September 30, 2014 at 12:59 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
State Dept. official: Latin America LGBT movement faces challenges

John Feeley, gay news, Washington Blade

John Feeley, principal deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. (Photo courtesy of the State Department)

A senior State Department official told the Washington Blade during a Sept. 26 interview that overcoming machismo remains among the most difficult challenges facing LGBT rights advocates in Latin America.

“It is the cultural heritage of machismo, which is a bad thing in many ways,” said John Feeley, principal deputy assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, during an interview at his Foggy Bottom office. “[It is] not just in the manifestation of anti-LGBT attitudes.”

Feeley conceded progress on LGBT rights in Latin American countries has been “spotty,” in spite of a few exceptions. These include Mexico City extending marriage rights to same-sex couples in 2010 and Uruguay and Argentina enacting expansive transgender rights laws.

“We have seen in some places — Argentina, Uruguay — some very progressive, advanced thinking,” he said.

Feeley also applauded gay U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic James “Wally” Brewster and his husband, Bob Satawake, in spite of lingering opposition over the appointment from Cardinal Nicolás de Jesús López Rodríguez of the Archdiocese of Santo Domingo and other religious leaders in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

“Wally is the ambassador of the United States,” said Feeley, noting Brewster’s work with the Dominican government on energy and other issues. “Those aren’t gay or non-gay or LGBT or non-LGBT (issues.)”

Same-sex couples are also able to legally marry in Canada, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, French Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Barthelemy, St. Martin, the Netherlands Antilles and the Mexican state of Coahuila. A handful of gays and lesbians in Colombia have exchanged vows since July 2013, but these unions have been challenged.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos; Chilean President Michelle Bachelet; Costa Rican Vice President Ana Helena Chacón and Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro, are among the Latin American officials who have publicly backed marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Gay Peruvian Congressman Carlos Bruce last September introduced a bill that would allow same-sex couples in the South American country to enter into civil unions.

The Chilean Senate on Tuesday is expected to vote on a measure that would allow gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions. Same-sex couples in Ecuador on Sept. 15 began to legally register their civil unions.

Colombia, Chile, Brazil and Uruguay earlier this month introduced a proposed resolution to the U.N. Human Rights Council that expresses “grave concern” over anti-LGBT violence and discrimination. The measure was adopted on Sept. 26 by a 25-14 vote margin with the support of every Latin American country on the body.

“That’s a good thing,” Feeley told the Blade.

In spite of these recent advances, Feeley noted “absolutely retrograde, medieval behavior” remains in several countries in the region.

Consensual same-sex sexual activity remains criminalized in Belize, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana.

Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller has yet to fulfill her 2011 campaign promise to call for a so-called conscience vote that would allow parliamentarians to consult with their constituents on whether to review the country’s anti-sodomy law. Trinidadian Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar last week said her government is not ready to “decide” whether to decriminalize homosexuality in her nation.

A 2013 report from Global Rights, an international human rights organization, notes more than half of the 300 reported LGBT murder victims in Brazil in 2012 were transgender. LGBT rights advocates in Jamaica, Honduras, Peru and other Caribbean and Latin American countries have told the Blade in recent interviews they feel authorities in their respective countries have not done enough to curb rates of anti-LGBT violence.

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, which the Washington-based Organization for American States created in 1959, is currently considering more than 40 LGBT-specific petitions. These include two cases brought by gay couples in Mexico and Chile who are seeking marriage rights from their respective governments.

“We are confident that the IACHR will investigate and take any action that it believes necessary to protect LGBT persons,” Feeley told the Blade.

He further described the commission’s petition system as “an important resource for LGBT persons.”

“The IACHR is also an important forum for LGBT persons without adequate legal resources in their home countries to turn to for protection,” said Feeley. “[It is] an important body to grant remedies to protect the human rights of LGBT persons.”

‘We just have to keep pushing’

Feeley, a former U.S. Marine, has been with the State Department for 24 years.

He has been posted in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, the Colombian capital of Bogotá and most recently in Mexico City. Feeley has been in his current post since May 2012.

Feeley reports to Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Feeley told the Blade that LGBT rights are “part of the panoply” of human rights issues.

“There is both my personal, but also a very strong policy statement from this administration that LGBT rights are human rights. Period. Full stop,” he said.

Feeley said the U.S. generally does not “get a lot of blowback” from Latin American governments on LGBT issues, in spite of criticisms from local advocates. He noted the South American countries that spearheaded the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution against anti-LGBT discrimination and violence to highlight his point.

“In Latin America we have pretty fertile soil, and yet we also have a lot of weeds,” said Feeley. “Those weeds would be those vestigial attitudes that we just have to keep pushing.”

Feeley added he feels the U.S. can further bolster the Latin American LGBT rights movement through its own efforts.

He noted he “never heard a thing” from the Obama administration in 2009 when he gave Tamiflu to the same-sex partners of personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City during the country’s H1N1 crisis. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton two months later announced the State Department had extended benefits to same-sex partners of U.S. diplomats and other Foreign Service employees.

“We took a huge step forward in my view when we did that,” said Feeley.

Feeley further noted members of the U.S. foreign service continue to publicly support LGBT advocacy efforts in the countries in which they are based.

Gonzalo Gallegos of the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica is among those who took part in an LGBT Pride march in San José, the Central American country’s capital, in June. American officials have also participated in similar events in Chile, Mexico and other Latin American nations in recent years.

The U.S. Consulate General in Recife, Brazil, in May celebrated the launch of a national campaign in support of Brazilian LGBT youth that coincided with the annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Consul General Usha Pitts contributed one of the first videos for the project titled “It Gets Better Brazil.”

The U.S. Embassies in Chile and Peru capitals earlier this year hosted María Eugenia González, co-founder of the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition. The U.S. Embassy in Peru also released an anti-bullying video.

Brewster and Satawake in June produced a video that commemorated LGBT Pride month.

“We are at our best when we are transparent as to who we are as an American people, what our values are and where we believe that human rights should be respected,” Feeley told the Blade. “The best way is to do it through example.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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