In the past few years, the Mexican diplomatic and consular network in the United States, following its long tradition of innovation and dynamism, began actively engaging with an important segment of its immigrant diaspora: the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. The rapid evolution of same-sex marriage in the U.S. has spurred significant social transformations and a wave of legal changes that have invariably impacted the Mexican and Mexican-American community, as well as the work of consulates as representatives of a foreign government and protectors of their citizens living abroad.
With the recent landmark case in the U.S. Supreme Court of Obergefell v. Hodges that finalized the legal debate on same-sex marriage in the country, it is valuable to revisit the steps that have been taken to engage with the Mexican LGBT community in a more effective manner. What follows is a brief explanation of the actions that have already been implemented along with some of the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
Mexicans in the U.S.
There are approximately 11 million people of Mexican origin living in the U.S., creating a unique environment that is permeated by distinct historical, cultural, economic, social and political realities. The border region represents a unique and intense binational and bicultural area where concentrated populations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans on the U.S. side of the border have existed for many years. Furthermore, the contributions of the Mexican and Mexican-American communities have expanded throughout the country and that expansion has also meant an increase in need, including an increased need for services for the Mexican LGBT community.
Consequently, Mexican consulates have gone beyond the traditional services and practices, evolving into dynamic centers that provide wide-ranging services, programs and activities. Starting with the Program for Mexican Communities Abroad in the 1990s and its metamorphosis into the Institute of Mexicans Abroad—a one of a kind independent organism in charge of developing public policy on diaspora affairs—community engagement has come to involve programs in a broad array of areas like health, financial education, leadership and community empowerment, as well as entrepreneurship. At the same time, due to the population growth of those of Mexican origin in the U.S., there has been a spate of local, state and federal collaboration mechanisms developed to provide preventive information, protection and assistance. Those programs engage a wide and specialized network of partners to address issues ranging from immigration, criminal and civil rights, to labor rights. Those partners will play an essential role in maximizing our ability to reach out to LGBT communities.
The Road to Marriage Equality
The recognition of same-sex marriage by the U.S. federal government has spurred adaptations to policy and regulation to accommodate this new social and legal reality. According to the Pew Research Center, 52% of people in the United States support same-sex marriage, an important increase from 2009 when only 37% were in favor. According to the Williams Institute, out of the 9 million LGBT adults in the U.S. 18% identify as Hispanic, and it is estimated that 2.7% of undocumented adults (267,000) identify as LGBT. The ruling that Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act was “unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment” in U.S. v. Windsor meant same sex-couples are now eligible for a variety of services and benefits from the federal government, such as Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, the ability to file jointly for bankruptcy and certain immigration privileges to name a few. Furthermore, with the Obergefell v. Hodges decision the legal scenario has permanently been changed and will generate federal, state and local modifications in order to accommodate same-sex marriage. Given these recent changes, the Mexican diplomatic and consular network needs to make adjustments to stay relevant.
Training and Awareness for Consular Staff
In an initial meeting between the Embassy of Mexico in Washington and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) in 2013, several topics of mutual interest were identified and served as catalysts to start collaboration efforts. One of the first actions discussed was the organization of a seminar on the LGBT immigrant community for staff in the 50 Mexican consulates in this country. The action responded to the critical need of awareness and information in order for consular staff to provide better services with better understanding to combat stereotypes. After further discussions to develop specific material to take into account the particular characteristics of Mexican consulates, in September of 2014 the webinar “An overview of HRC and Understanding Ways to Better Protect LGBT Immigrant Families and Individuals” was presented to consular staff.
The presentation addressed what it means to be LGBT, what gender is and how a person identifies with the concept, statistics about LGBT immigrants, their ethnicities, immigration and civil status. Furthermore, it addressed the potential reasons LGBT members may seek asylum in the U.S. and the challenges they encounter while detained or incarcerated. An explanation of the U.S. v. Windsor was given, as well as an explanation of the benefits that are now available to same sex-couples. HRC stressed the importance of training staff in LGBT terminology and cultural competence, organizing events directly related to issues of concern for LGBT individuals and families, displaying “safe place” signs and flyers, and providing outreach to LGBT individuals in the broader community through pride events, fairs, and local LGBT organizations and centers.
To continue the training, the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited HRC representatives to speak at the annual consular protection seminar held in Raleigh, North Carolina, on October of that same year. With members present from all the Mexican consulates in the U.S., San Juan and Puerto Rico, for the first time there was a segment focused solely on addressing consular assistance to the LGBT community. Though several consulates had previously engaged in different actions to conduct outreach and address the necessities of the LGBT community, this was the first concerted effort to make the needs of LGBT individuals a priority and exchange successful experiences throughout the consular network.
To focus on community engagement and visibility, the embassy partnered with the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) in their Spirit Day Campaign that focuses on combating the bullying of LGBT youth. On October 16th, 2014, the Mexican diplomatic and consular network actively participated in a successful social media campaign to raise awareness on this issue and express its support and solidarity with the LGBT community. It was the first time a foreign government had formally engaged in this campaign and it represented a powerful opportunity to partner with a key ally on LGBT issues, and transmit these messages in both English and Spanish to reach our community.
Throughout the day, the social media accounts from the embassy and its consulates shared messages against LGBT bullying and announced their commitment to join forces with other allies to combat it. Consular staff participated in creative ways through pictures, written materials and public engagement with those visiting the embassy and consulates that day. This was the first time there was a coordinated effort from the network in the U.S. to engage with an organization on this specific topic, which generated a flurry of positive comments both from U.S. and Mexican audiences. During the day of the campaign, there was an increase in followers and numerous retweets from both personal and official accounts, Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) and from the Undersecretary for Multilateral and Human Rights.
Despite the important advances these steps represent in bringing further awareness and visibility to the Mexican LGBT community, there is much work to be done. The collaboration that has been established with HRC and GLAAD provides a framework to help consulates do what they do best: engage members of their community and establish a dialogue with key local actors (like school districts, authorities, community organizations and members of the media) to promote and protect the rights of their community members.
To broaden this framework further, steps can be taken to expand the working agenda that has already been established and strengthened throughout the years with important national organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) and Dreamer alliances that already have developed action plans on this issue. Such engagement would not only allow the Mexican consular and diplomatic network to gain important expertise from these key allies, but also to work jointly to strengthen the messages and initiatives that inform and defend the rights of the Hispanic LGBT community.
However, the most important challenge is to maintain an open and ongoing dialogue between Mexico’s diplomatic and consular network and its LGBT community. Outreach efforts by government officials will continue to be essential, but there needs to be constant and permanent feedback from the LGBT community in terms of their needs and interests so they can be addressed and formally incorporated into official consular duties and functions.