How Argentina Did It 3, or the Power of Cities

This is the third in a series of posts examining the forces that made it possible to pass a same-sex marriage law in Argentina. The first, on the political factors, is available here; the second, on religion, is here.

One of the most surprising things I heard during my reporting in Argentina came when I asked Patricia Kolesnicov—an editor at one of the major daily papers who wrote a moving piece about her marriage to her wife–what she thought a project looking at gay marriage should address.

Look into the economic changes that made it possible, she told me.

The fact that this caught me by surprise is a sure sign that it’s been too long since I’ve read Marx. But a social change like the reorganization of the family can’t help but be affected by the kind of work people do and the places they live to labor.

If it’s not the force driving the change—as Marx would see it—even a really crude demographic analysis shows how important these structural factors are in determining the course of the gay marriage debate.

By these measures, it should be no surprise that Argentina was the first to legalize gay marriage. It’s among the wealthiest countries in the region with some of the highest education rates.

This is the primary explanation offered for the LGBT movement’s victory offered by Deputy Laura Alonso, who represents Buenos Aires in Argentina’s Congress.

“I think that this is a process that has to do with the economic, social, and educational development of this country,” she told me in an interview in her office next to the Congress.

But perhaps especially important is the fact that it’s such an urban country. It turns out there’s a pretty strong correlation between urbanization and legal victories for same-sex couples in Latin America.

Argentina is the region’s second-most urbanized country (with 92.6 percent of the population living in cities, according to the CIA’s World Factbook). Uruguay, which has a similarly high urbanization rate, has civil unions and is currently weighing full marriage rights. México and Brazil also have nationally recognized rights for same-sex partners, and they are also in the top handful of the continent’s most urbanized countries. (There are some interesting exceptions to this pattern, like Ecuador, which has same-sex civil unions, though only 67.6 percent of the population lives in cities.)

Giving the Argentine LGBT movement an additional boost is the fact that the country’s citizens are especially concentrated in a single urban area—almost half the population lives in and around Buenos Aires. That means not only are the country’s larger social attitudes heavily influenced by the capitol, but its media are concentrated, too.

As Esteban Paulón, head of the Federación Argentina LGBT explained to me:

In Argentina, an enormous majority of the population is concentrated in a few urban centers, in which, usually … there is more visibility [and] a greater possibility of acceptance and inclusion of diversity…. The places in the center of the country … have a much more open outlook towards diversity, similar to Massachusetts, Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles or San Francisco. These more progressive cities have a greater weight in the overall population in comparison to those cities that have a more conservative population. Also, the national media has much more local impact. Usually, the local media in each province reproduces the programming and the contents of the national media from channels that are in the city of Buenos Aires.

The population of Uruguay is similarly concentrated, which has buoyed its movement as well, according to Mauricio Coitiño the head of the gay rights group Colectivo Ovejas Negras (the Black Sheep Collective):

We have around 85% of our population living in cities, and it’s growing. Around 50 percent of our population or more lives in Montevideo. So anything you do in Montevideo has an impact on half the population in Uruguay.

LGBT legal victories in a country like Nepal—where just 19 percent of the population live in cities—show that it’s not essential for a country to be heavily urban for the movement to gain ground. But urbanization seems to be a force that gives the movement a strong tailwind.

At least that’s how it looks from Paraguay, South America’s most rural country. Simón Cazal, head of the LGBT group SOMOSGAY, explained,

Like [other social] movements—including the farmers movement—the [LGBT] movement is losing force in the country because there are no people left in the country…. We are suffering a very serious change in our economic culture in Paraguay, and the [LGBT] movement arose more or less in that moment. Here, Asunción has four times the inhabitants that it had 10 years ago, and not because the country’s population has grown but rather because the concentration of people around the city has increased dramatically because of internal displacement.

One thought on “How Argentina Did It 3, or the Power of Cities

  1. Pingback: Why Latin America is beating the U.S. to marriage equality | After Marriage

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