(IPS) – “We shouldn’t have to live in fear. We’re citizens and voters of Chile, we have jobs, and yet we live in daily fear of being attacked,” said 33-year-old Carla Oviedo, a victim of discrimination on the grounds of her sexual orientation.
In 2010, after she had been working for a food company for seven years, Oviedo experienced one of the worst moments of her life: her workmates, most of them men, discovered her sexual preference.
“They started to make fun of me and threaten me, spreading the word that I was a lesbian throughout the company, and everyone found out something about me that was private. They would call me Carlos and insult me,” Oviedo told IPS.
And the harassment went even further. “One day I got into a company minivan with a supervisor. He took my hand and put it between his legs, asking me how I could possibly not enjoy this. It was terrible,” she said.
Shortly afterwards the company dismissed her for no apparent reason, without explanation or severance pay.
Oviedo contacted the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation (MOVILH) and brought a lawsuit in the labour courts, which led to a compensation settlement, but no penalty for the company.
Cases like Oviedo’s happen every day in Chile, a conservative country where up to 13 years ago sexual relations between adult males were still punishable by prison.
Now, 22 years after the return to democracy in 1990 after a 17-year dictatorship, the movement for the rights of gays, lesbians, transsexuals and transgender and bisexual people is battling for an anti-discrimination law to end decades of abuse.
According to MOVILH’s Annual Report on Human Rights and Sexual Diversity in Chile, released in February, legal cases and complaints of homophobia and transphobia increased by 34 percent in 2011, with a total of 186 offences, three of which involved murders.
A bill to establish measures against discrimination was introduced to Congress in 2005, and is currently ready for its third and final debate in the lower house – seen as a key opportunity for activists seeking to reinstate articles that were cut out by conservative groups in the Senate.
“The section protecting the right to sexual diversity was the bone of contention in Congress,” Rolando Jiménez, the president of MOVILH, told IPS.
Jiménez is now calling for the creation of a mixed commission, with members from both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, to reinstate the eliminated articles.
The bill is expected to be ready to be signed into law in four months’ time, now that it has been earmarked for fast-track treatment in a surprise move by the executive branch.
What motivated the government to accelerate progress on a bill that has languished in Congress for seven years, and is opposed by a large part of the rightwing governing coalition, was one of the most brutal attacks against a homosexual in recent memory in Chile.
On the morning of Mar. 3, 24-year-old Daniel Zamudio was admitted to Santiago’s Posta Central Hospital with severe craniocerebral trauma, cranial haemorrhage, multiple cuts and contusions on the face, thorax and limbs, aspiration pneumonia and a compound fracture of tibia and fibula of his right leg.
Zamudio had been tortured for nearly six hours by four youths allegedly belonging to neo-Nazi groups, who assaulted him simply because he is gay.
In his statement, one of the suspects, Raúl López, said they “kicked and punched (Zamudio) in the head, on the face, in the testicles, on his legs, all over his body.” Then they carved three swastikas on him with the jagged glass of a pisco bottle that, minutes earlier, they had broken on his head.
“Daniel Zamudio is a victim of a society that has no respect, no concern, and gives free rein to groups like the one that attacked him. That is why we are fighting for an anti-discrimination law. It is not acceptable that an innocent person should be skinned alive because of a natural human condition,” Oviedo complained.
The four suspects were arrested Friday Mar. 9 and were remanded in custody pending investigation.
Zamudio remains in critical condition in intensive care, in a medically-induced coma. Doctors say the likelihood of brain damage is high.
Some observers have stated that only a case of this nature was capable of raising awareness across the country about the urgent need for an anti-discrimination law.
“What happened to Daniel catalysed a common feeling that is increasingly emphatic in the majority of people: the rejection of violence, whether on the grounds of sexual orientation, disability or ethnic origin,” said Jiménez.
He stressed that one of the key articles in the draft law is the one that describes the categories of discrimination.
“It specifically lists a series of causes for which discrimination will not be permitted, and is therefore a huge victory for the movement, in contrast to a more vaguely worded law,” he said.
The activist added that it also establishes a specific legal mechanism to combat discrimination, by authorising those affected to bring a suit before a judge.
Nevertheless, as Jiménez acknowledged, even the best law in the world cannot on its own solve the problem of discrimination.
“This requires a profound cultural change in Chilean society, including deeper democracy, as well as new institutions and a new constitution, among other things,” he said.
However, once the bill has been restored to its original form and approved, it will send out a powerful political and legal signal, Jiménez said.
Meanwhile, Oviedo continues to fight her fear, and works to prevent more people from becoming victims of discrimination.
“I lead a completely ordinary life. My life consists of watering the yard, taking out the garbage and paying the bills. I want my partner and I to be happy. I just want to walk freely and in peace, without fear of being assaulted just because I show love and affection,” she concluded.