LGBT Rights & International Affairs in Mexico, with Genaro Lozano

Jun 19, 2018

Professor Genaro Lozano of Ibero-American University in Mexico City is also a TV presenter, columnist, and LGBT activist. He discusses the long history and current "fragmented scenario" of LGBT rights in Mexico and other Latin American countries and also explores U.S.-Mexico relations, especially since Trump's election. Meanwhile Mexico is not standing still. It has free trade agreements with the EU and others, and China may be next.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: I'm Alexander Görlach. I'm connected today with Genaro Lozano, a friend of mine actually, from Mexico City. He is an academic, he is a TV presenter, and he is an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activist in the country. I have been a guest on his TV show Foro Global quite a few times and I am glad to return the favor today.

How are you, Genaro?

GENARO LOZANO: I'm very happy to be here, too. Thank you for the call. It's a pleasure talking to you and to your audience.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: My project here with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs is to talk about the concept of Latin America, the concept of the West, and how much they have in common. I personally would always argue Latin America is, despite the fact of course of having its own culture and its own tradition, also due to history, an integrated part of Western society.

To kick this interview off, since you have been very much active in LGBT issues, I was wondering what you make out of this. Is the West—Europe, the United States, and the part of Latin America you know—related in some way when it comes to LGBT rights and the debates about it?

GENARO LOZANO: Sure. Well, the history of LGBT rights in Latin America is kind of long. It all started at the same time as the Third World revolution in the United States. In Mexico, at least, LGBT groups and the LGBT social movement started to demonstrate back in the 1960s, when Mexico was still facing a very totalitarian regime that was killing students and disappearing people. The same is happening right now again, by the way, but back in the 1960s it was very common.

The LGBT movement started, at least the gay parades, back in 1978. The same story, it is very similar to what happened in Argentina. Argentina has also a very strong LGBT movement that has at least a 40-year-long story.

But the current situation right now is, of course, a very fragmented scenario in which countries like Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay have taken very important steps to combat discrimination. They have created institutions, like national councils for the prevention and eradication of discrimination, that support same-sex marriage or LGBT rights. But there are other countries, there are other regions, in Latin America that still have prohibited same-sex marriage, that have banned it. The countries in Central America specifically are the most conservative ones, and the most conservative governments are combating LGBT rights in the region. As well, in countries such as Bolivia and Ecuador there is still a big question mark as to what the governments are trying to do to protect LGBT rights. So we have a very fragmented scenario, as I said.

It has also depended on the political tone of a country. Sometimes elected governments have taken the refugees of countries, such as Argentina or Uruguay, LGBT rights have been able to advance. In countries where the rightist governments have combated it or have tried to put a stop to the advancement of LGBT rights, it has been more difficult for LGBT activity to succeed, such as in Mexico, which had a very conservative government from 2006 to 2012.

But anyhow, the situation now, there is a little hope the region will eventually succeed in this gay revolution that started probably around 2000 with the new millennium, when activists were starting to have legal victories. But still, there was a recent article that courts in the region are very progressive for LGBT rights, legally at least. But there are regions where people are still killed for being gay or lesbian, especially transgender people.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: How is this like when you describe the hindrances for the LGBT movement and you talk about conservatives? I am quite sure the Catholic Church plays a role in here. Is it also like, let's say, Evangelical or Pentecostal churches coming in from the United States?

GENARO LOZANO: Yes, the influence of the church is still very strong in Latin America, especially in countries such as Chile, which has a very conservative society, and Colombia as well.

In Mexico the church has a history of being prohibited from political activity. Mexico had a war with the Catholic Church in the 1900s and Mexico is a very strict country that prohibits Catholic political activism.

But on the other hand, we can see the Catholic Church has been very active in mobilizing people for trying to stop the advancement of same-sex marriage in the whole country. Mexico is a federation, just like the United States. We have 31 states and the federal district, which covers Mexico City. In Mexico City same-sex marriage was approved in 2009, and ever since some other states, at least 12 other states, have followed and have approved same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court of Mexico has also ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, but there are still 20 other states that have not taken legislative action for approving same-sex marriage.

The Catholic Church in Mexico has been very active, mobilizing people in the streets, trying to stop the advancement of same-sex marriage at the local congresses. They have also been very present in public media with speakers talking against what they call "the ideology of gender." These groups have a lot of money. They have civil society behind them as well as conservative groups that are teaming with the Catholic Church.

The same is happening not only in Mexico but also in other countries in the region, where the Catholic Church has also formed these kinds of organizations that usually have the name of the National Front for the Protection of Family. That is their name in Mexico, that is their name in Colombia, that is their name in Guatemala, that is their name in Chile.

So they have teamed up regionally, the Catholic churches of all these countries, in empowering these kinds of groups, mobilizing and lobbying legislators, and [collecting] a lot of money also from conservative businessmen. There are some articles by some investigative journalists in Mexico that have said that Carlos Slim, for instance, the richest man in Latin America and one of the richest men in the world, and that one of his sons, who is very conservative, is also providing money to these groups.

So there is a very big challenge for LGBT organizations and for people who are progressive in Latin America because these groups will have a very important impact in the next year's presidential elections in Colombia, Mexico, and Chile in November and in other political races that will take place, because these groups are, as I said, putting a lot of money into the electoral process as well.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: What I hear when you talk is that it is not only a movement, let's say, in the capital of Mexico but also in many regions, not in all of them.

It was interesting. When I was in Mexico, I heard this argument saying that the indigenous cultures were more inclusive when it came to a variety of sexual orientations. This would be in strong opposition to the Hispanic tradition of homophobia.

Is that a real thing? Or do you see here, a clash of, let's say, Hispanic culture and original culture?

GENARO LOZANO: That argument was used in 2004 in Mexico in the fight when there were some initiatives that were trying to recognize same-sex couples, civil unions. Many people said, "No, but our traditions are very conservative. We even had the Spanish Inquisition in the whole region, in the whole of Latin America, in the whole Spanish empire, people were killed or condemned for homosexuality, and there is a very strong religious Catholic feeling in the whole region."

But, honestly, in the whole region, at least since the 19th century, homosexuality was never prohibited. The local Napoleonic Codes that were put into effect in the whole region decriminalized homosexuality. So the states have never prosecuted, at least ever since the independence of the whole region from Spain—the region was born as independent countries without laws that were punishing homosexuality. So there is a very long tradition of recognition of sexual orientation in that way.

What happened in 2005 and at the beginning of the turn of the century was that these cultural wars weren't very—we didn't need to have cultural wars. Like in Mexico, the whole political ideological battle was you were for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which is a political party that governed Mexico for over 81 years and now it is back, or you were against the PRI. That is what we called an ideological battle.

Now, ever since the 2000s, there are many political cleavages that are starting to appear. You are pro-LGBT rights or you are against them; you are pro-abortion or pro-life; pro-ecology; pro the Zapatista movement, which is also now back in the political scene, or against it. So the whole region is starting to have a lot of identity movements that we didn't have before because of the very tight control of the political parties.

Now the thing is that these political parties, the multi-competition of political parties in Mexico that started back in the 2000s, are still not sure what is their position, what will these political parties stand for in regard to LGBT rights. It has been a very difficult task for the LGBT organizations and activists in Mexico to convince the leftist parties to support LGBT rights. Now, I think that, after 17 years of trying to do this, at least the party from the left, the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) at least, is a very strong supporter of LGBT rights, where it wasn't previously.

The PRI, the ruling party, is very schizophrenic in a way, because sometimes they say, "Yes, we support this," and even the president of Mexico sent a national marriage initiative to Congress by which he wanted the whole country to approve same-sex marriage, but this bill was defeated by his own party in the Congress, by the PRI. So that is why I say it is very schizophrenic.

On the other hand, the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) party, which used to govern Mexico from 2000 until 2012, has always combated this.

Also I think that more than cultural, there is still a very strong political resistance against LGBT rights.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: You mentioned a few times already now "the left" and "the right" and the stances they may have on the issue. If you look in the broader scope, you could argue that LGBT rights are accompanied by other questions of social justice and participation, and then it very quickly leads into the functionality of democracy.

What is your take on that, if you look into this on a broader scope?

GENARO LOZANO: Well, maybe it is not politically correct to say that, but at least in Latin America, LGBT rights were first recognized in the private sector. There are many multinational corporations present in Mexico and in other countries, Brazil and Chile are the biggest ones, that, at least since the 1980s and 1990s, they started having the strength of recognizing same-sex partners and giving them social rights, etc. I am talking about companies such as Walmart or McKenzie, these global firms that have taken this initiative in the United States and in Europe and then they started to apply them in Mexico.

So in Mexico, and I'm sure in many other Latin American countries, when the activists learned about this—because nobody knew; I mean, people used to say in very small circles, "My partner worked at this company and I have these benefits." When LGBT activists started to look at that, they started to see that in many ways the market and the liberal ideas that used to come from the right are not necessarily in conflict with the recognition of LGBT rights. On the contrary, the market needs to have more specialized people, the best of the best, and of course many LGBT people knew that they had the opportunity to go to good universities, that they were looking for a job, and these companies were starting to recruit them.

Now we think that in the private sector, 17 years after, I think that the private sector in many ways has even done better than the state to recognize LGBT rights. I think that this trend is also happening in many other countries. Especially, for instance, in Venezuela, that has no LGBT rights at all, but where these global companies are still there, the ones that haven't fled the country because of the regime of Nicolás Maduro, these companies are still giving these protections and these social security rights to their employees.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: That's interesting. I wasn't aware of their strong involvement in that.

It is hard to argue against the fact that we live in an age of identity where, very sadly, minority groups are scapegoated again. You have this in many parts of the world, like in Russia against homosexuals, in Turkey against the Christians and the Kurds, in Europe especially against the Muslims.

Somebody like you, who is working in that field and is very aware of the very nature of discrimination, how do you perceive the current state of affairs? I mean you can go on—like Brexit was against the Polish and Muslims, and Donald Trump is against the Mexicans. I mean it must be worrying for you to live in this time, or what do you make out of the current situation?

GENARO LOZANO: There is a global conscience. I think that also the region has learned, Latin America has learned, that we are not isolated, that this is part of a bigger trend, and I think the fact that we have constructed transnational allies. Before, for instance, when Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil were having their own internal battles to conquer all these LGBT rights they did it by themselves. Then they learned how important it was to have these global connections, to see what the people in Spain were doing when they approved same-sex marriage in 2005.

I think that now there is a global conscience that what is happening in Africa regarding LGBT rights is really wrong. I see much more often that activists, at least in social media, or at least through their organizations and through position papers that they publish or public stances that they take, I see activists condemning the homophobia of Africa. I see the activists are saying that the Evangelical groups are actually advancing these discriminatory laws in the whole African continent. I see activists worried about the situation of gay people in Chechnya. I see activists going and protesting outside of the Russian embassy here in Mexico, but also in Santiago, Chile or in Brazil as well, when Vladimir Putin says something about LGBT rights.

At the same time, I also see that at least the foreign policy of the United States during Barack Obama became more involved in trying to support LGBT rights around the world. Last year, for instance, here in Mexico City, during the LGBT parade last summer, for the first time we saw the American flag parading through Paseo de la Reforma, which is the biggest, most important avenue in Mexico City, and parading with their ambassador. Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, was participating in the LGBT parade along with the ambassador from Canada, the UK ambassador, and the German ambassador. We hadn't seen this before.

You know, the last time that we saw an American flag demonstrating in Mexico City or in a parade or in a demonstration in Mexico City was in the 19th century when the Americans invaded Mexico and took half of our territory during a war. We had never seen the American flag again at a political event.

In the 21st century, of course, I think that there is a global connection or a global consensus, at least between some democracies, that advancing LGBT rights is good for inclusion, it is good for democracy, and it actually implements or gives people a better quality of life.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: It's great you allude to the relationship between Mexico and the United States of America. When Donald Trump was elected, in the morning, I was still in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I took a flight to Mexico City that very day. Basically, Cambridge having voted 89 percent for Hillary Clinton, the mood was really bad that very day, and then in Mexico City it wasn't much better either.

But it seems that Donald Trump, with his prejudices, could just build upon, let's say, the conflicted history the two countries share with each other. You just alluded to the war in the 19th century.

What do you make out of this situation, especially since you have an election looming as well, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador who has also embraced an anti-American rhetoric? How is the whole situation here?

GENARO LOZANO: In Mexico when Trump won, as you recall, people were very worried. We were saying, "Oh my god, this is the end of the world. We are probably going to have a new war with the United States. Let's do whatever we can to protect ourselves."

One year after, the real situation is that NAFTA, which was one of Donald Trump's targets during his campaign, is still working. NAFTA is working at the usual local daily business level. Renegotiation of the treaty is still taking place. The United States has not stopped the renegotiation of the treaty. Even though Donald Trump tweets every now and then that NAFTA is the worst commercial deal ever signed by the United States, the reality is that his negotiators are still face-to-face with Mexican and Canadian ones.

The reality is that he also promised to build a wall along the border, and he hasn't done that because he doesn't have the money nor the political will nor the political support of Congress to do that.

So the relationship between Mexico and the United States is passing through a very difficult moment because of the person who is seated at the White House. But we have learned in Mexico that the Mexican-U.S. relationship is much more complex than what just the president says.

Back in the 1980s, when Mexico was dominated by the PRI and the president was kind of a king, we used to think the opposite. We used to think that whatever the president said in Mexico and in the United States that that would be what would happen in the bilateral relationship. But now there are multiple actors, such as Congress, civil society, universities, chambers of commerce, etc., that have activated ever since Donald Trump won the presidency, and they are still fighting to keep the bilateral relationship as strong and as important as it is, because there is no other relationship, neither for the United States nor for Mexico, more important than the Mexican-U.S. bilateral relationship.

You know our trade has quintupled through the years, we have over 20 million people of Mexican descent in the United States living there, our cultures are very integrated, and I don't think that Donald Trump will be able to, first, build that stupid wall and, second, to end NAFTA. If he does that, I think that he will have a political internal revolution of people saying that he is damaging the national interest of the United States.

So I think that he talks a lot, he barks a lot, but he doesn't bite.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: So you would then say there is no repercussion in your presidential election next year? The last time I was in Mexico, there was some talk about Mr. López Obrador being a presidential contender, maybe winning the election, and also embodying and embracing an anti-American resentment.

GENARO LOZANO: Yes. The anti-American sentiment is already not only in Mexico, it's everywhere. I have seen the recent Gallup Polls saying that the image of the United States has declined ever since Donald Trump took the presidency of the United States. After the very good work that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did to alleviate the image of the United States, that was very damaged by the new president.

But now, with Donald Trump, I think that not only Mexico, but also Europe, also Africa, and the rest of the world, plus Russia, mistrusts the United States.

I think that you remember when he was here there were parades against Donald Trump in Mexico City, very big ones.

But we have always had this relationship. Mexicans have distrusted Americans ever since we started as an independent country. The United States mistrusts Mexico. We have tried to build a relationship of mutual trust through NAFTA and through other mechanisms. But nowadays, with Trump in the presidency, of course the United States has a very bad reputation.

And talking of the 2018 election, you mentioned López Obrador. López Obrador has consistently tried to create a more moderate image of himself. Unlike Trump, he says that free trade is good for Mexico, it has been good for the country, and that if he wins the presidency of Mexico he will do his best to keep NAFTA. He is sending a message to businessmen in Mexico that he can be moderate. He has support from the left, but he is a centrist.

He has shown that he has worked with businessmen in Mexico City when he was mayor of the city. He teamed up with Carlos Slim to rebuild Mexico City's historic center. He has tried to say that he is going to protect our migrants that go to the United States, that he will defend our national sovereignty, and all this very nationalistic rhetoric that is not unique or exclusive to him.

There is also the former first lady of Mexico, Margarita Zavala. She is trying to run with kind of a Hillary Clinton image, but in the opposite ideological spectrum, because she has a very conservative approach, is anti-LGBT rights, etc. She is also having this nationalist rhetoric against Donald Trump.

The same with the three—the whole political contenders of 2018 are using very nationalistic rhetoric and saying that they will defend the country against Donald Trump.

So it is not only that there are a lot of relevant questions for Mexicans, but who is actually going to do it best, who is actually going to protect our national interest. I think that this election that will take place next July will show that Mexicans still want to be involved with the United States. They want to have free trade. They want to be able to fly back and forth to the United States to visit their own families and relatives.

This is the first opportunity for López Obrador to actually win the presidency, which he already tried to contest on two occasions.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: To sum this up, this conversation, which is quite fascinating and exciting, you mentioned Europe a few times. I understand, also due to proximity, the relationship with the United States may be different than the one with Europe.

How do you perceive Europe, especially if you look at the scope of this whole series of my interviews, as a concept of the West? How do you perceive Europe in that context? Europe has an old history, as Mexico has, the Spain-Mexican relationship. Is Europe the part of the West that a Mexican or a person from Latin America likes to look to?

GENARO LOZANO: Yes, certainly. We actually have had a free trade agreement with the European Union ever since 2000. By the way, that treaty is also under renegotiation. Mexican business negotiators are traveling to Brussels and they are flying to Europe every month to see how the progress is going, especially after Brexit, because now Mexico needs to see what it is going to do with the United Kingdom that is not part of this agreement.

The political associations call it a free trade agreement. The European Union only has two treaties like that in the whole world, one with Mexico and one with Chile.

That negotiation is going very well, according to the European ambassadors here in Mexico and also Mexican officials.

Mexico, of course, has always tried to diversify its trade partners. The United States is 80 percent of our trade, exports and imports, but Europe has had a very steady growth in that sense. And Mexico is always, of course, looking to other possibilities of having better trade partners. We are part of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. We also are trying to get the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) approved. Mexico has also trade agreements with Colombia, Peru, and with Israel, and is trying to get one with Japan.

Of course Mexico looks in other directions. It is also trying to look at what to do with China. Chinese officials were in Mexico very recently, and Mexico was telling them that we are very interested in exploring the possibility of having a free trade agreement. Of course, for China that would be unprecedented, even though President Xi Jinping is now a Trump supporter of free trade, probably more than Donald Trump.

Mexico is always looking at ways of trying to diminish or to have less dependence on American trade.

ALEXANDER GÖRLACH: Genaro Lozano, many thanks for this insightful conversation. It has been, in fact, a pleasure to have the roles reversed and me today asking you rather than usually on your show Foro Global.

I hope to see you soon again in Mexico. Take care.

GENARO LOZANO: I hope to see you, too. Thank you so much for this interview.

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