activists and NGOs, these two organizations led the process for over five years. The law had a timid beginning when it was presented to the upper chamber in 2011. Give only “non-urgent” status by the president, it could have been decades until the law was pushed up for debate and voting. However, in 2013 LGBT and human rights organizations worked strongly during the months leading up to the presidential elections to encourage the public to vote for those candidates who openly supported the movement’s demands. Michelle Bachelet was reelected and, although she had been hesitant to make a strong public statement in support of the law, she had made a vague promised to lead a national debate on this topic. We were hopeful.

In March of 2014, just weeks after Bachelet began her term, and after three years of pressure by civil society as their work gathered strength, the president finally granted the law “urgent” status. With new members of Congress more open to the LGBT movement, it seemed the time had come.

Iguales and Movilh — in collaboration with other NGOs — continued to put pressure on lawmakers by traveling to Congress for each debate session, ensuring that the law was mentioned often in the press. They also organized marches to garner public support and met with members of congress to ensure their vote. Sadly, this attention brought an intense counter-reaction by evangelical groups, who protested outside of Congress on each occasion; in one instance, a pastor even stormed into a debate session and angrily disrupted lawmakers. In a quick succession of events, the law was approved by the upper chamber, sent for debate at the lower chamber, and was finally approved yesterday.

“We are thrilled that the state recognizes, for the first time, that same-sex couples also constitute a family and deserve protection,” said Luis Larrain of Fundación Iguales. “This is a step forward in the recognition of diversity.”

This law will inspire others to get involved with the LGBT movement, according to Felipe Villarreal, executive director of It Gets Better Chile. “Just last week, our LGBT youth had little reason to feel supported by the state,” he said. “The civil union law allows us to show them that there is indeed a brighter future ahead.”

While this success by no means meets the full length of the movement’s demands, as Rolando Jimenez of Movilh commented yesterday, “this is the time to make a pause and celebrate together.”