It was meant to be an open-air museum dedicated to Chile’s LGBTQ+ community, but days after the 40-meter (131-foot) mural was completed, vandals defaced its brightly colored panels with dozens of homophobic slurs.
Rights campaigners say such attacks reflect an increasingly hostile pushback against slow but steady progress towards LGBTQ+ equality in Chile, where conservative attitudes and the Roman Catholic Church still hold heavy sway.
“They’re vandalizing our artistic spaces, where we are finally able to be visible,” said musician Vale Nein, as he walked the length of the defaced mural in downtown Santiago, pausing occasionally to read the vandals’ scrawled insults.
“It’s symbolic. They’re killing people, too,” said Nein, a transgender man, who had been giving guided tours of the wall painting before the vandalism forced their cancellation.
The project was established as a place of memory, marking the place where 24-year-old gay man Daniel Zamudio was tortured and killed in an adjoining park 10 years ago.
The brutality of his murder shocked the nation, driving the then-conservative government to pass anti-hate crime legislation known as Zamudio’s law, which recognizes violence motivated by homophobia but has proven difficult to apply in written and verbal abuse cases.
Almost half of the anti-hate crime cases brought to court under the law have been dismissed.
Yet the mural to honor Zamudio’s memory proved controversial, even within the LGBTQ+ community, with some rights groups accusing the artists of incentivizing homophobic attacks by including erotic photographic images on one panel.
The artists agreed to cover up the photos, but it did not stop it from being targeted by vandals.
A portrait of Zamudio is covered by graffiti, and a large text demanding public health access for trans Chileans is obscured by a scrawl reading “pedophilia is not art.”
Rights campaigners said the attack on the wall painting mirrored the prejudice they confront daily.
“Being gay in Chile still makes people feel uncomfortable,” said Nicolas Venegas, a gay man who lives a few blocks away from the mural.
Lesbian street artist Marcela Paz Pena, who goes by the name Isonauta, said conservative, homophobic groups regularly vandalize LGBTQ+ art.
“I paint the word ‘lesbian,’ and it’s immediately crossed out,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “They try to silence us and make out that we don’t exist.”
Chile is only recently beginning to break away from its Catholic, conservative past. It was one of the last countries in the world to legalize divorce in 2004 and upheld a total ban on abortion until 2017.
LGBTQ+ rights took a long time to be recognized, too.
Zamudio’s law was the first legal protection for Chile’s LGBTQ+ community when it was passed in 2012, shortly after his killing.
Same-sex civil unions were passed in 2015, followed by a gender identity law in 2018, which lets trans Chileans legally change their name and gender without requiring judicial permission or medical examinations.
And last year, gay marriage and same-sex adoption were approved after a long-fought campaign by LGBTQ+ activists.
Since taking office as the country’s youngest president in March, 36-year-old former student protest leader Gabriel Boric has appointed openly LGBTQ+ members to his cabinet for the first time in Chile’s history.
But these gains have come at a price, said Ramon Gomez from Movilh, Chile’s largest LGBTQ+ rights group, pointing to increasingly violent attacks targeting the community.
While statistics are not yet available for the start of 2022, Gomez said his group had seen an “explosive increase” in reports of violent hate crime since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted earlier this year.
In March, a trans woman suffered life-threatening injuries after being stabbed on the street and several gay and lesbian couples were assaulted in public places, including restaurants, local media reported.
Last month, a lesbian died after being set on fire by a homophobic aggressor, according to media reports.
Despite the election of leftist progressive Boric, many Chileans still hold conservative views on personal and family issues.
The runner-up in December’s presidential run-off election was Jose Antonio Kast, a far-right former congressman who won 45% of the vote.
His party staunchly opposes gay marriage and same-sex parenting, considering the traditional, heterosexual family as the “nucleus of society.”
Still, the mural’s vandalism prompted concern among authorities in the capital.
Erika Montecinos, a lesbian activist appointed recently to lead the diversity department at Santiago Municipality, said officials recognized that they “have not been capable of protecting (LGBTQ+) art.”
She said the municipality planned to arrange talks between artists and neighborhood committees, which artists welcomed but said would not be enough to stop the vandals.
They say broader anti-hate legislation is needed to protect LGBTQ+ street art, which they say can help to foster greater acceptance.
“It brings better understanding and better quality of life to everyone … It can inform,” said trans indigenous artist Poleo Painemal, who spent six days working on the mural.
Her panel showed trans children playing in a room of pink hues and included an indigenous Wiphala flag bearing the trans symbol.
Painemal wanted to depict a childhood free from gender binary constraints, something she said freely existed in indigenous Mapuche communities before it was stigmatized by Catholic colonizers.
Vandals sprayed a penis on the painting and scrawled the word “disgusting” across the children’s images.
“It hurts and makes me angry,” said Painemal.
“(But) it shows this work is necessary because people still have so much hate against us and we need to educate them.”
Reporting by Charis McGowan; Editing by Hugo Greenhalgh and Helen Popper.
GAY TIMES and Openly/Thomson Reuters Foundation are working together to deliver leading LGBTQ+ news to a global audience.