The Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a sweeping decision Tuesday ordering the legal recognition of same-sex families and transgender individuals that could impact as many as 20 countries across Central and South America. The decision was a response to an inquiry from Costa Rica, which has already acknowledged it will comply with the ruling.
Established in 1979 by the Organization of American States, the Court responds to human rights concerns brought from any of the member states, issuing either adjudicatory decisions in response to violations, or — as in this case — advisory opinions about how the countries’ laws must comply with the American Convention on Human Rights. Costa Rica asked the Court in 2016 whether it must extend property rights to same-sex couples, as well as whether it must allow transgender people to change their name and gender marker on identity documents — prompting Tuesday’s decision.
The ruling explains that the word “family” has evolved, and a family can include those with different genders and sexual orientations. Because the Convention protects all people’s fundamental rights, states should extend the same protections to those families as they do other families, including the rights of marriage. The Court noted that same-sex couples are part of a “historically oppressed and discriminated-against minority,” and also made clear that a separate but equal status like civil unions was stigmatizing and insufficient. Though many oppose allowing same-sex couples to marry for religious reasons, the decision notes that “in democratic societies, there should exist mutually peaceful coexistence between the secular and the religious,” and neither should infringe upon the other’s “spheres.”
Transgender people were also considered in the opinion. States must ensure, it reads, that individuals of all sexual orientations and gender identities can live with the same dignity and respect that all people enjoy. This includes allowing transgender people to change their name, photograph, and gender marker on their identity documents consistent with their gender identity. The decision notes that allowing these changes should be confidential and not dependent on medical changes the individual has undergone as part of a transition.
Costa Rica’s government announced that it would comply with the decision in its entirety, including extending marriage equality to same-sex couples. The country’s LGBTQ community took to the streets Tuesday night to celebrate the victory, chanting “Yes, yes, the court said yes!”
But the decision also serves as precedent for all 23 states that signed onto the Convention, 19 of which do not already have marriage equality: Barbados, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Savador, Guatemala, Grenada, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Suriname. Chile and Ecuador currently offer civil unions, but not full marriage, and parts of Mexico offer marriage equality, but not the full country. With the exception of Barbados, Grenada, and Dominica, the other 16 all accept the blanket jurisdiction of the Court.
The effect is not immediate, as each government must individually apply the ruling to their own country. Still, it’s nevertheless a massive victory for LGBTQ people across the Americas.