Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto would have a hard time winning a popularity contest these days. After four years in office, he has slumped in the polls amid a sustained streak of corruption scandals, drug-war violence and a sputtering economy that has failed to meet global expectations.
But in recent days Peña Nieto has been making a slight comeback on one issue that was never part of his campaign platform: gay rights.
The president last week announced he will ask Congress to: 1) legalize same-sex marriage in the Constitution; 2) allow same-sex couples to adopt children; and 3) allow people to self-identify their gender on official documents.
Say what you will about the president's record on almost everything else, but his recent fight for gay rights in Mexico is a bold move in what many see as a machista society that’s predominantly Catholic.
The Mexican Conference of Bishops insists the Catholic Church will continue to recognize only marriages between a man and a woman. Other conservative organizations, such as the Mexican Council of the Family, have said the president’s proposals to allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt children “harms” human rights.
A 2015 national opinion poll suggests Mexicans are divided on whether gay couples should have equal rights. So the president isn't simply preaching to the choir.
Peña Nieto is winning some points. Many Mexicans are pleasantly surprised by his unexpected championing of LGBTQ rights, and are encouraging those who normally criticize the administration to also celebrate when it does something right.
“The silence of many on Enrique Peña Nieto’s push for same-sex marriage is a pity,” popular Mexican YouTuber Chumel Torres recently tweeted out. “In Mexico victories are turned into defeats if they are achieved by those we hate.”
The president hasn't done it alone. Mexico’s Supreme Court last year ruled it was unconstitutional for state laws to limit the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Experts say Peña Nieto's sudden advocacy for same-sex marriage is somewhat of a "symbolic" gesture meant to accelerate the implementation of the high court's decision.
“Technically speaking the president’s reform is not indispensable because the Supreme Court already ordered it,” said Mexican attorney Jose Antonio Caballero, who In 2010 formed part of a group of lawyers that led the charge to legalize same-sex marriage in Mexico City.
“The move is symbolic,” he told Fusion. The president is just calling for a constitutional reform that's in accordance with what the Supreme Court has already decided.
But he insists Peña Nieto is still to be commended for framing the debate as a human-rights issue while making calls for inclusiveness in the law, including urging Congress to remove legal deninitions that state marriage is "for procreation."
Caballero says the issue with same-sex adoptions is slightly more complicated. The president's initiative doesn't necessarily grant same-sex couples the right to adopt children, but states no institution can discriminate against homosexuals by excluding them from the adoption process.
But he says the president’s proposals go beyond the legal realm and are part of something bigger.
Caballero predicts Peña Nieto’s advocacy will weaken the efforts of those who oppose LGBTQ rights in Mexico. But others think it won’t be that easy. Legal scholar Julio Manuel Martínez penned an article in Mexican magazine Nexos that predicts the president’s call for same-sex marriage is likely to be met with resistance in most states. “The president doesn’t have faculties to initiate laws or reforms at a local level,” he said.
Same-sex marriage is currently allowed in Mexico City as well as the states of Coahuila, Quintana Roo, Chihuahua and Michoacán. Same-sex couples in the other 26 states might still have to file appeals if they want to marry—something that could trigger a lengthy and complicated legal battle, Martínez says.
But some states are already following Peña Nieto's lead. State lawmakers in Morelos voted last week to legalize gay marriage.
Some analysts say the president's commendable stance on LGBTQ rights doesn't undo all of his administration's mistakes on human rights issues.
“I think the president’s proposal fulfills the debt that the Mexican government had with a specific sector of the population,” Mexico-based human rights expert Corina Giacomello told Fusion. “[But] neither this nor any other measure can fix the problems of corruption, lack of change in strategy, security results, Ayotzinapa, Tlatlaya, or the general situation with prisons or drug policies, to name a few issues.”
Some think the president should focus his efforts on other human rights issues that are far more pressing.
“Our biggest human rights problems deal with torture, forced disappearances and the lack of due process in Mexico,” says Gabriela Rodriguez, a human rights professor at ITAM, a private research university in Mexico City.
But LGBTQ activists say nobody should minimize what the president is doing.
“Peña Nieto’s proposal is a consequence of the work and the pressure the LGBTQ movement has exerted for years, and comes on the heels of what the Supreme Court has said more than once: To deny same-sex couples the right to marry is discriminatory and unconstitutional,” said Enrique Torre Molina, a campaign manager for All Out, an international LGBTQ rights group.
He adds, “Yes, Mexico is a country with many grave problems, but there’s no excuse to postpone the recognition of LGBTQ rights. There’s homophobic crimes, many families remain unprotected before the law, and there’s violence against transgender people and exclusion from the labor force. It was time for a president to sum all of these voices and legalize gay marriage nationwide.”