By Néstor Suárez
Questioning one’s own long-held beliefs, especially those which pertain to such an important issue as identity, is not easy, but it is necessary as part of one’s activism. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to open your mind and expose yourself to ideas that cast doubt on what you have believed your whole life. Having grown in a Catholic-majority country where sexist views of gender roles seem carved in stone, becoming aware of the socially constructed character of gender and adopting a critical attitude towards gender roles has been a long, complex process for me.
In retrospect, it is clear that my change of attitude was not incidental; rather, it was bound with a profound paradigm shift that was taking place in Argentinean society. Over the last few years, Argentina has seen the emergence into mainstream culture of a subversive form of social discourse circulated by activists with widely diverse ideological backgrounds who share one common aim: the undermining of heteronormative hegemony. This popularization of feminist and LGBTQ discourse did not occur by chance: it is the product of a historical process of militant political struggle, intellectual inquiry and thoughtful debate.
Argentina has an alarming female homicide rate: it is estimated that one woman falls victim to sexist violence every 29 hours. These murders occur in a sociocultural context where women are mostly expected to be wives, mothers and homemakers; where 50 cases of sexual assault are reported every day; where transgender and non-binary people struggle to survive and make themselves visible, overcoming the cruelest forms of social stigmatization.
It was in response to this barbaric, machista, systemic violence that Ni Una Menos (Not one less), a collective formed by scholars, artists, journalists and other activists, came into being. The movement drew its name from the slogan of an early 2015 reading marathon aimed at raising awareness about sexist violence. In May that year, the murder of pregnant 14-year-old Chiara Páez by her boyfriend sparked widespread outrage in Argentina. Nationwide protest actions were organized and, on June 3rd, 2015, hundreds of thousands took to the streets demanding ‘Not one less’.
Ni Una Menos is the historical product of years of feminist and LGBTQ activism. Over the course of the last decades, these collectives have successfully transformed the way Argentineans think about gender. Schools are now required to provide ESI (Integral Sexual Education), while far from flawless, is highly superior to the biologically deterministic approach it displaced. Journalists and public figures regularly appearing on the media have modified their linguistic practices so as to avoid misogynistic and transphobic vocabulary (although sexist discourses still find circulation in less obvious ways). In 2010, Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2012, transgender identities were recognized by the state. Legislation to eradicate violent practices such as street harassment has been passed. The list goes on and on.
As is expected whenever hegemonic conservative beliefs are challenged, Argentina’s reactionary right has not remained passive in the face of these social changes. The Catholic Church has spared no efforts in its attempts to perpetuate the heteronormative ideas that inform the patriarchal ideology still prevalent in the country. As Argentina’s predominant religion, Roman Catholicism continues to exert great influence on public discourse: politicians often meet Church hierarchs in order to boost their own image, and quote them to validate and justify their ideas and proposals.
As Argentinean lawmakers debated the same-sex marriage bill in 2010, Catholic bishops and archbishops were among the most fervent opponents of the law project. In a letter to the Carmelite sisters of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio (better known today as Pope Francis) called the bill a “move” of the Devil in his war against God. In 2016, Archbishop Héctor Aguer, one of the most notorious champions of Argentina’s far right, urged president Macri to repeal a historic 2012 law that gave transgender people the right to have their gender identities officially recognized by the state.
Today, LGBTQ and feminist activists appear to be on the verge of a new history-making triumph: the legalization of abortion, which passed by a narrow margin in congress and waits for approval by the senate on August 8th. The right wing, which encompasses the ruling Cambiemos coalition and a large part of the decaying Peronist movement, is on guard. They have the support of the Catholic Church, some Evangelical pastors, and an obscurantist sector of Argentinean society that longs for an idyllic heteronormative past. Even if the bill is not passed by the senate, the fact that abortion was even a topic of debate in congress signals a step in the right direction. Sooner or later, pregnant people’s right to decide over their own bodies will be added to the long list of victories achieved by feminist and LGTBQ activism in Argentina.