SANTIAGO, Chile - Chile’s conservative President, Sebastian Piñera, unexpectedly rallied support for equal marriage rights during a televised announcement to lawmakers last week.
“It is the time to guarantee this freedom and dignity to all people. It is time for equal marriage in our country,” he said to rapturous applause. “All people, regardless of their sexual orientation, will be able to live, love, and form a family with all the protection and dignity they need and deserve.”
The announcement provoked mixed reactions from Chile’s LGBTQ community, some of who accused the president of using gay rights to boost low approval ratings. Others questioned if he’ll actually act on his words.
“I don’t trust him,” says Cristian Abrigo Lagos, 35, who lives with his boyfriend in central Santiago. “He’s never spoken about gay rights before. He’s just saying it to seem more friendly, more human.”
Jeannette Silva, a sociologist at Mayor University who researches gender issues, said: “Piñera has no real interest in this topic. He is interested in his legacy and how his presidency is going to be written by historians.”
Meanwhile, the Movement for Sexuality Diversity organization—MUMs—accused the president of “pinkwashing,” and said his government “never cared” about the LGBTQ population and had done little for their rights during his eight years in power (his first term was from 2010-2014, and his second started in 2018). Rather, he has repeatedly opposed motions for equal marriage in 2017, he reiterated his belief that “a marriage is between a man and a woman.”
In January, prominent gay rights organization MOVILH accused Piñera of homophobia after his Sub-Secretary General, Máximo Pavez claimed that “the president’s belief is…. that the best family atmosphere for a child is where they can identify mother and father roles.”
Activists say that Piñera’s support of Catholic, conservative values has only normalized the discrimination against LGBTQ people in Chile, which includes instances of violent repression.
Piñera has been struggling to claw back popularity after his ratings dipped to historic lows of 14 percent after anti-government protests broke out in 2019. A billionaire businessman, protesters called for his resignation as they demanded greater equality, higher living standards and increased welfare support in the education, health, and pensions sectors. The state’s harsh repression of the protests was condemned by international human rights organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN.
The government managed to calm the unrest by conceding to protester’s demands for a new constitution. Last month, Chileans elected the 155 constituents to draft the document, but candidates from Piñera’s coalition performed poorly, losing out to independents and left-wing opponents. It was damning evidence of Chileans’ growing distaste for conservative politics and values.
The bill for equal marriage rights was first presented by former President Michelle Bachelet in 2017. However, lacking impetus from Piñera’s government, it has spent four years pending the senate’s approval.
For trans rights activist Alessia Injoque, Piñera’s announcement is a welcome surprise, “more than questioning whether his motivations are sincere or not, there are many families that need this law to pass.”
Injoque, who is running the 2022 presidential campaign for socialist opposition leader Paula Narváez, says Piñera’s change of opinion signals change in the country. “It is good when (politicians) take the stance of activists.”
“It would be absurd to think that this initiative erases everything Piñera’s done in the past, but above all, I’m happy we can advance.”
Camila Perez, 32, who lives in southern Chile, also welcomed the news. She holds a civil union status with her partner, but says many of Chile’s institutions do not recognize their relationship in the same way they do hetero married couples. Same-sex couples cannot adopt and have limitations to shared pensions, joint income, and even hospital visitation rights.
“We’re still being discriminated against. Equal marriage rights are valuable, so they do not have to invent a separate category for those of us in same-sex relationships.”
She says Piñera’s announcement is positive, despite his questionable motivations. “A lot of people same-sex partnerships aren’t activists or political. It’s opened a door for our rights.”
Piñera only has nine months left in office, and it remains to be seen how soon he will act on his words and under what terms. Activists say they will accept only full equal marriage rights, specifically including LGBTQ adoption.
Piñera’s announcement has caused rifts within his coalition, with several conservative members of Congress attempting to block the bill from passing. Chile’s Catholic church has also condemned the move.