I’ve had the great privilege of spending the last two months living in San Jose, Costa Rica.  I’m living with a host family and attending the University of Costa Rica to better my Spanish-speaking abilities and learn about Central and Latin American histories and cultures. Considering that San Jose is the capital city of a country that has been generally discontent with its political leaders for decades, I came here expecting a certain level of political tension and controversy. However, once I arrived it quickly became clear that there are far more divisive political issues here than I had originally anticipated.

Marriage equality, politics, and religion

Costa Rica, which is slightly smaller than West Virginia, is best known for being home to almost 6% of the world’s biodiversity. Government and private conservation efforts have made Costa Rica a popular ecotourism destination for travelers looking to experience the natural beauty of its pristine waterfalls, volcanoes, beaches, and rainforests teeming with sloths, monkeys, frogs, and butterflies. Costa Rica is also one of the world’s largest exporters of pineapples and is known for producing what many argue is the best coffee money can buy.    

When I arrived, my expectation was to find a lot of civic engagement surrounding the issue of marriage equality (in Spanish, matrimonio igualitario). Costa Rica is a progressive country in many respects: it doesn’t have an army, the current vice-president (Epsy Campbell) is the first Afro-Latina vice-president in all of Latin America, it has a universal health care system, and the government invests large amounts of money in education. However, gay marriage remains illegal here.

The only legally married same-sex couple in Costa Rica is Laura Florez-Estrada and Jazmín Elizondo. They were allowed to be married in 2015 due to a legal technicality: when Elizondo was born she was accidently and incorrectly identified as male in the Civil Registry. Their marriage sparked a mixture of uproar and support from the Costa Rican community.  

A poster found on the University of Costa Rica campus that reads, “this is a safe space for LGBTI+ people.” (Photo: Torri Lonergan)

There is a strong connection between religion and the LGTBIQ rights debate. Costa Rica is a very Catholic country and also has a growing Evangelical population. According to the University of Costa Rica’s Center for Research and Political Studies, 69.7% of the population identifies as Catholic while an additional 13.4% identifies as Evangelical. Costa Rican religious leaders from both churches have been very outspoken against gay marriage, a stance which has contributed significantly to the fact that only 29% of Costa Ricans are in favor of legalizing gay marriage. This article from IPI Global Observatory provides an important analysis of the role played by religion and conservative backlash in Costa Rican homophobia.

Human rights and the broader regional context

The gay marriage debate itself is nothing new for Costa Rica, but it’s currently more contentious than ever. In 2016, a pro-marriage equality member of Luis Guillermo Solís’ (the former Costa Rican president) administration filed a request with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for a ruling on gay marriage. In January, the court announced its ruling: all its member states were officially required to legalize gay marriage. As a member of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Costa Rica was therefore obligated to legalize gay marriage. Nine months later, however, gay marriage remains illegal.

This is largely because the court’s decision immediately sparked uproar among the Costa Rican religious and elderly populations. People are outraged that an extranational body made this decision for them. After the ruling, many lesbian and gay couples immediately attempted to get married, but notaries refuse to approve gay marriages until laws are passed on a national level.

Implications for the presidential election

The timing of the court’s announcement is also incredibly significant. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights released their decision during Costa Rica’s 2018 presidential campaign, and it immediately changed the course of the election. The treatment of the LGBTIQ community suddenly became the defining issue of the election. The decision immediately brought Fabricio Alvarado, a candidate who had been polling at 3%, to first in the polls. Alvarado, of the conservative National Restoration Party, is an Evangelical preacher and Christian music singer. He was hardly in the race until the court’s announcement but won the first round of elections in early February after publicly opposing the ruling and promising to protect “traditional” families.  A combination of Fabricio’s hateful rhetoric and conservative backlash towards the court’s decision led to a significant increase in homophobic hate crimes during this time period.  

Because no candidate received 40% of the vote, the top two candidates (Fabricio Alvarado and Carlos Alvarado) moved on to a second round of elections. While Fabricio Alvarado gave voice to many homophobic citizens, Carlos Alvarado represented the more progressive side of the population. He is a journalist and member of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party who promised to carry out the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ decision if elected. Both candidates received a similar number of votes in the first round of the election, but in the second round Carlos Alvarado was elected with roughly 60% of the total vote. Carlos Alvarado’s election was an incredible milestone for the Costa Rican LGBTIQ community, and many people were thrilled to see him win by such a large margin. According to a University of Costa Rica study published in April, 60% of Carlos Alvarado supporters voted for him in part because of his stance on LGBTIQ rights.  

Carlos Alvarado, who took office in May, still promises to legalize gay marriage. On August 8, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that the section of Costa Rica’s Family Code that bans gay marriage is unconstitutional and discriminatory. Carlos Alvarado and members of the LGBTIQ community celebrated this decision. However, the Supreme Court also gave the Legislative Assembly 18 months to legalize gay marriage. Therefore, many people are frustrated by court’s decision to permit discrimination to continue for so long, while others are outraged that gay marriage will eventually be legalized.

Grassroots mobilization

There is a lot going on with respect to LGBTIQ rights and many people have very strong opinions on this issue. Throughout this year there have been multiple large protests in support of the LGBTIQ community. The most recent of these protests occurred in the days leading up to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Supporters of marriage equality gathered outside of the Supreme Court to pressure the court to find the prohibition of gay marriage unconstitutional. Twenty-five LGBTIQ rights groups participated in the event. However, civil engagement with this issue has slowed down significantly. This is in part due to the fact that the issue of gay rights was quickly overshadowed by the much more pressing conversation surrounding the issue of immigration. I will discuss the immigration debate further in my next blog post.  

Banner image: An advertisement for Semanario Universidad, a newspaper published by the University of Costa Rica.  This poster encourages readers to purchase the edition published the week of August 28th, which deals with “the loose ends of marriage equality.”  According to the advertisement, the paper discusses the fact that all Costa Rican laws pertaining to romantic relationships were written without any consideration for same-sex couples, creating a lot of uncertainty for lesbian and gay couples involved in legal issues.  Questions brought up by the article include: “How do we analyze domestic violence in same-sex couples?” and “would the widow of a same-sex couple be able to inherit their partner’s property?” (Photo: Torri Lonergan)