Changing times in Chile?

People mark the International Day against Homophobia in Santiago on 12 May 2012 A gay rights march in Santiago in May drew thousands of people onto the streets

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Chile has long had a reputation as one of the most straitlaced, socially conservative and homophobic countries in Latin America.

Gay sex was decriminalised only as recently as 1999, in stark contrast to Brazil and Argentina, where it has been allowed since the 19th Century.

To this day, Chile is one of only four countries in the region where the age of consent is higher for homosexuals than for heterosexuals.

The civil partnerships for gay couples that are now commonplace in Europe are outlawed here.

Gay marriage, legal in Argentina and Mexico City, is impossible in Chile. So is adoption by same-sex couples.

But things are changing. On Saturday 23 June, tens of thousands of people are expected to march though the capital, Santiago, demanding equality - not just for gays but for bisexuals, transvestites, transsexuals and indeed for Chilean society as a whole.

This will be the country's second March for Equality. Around 35,000 people turned up for the first, a year ago, and organisers say they expect this one to be at least as big.

"Chilean society is changing," says Pablo Simonetti, a novelist and well-known gay rights campaigner.

"Ten years ago, people didn't come out of the closet until they were 25 or 26. I myself was 28. Those from the generation before us didn't come out of the closet until they were 40 or 50 and the generation before that simply never came out."

"But, these days, young people are coming out and talking to their parents about it. They have much more freedom than we did and much less fear."

Indignation

This has been a milestone year for gay rights in Chile.

In March, a 24-year-old man, Daniel Zamudio, was beaten to within an inch of his life in a Santiago park, apparently for being gay.

Start Quote

I personally plan to keep up the pressure on President Pinera until the last day of his mandate”

End Quote Pablo Simonetti Gay Chilean campaigner

His attackers carved swastikas into his body. He was taken to hospital where he died three weeks later.

In years gone by his murder might have passed uncommented in Chile, but in the current climate of change it prompted indignation.

Within weeks, politicians had passed a new anti-discrimination law that had languished in parliament for the previous seven years.

The 2012 census was the first in Chile's history to give gays the option to declare that they live in a same sex couple.

And the government is also changing the rules on blood donation to prevent potential donors from being turned away simply for being gay.

In March, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (ICHR) ruled in favour of a lesbian mother who had been denied custody of her daughters by Chile's Supreme Court because she lived with a woman.

The ICHR ordered the state to pay compensation and educate its judiciary about gender issues.

Stepping out

"Each year the pace of change gets faster," says Pablo Capellaro, a gay Chilean who lives in Santiago with his Peruvian partner, Marcel Deza.

Pablo Capellaro (l) and Marcel Deza Pablo and Marcel would like to marry but cannot

The couple have been together for six years. "I'd love to marry Marcel but it's not possible for now," Mr Capellaro says. "I'd love to have the right to adopt too, but that's not possible either."

Mr Deza says Chileans tend to be more conservative than his Peruvian compatriots, but that gay rights campaign groups are better organised and more vocal in Santiago than in Lima.

Both men say they have been discriminated against in Chile for being gay, but that on the whole people accept them for who they are.

"I don't think Chileans are discriminatory in general," Mr Capellaro says. "At work I'm very open about the fact I'm gay. It usually stops people in their tracks for a few minutes but then they just deal with it."

Opinion polls show that while most Chileans remain opposed to gay marriage - they view marriage as strictly between a man and a woman - they favour civil partnerships, which would put gay relationships on a firmer legal footing.

That is the view of the President Sebastian Pinera, who made the introduction of civil partnerships an election pledge in 2009. He surprised many by including openly gay couples in his campaign commercials.

Last year, his government sent a bill to parliament to legalise civil partnerships but it has been blocked by conservatives within his own coalition and has made little headway.

The fear among the gay community is that, with presidential elections due next year, the timetable is slipping.

"One of the aims of Saturday's march is to remind the government of the need to keep its promise," says Mr Simonetti. "I personally plan to keep up the pressure on President Pinera until the last day of his mandate."

Mr Deza says that as well as legislative reform he would like to see better education on gender issues in Chilean schools.

Earlier this year, the education ministry was forced to revise some of its teaching material that described homosexuality as "a disorder".

Incidents like that suggest that Chile still has a way to go before it shrugs off its reputation as a conservative, homophobic corner of South America.

But gay rights campaigners say marches like the one to be held on Saturday are a step in that direction.

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