Chile's Matthew Shepard Case: How a Brutal Murder Changed the Country's Mind about Gay Rights

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Roberto Candia / AP

Mourners of Daniel Zamudio, a young gay man whose attackers brutally beat him, hold posters bearing his portrait as they wait for the arrival of the hearse carrying his remains to a cemetery in Santiago, Chile, Friday March 30, 2012.

On the evening of March 3, 24-year-old Daniel Zamudio was walking through a park in Santiago, Chile, when a group of men beat, mutilated and left him for dead because he was openly gay. Zamudio died from the shockingly brutal attack weeks later — but his death resuscitated legislation to increase legal protection for vulnerable minorities in Chile, including homosexuals.

It was, in fact, a watershed national moment. While other Latin American countries from Mexico to Argentina had begun to codify gay rights, ultra-conservative Roman Catholic Church leaders had thus far kept similar measures from gaining any traction in Chile. But as the Zamudio horror made Chileans realize just how oppressed homosexuals were in their South American nation, momentum began to turn. When the long-foundering anti-discrimination legislation, now known as the Zamudio Law, finally passed last month, its supporters lept into each other's arms in the Chilean Senate gallery. "Today," said Rolando Jiménez, director of the Movement for Chilean Sexual Minorities (Movhil), Chile has taken a historic step toward mitigating the injustices that affect excluded social groups."

For all its economic success, Chile's rigid cultural conservatism, as much as its isolated geography, has long made it an outpost of the western hemisphere. But passage of the Zamudio Law may signal not only a growing acceptance of gay men and women, but the coming-of-age of a generation intent on breaking with the strict Catholic mores that steer the country's society and politics. Suddenly, a once invisible gay and lesbian community has been thrust into a national conversation about sexual orientation, and many analysts attribute it to the influence of Chileans young enough not to remember the brutal, right-wing military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled Chile from 1973 to 1990.

That young cohort, says Silvia Lamadrid, a sociology professor at the University of Chile in Santiago, is considerably less inhibited about challenging authority — as witnessed the past two years by the massive student protests against Chile's education system. "I think Chile might look something like Spain after Franco" in that regard, says Lamadrid. "These young people aren't afraid." As if anticipating that trend, current center-right President Sebastián Piñera even spoke in support of gay rights during his 2009-10 election campaign in a bid to assure the country that he wouldn't take Chile back to its reactionary past.

And yet, once Piñera took office, it was evident that actually turning that rhetoric into reality still wasn't politically feasible. Young Chileans too, says Lamadrid, are aware of how far their society still has to go, especially when sex education is largely absent from even public schools and divorce was legalized less than a decade ago. "In Chile, you can do many things as long as you don't commit the vulgarity of making it public," says Lamadrid. "What happened to Zamudio could [still] happen to anyone who makes himself too public."

Karen Atala found that out eight years ago when she lost custody of her children for daring to live openly with her lesbian partner. The Chilean Supreme Court awarded custody to her ex-husband, citing the "psychological harm" the children would suffer if raised by lesbians. What's more, the court predicted the girls would "become confused about gender roles and suffer discrimination and isolation." In March, while Zamudio was in a coma, Atala won her appeal before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which ordered the Chile government to pay her $50,000 in damages and $12,000 in court expenses.

Veteran Chilean school teacher Sandra Pavez is still waiting for justice. In 2007, even though Pavez was a public school teacher, the Catholic Church was able to rescind her certificate to teach religion simply because she's openly a lesbian. Her dismissal, after 20 years in the classroom, stirred parents and students to support her Supreme Court challenge, which ultimately failed.

A generation ago, a setback like that was enough to silence homosexuals. But Pavez takes solace in a future under the Zamudio Law. "I think we are seeing Chile becoming a more tolerant country that respects people for who they are and not what they do in their private lives," she says. Chileans like her felt a certain bittersweet satisfaction earlier this year when Young and Wild, a film based on the cathartic writings of Camila Gutiérrez, a Chilean lesbian, won the top international screenwriting prize at the eminent Sundance Film Festival. Gutiérrez was raised an Evangelical — and when her parents found out that events depicted in Young and Wild were inspired by their daughter's life, they stopped speaking to her.

Still, the Sundance recognition and the supportive tweets and e-mails that poured in from around the world and inside Chile were vindication for Gutiérrez and Chile's gay community — punctuated by the Zamudio Law weeks later. Before putting her internal conflicts on paper, says Gutierrez, "I was used to living a double life, and I had this illusion that I would be able to perpetuate that double life."

That illusion of keeping homosexuality out of sight may finally be dissipating. Perhaps the best political evidence, says Andres Foffia, executive director of Fundacion Iguales (Equals Foundation) in Santiago, was Piñera's decision to push Congress to fast-track the dormant anti-discrimination legislation this spring after Zamudio's death. "At the public level," says Foffia, "the discussion has only just begun." Chilean legislators, in fact, say they're finally set to debate the President's bill to legalize gay civil unions.