LGBTI people in Latin American education communities are faced, on a daily basis, with situations that require them to decide whether or not to share information about their sexual orientation or gender identity in the schools where they work, study or take their children. Can Latin American schools, colleges and universities be transformed into spaces that are safe, respectful and inclusive of LGBTI people?
Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Education International Latin America (EILA) Regional Office decided to produce a document entitled Respect for Gender Identity and Sexual Diversity in Education Trade Unions in Latin America (in Spanish). The publication was developed from a human rights perspective with the aim of providing a tool for education unions to promote respect for the gender identity and sexual orientation of people in education communities in the region.
Although it is not intended as an education document, the inclusion of a glossary of terms related to LGBTI diversity provides everyone with knowledge of the basic concepts linked to the issue. It also includes recommendations for education trade union organisations to enable them to contribute to the creation of safe and respectful spaces for LGBTI people within trade unions and educational institutions.
Fighting discrimination against LGBTI people in Latin America
The decision to produce this publication was driven by the need to act in response to the realities in a region marked by inequalities of all kinds. The 2021 Regional Human Development Report of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) confirmed that Latin America continues to hold the unfortunate title of being the world’s second most unequal region . These inequalities are reproduced when it comes to access to rights for the LGBTI population. While some countries are at the forefront of progress in the recognition of their rights, in others, members of the LGBTI community are forced to migrate to escape violence and discrimination.
These inequalities are also replicated within countries, with notable differences between large cities and more rural or outlying areas, where progress on the recognition of rights for sexually diverse people is limited or non-existent. Furthermore, the exclusion of LGBTI people is exacerbated when combined with other factors such as socioeconomic status, skin colour, ethnicity, migratory status or gender.
The coming to power of right-wing and extreme right-wing political leaders linked to conservative and religious fundamentalist groups, such as Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duque in Colombia or Giammattei in Guatemala, places the LGBTI population in these countries in a highly vulnerable position. If the president of Brazil is consistently derogatory towards LGBTI people , is it any wonder that a gay teenager in Manaus is bullied by his classmates, or that a lesbian teacher in Cuiabá does not feel safe sharing information about her private life?
The role of education unions
Faced with these complex scenarios of discrimination and latent violence, action is needed to raise awareness and educate the general public, and teachers in particular. The unwillingness or inability of state authorities to act to ensure inclusive schools and equal access to human rights for LGBTI people places education trade unions in front of the dilemma of whether to take a stand and act on it or to look the other way and do nothing.
If education unions in Latin America are committed to including LGBTI demands in their agendas and raising awareness about human rights among their members, they can contribute to building inclusive schools and educational communities where LGBTI people feel safe, loved and respected. The collective strength of education unions means they are able to effect change even when the state authorities are failing to do their job.
The work of the CNTE, Brazil’s national confederation of education workers, in supporting the demands of LGBTI communities is a good example of how trade union organisations can advocate for comprehensive sex education and contribute, in that way, to creating safe spaces for LGBTI people.
In the midst of the wave of conservatism that brought the candidate sentenced to pay fines for his homophobic statements  to the Alvorada Palace , local authorities promoted measures to exclude references to gender diversity and sexual orientation in educationprogrammes in a bid to exclude and censor these issues. The CNTE joined forces with LGBTI groups and organisations to petition the Federal Supreme Court (STF) over what they considered to be a violation of the basic rights of educationcommunities. The STF unanimously ruled that these municipal laws were unconstitutional and reaffirmed that education authorities, schools and teachers have a duty to include sex education and gender issues in their curricula .
Brazil is not unique. The influence of neo-Pentecostal churches and the most conservative sectors of the Catholic Church has led to the emergence of groups opposed to the inclusion of comprehensive scientific and secular sex education in curricula, and any progress on human rights for LGBTI people. These groups are present in all countries in the region, and in some, they have managed to impose their anti-rights positions.
In Paraguay, on taking office, President Mario Abdo Benítez appointed a well-known evangelical leader, Eduardo Petta, to head the Ministry of Education and Science. In November 2018, a few months after taking office, Petta received a demonstration against “gender ideology”, in front of which he reaffirmed his conservative views and his opposition to comprehensive sex education with a human rights approach.
“Don’t mess with my children”, is one example of the slogans that these anti-rights groups have used in other Latin American countries. Their objective, in addition to opposing same-sex marriage or the recognition of the gender identity of transgender people, is to eliminate any reference to LGBTI issues or approaches with a gender and human rights perspective from curricula. These proposals are very similar to the “Don’t Say Gay” law recently passed in Florida, USA.
If education unions and teachers decide to act on this situation, a first step in the effort to build inclusive and respectful schools towards the LGBTI population is to denounce these discriminatory and anti-rights positions: to make it clear that there is no place in the trade union struggle or in schools for violence or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. They can, in addition, call on government authorities to take appropriate action to guarantee the right to inclusive public education for all persons, without discrimination of any kind. LGBTI communities also appreciate the support and solidarity given to their campaigns on issues such as access to human rights and non-discrimination.
The Argentinian education workers’ confederation CTERA and its grassroots organisations are also known for their long-standing support for the struggles of LGBTI communities. CTERA’s affiliates and its leadership have celebrated victories such as equal marriage, the recognition of gender identity and the transgender labour quota. They have also taken part in the struggle for the approval and implementation of comprehensive sex education, and more recently, together with government authorities, they joined in the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Pride March in the streets of Buenos Aires.
LGBTI students in Latin America need safe primary schools, secondary schools and universities that enable us to continue with our education and develop our full potential, without limitations driven by hate and exclusion. LGBTI teachers and education support staff also deserve safe working spaces, where they can perform their duties without fear or concern about revealing fundamental aspects of their personhood, such as the nature of their identity or their family.
Respect for Gender Identity and Sexual Diversity in Education Trade Unions in Latin America provides a brief overview of the struggles of the LGBTI population for the recognition of their rights in the region and also reviews the resolutions on LGBTI rights issued by Education International’s World Congress.
Much remains to be done in Latin America to build inclusive and respectful education centres for LGBTI people. The sum of individual and collective will is the key to progress on this path.
Note: This is the second blog of a series launched on the occasion of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia on 17 May.
The first blog is available here: https://www.ei-ie.org/en/item/26504:on-teachers-responsibility-towards-lgbtqi-students
United Nations Development Programme (2021). Regional Human Development Report 2021. https://www.undp.org/latin-america/regional-human-development-report-2021
Galarraga, Naiara. (23 June 2019). Una marea contra la homofobia en Brasil. El País. https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/06/23/actualidad/1561312625_853317.html
Folha de S. Paulo. (9 November 2017). Bolsonaro é condenado a pagar R$ 150 mil por declarações contra gays. https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/poder/2017/11/1934062-bolsonaro-e-condenado-a-pagar-r-150-mil-por-declaracoes-contra-gays.shtml
Presidential residence of the Federal Republic of Brazil.
Confederação Nacional dos Trabalhadores em Educação. (1 June 2020). Em nova decisão, STF afirma que é dever do Estado abordar gênero e sexualidade na escola. https://www.cnte.org.br/index.php/menu/comunicacao/posts/noticias/73170-em-nova-decisao-stf-afirma-que-e-dever-do-estado-abordar-genero-e-sexualidade-na-escola
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.