Gender and State Power in Chile
Photo by Baird Campbell
By Baird Campbell
Studies of Chile’s Right-wing Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1990) have tended to focus on its brutality—thousands of murders, disappearances, and instances of torture—and the privatization and neoliberalization of the country’s economy. Less studied has been the regime’s fears about shifting gender roles and the moral imaginaries that underpinned them. Gender emerged as an important tool of state surveillance and control, both through the reinforcement of the gender binary in schools and workplaces, and in the regime’s appeals for a return to the “traditional” (heteronormative) family.
This gender policing also led to an increase in trans/homophobic state violence, a history that has been largely suppressed (Fontey, Parada, and Sepúlveda 2021). Queer and trans Chileans—those who fall outside heterosexual and cisgender norms—were an easy target for the regime, as their marginal status meant that few Chileans in the political mainstream would care.
Though recent President Sebastian Piñera of the UDI (Independent Democratic Union, a party founded by pro-Pinochet forces in the last years of the regime) has won two democratically elected terms (2010-14, 2018-22), at least in terms of gender, the party’s positions are in some ways strikingly similar to those of its fascist forbears. Despite begrudgingly signing the LGBT-inclusive Anti-Discrimination Law in 2012, the Gender Identity Law in 2018, and the Marriage Equality Law—which also guaranteed homoparental rights—in 2021, Piñera and the UDI have publicly opposed these initiatives. In fact, in 2016, members of the UDI proposed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and adoption.
"Gender emerged as an important tool of state surveillance and control, both through the reinforcement of the gender binary in schools and workplaces, and in the regime’s appeals for a return to the “traditional” (heteronormative) family."
Moreover, they have increasingly allied themselves with fundamentalist Christian and white nationalist figures from the Chilean Right like recent presidential candidate José Antonio Kast, stoking societal fears of so-called “gender ideology,” akin to the “radical gay agenda.” Citing the threats these laws pose to the “traditional” family and to Chilean society itself, the UDI’s stances on these issues have echoed Pinochet-era discourse. It is thus not surprising that all three laws have been criticized by activists for failing to meaningfully grant access to the rights they nominally guarantee. As reminders of Chile’s dictatorial past have recently become harder to ignore, understanding the gender politics that define the Chilean Right is particularly urgent. Chilean right-wing’s gender politics is an extension of dictatorship-era tactics of control, achieved through a superficial acceptance of gender diversity that conceals a deeper current of increased gendered oppression.
Truth, Reconciliation, and Gender
Attempts to take stock of the Pinochet years (1973-1990) have largely erased state-sanctioned gender-based violence. The 1991 Rettig Report (1996) officially recognized more than 2,000 cases of torture at the hands of the Pinochet regime, rejecting roughly another thousand for technical reasons. The Valech Report recognized more than 40,000 cases (Comisión Nacional sobre Prisión Política y Tortura 2015), with more than 8000 additional cases being rejected due to the specificities of the committee’s mandate.
Importantly, both official “Truth and Reconciliation” reports studiously avoided any inquiry about violence against sexual, gender, and racial minorities at the hands of the regime (Hiner 2010). This archival exclusion enabled the regime to hide its misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic tactics, revealing gender as a persistent target of state violence through historical erasure during and even after the fall of the regime.
Pinochet’s regime viewed the unsettling of the gender binary in co-ed spaces at schools and universities as sowing the seeds for revolutionary thought. Indicative of this anxiety were the obligatory buzzcuts performed by members of the military on male students who had “patillas y melenas” (sideburns and “manes,” or the longer hair popular at the time.) Female students who had, until this point, some autonomy in their choice of school uniform, were prohibited from wearing pants and required to wear dresses or skirts, an edict that survives in many schools to this day. These policies left no room for gender expressions and identities that challenged established norms, including those of heterosexual, cisgender people.
"Female students who had, until this point, some autonomy in their choice of school uniform, were prohibited from wearing pants and required to wear dresses or skirts, an edict that survives in many schools to this day."
There is also evidence of more literal state involvement in the production of normative gender, as in the case of a trans woman named Marcia Alejandra. She underwent gender confirmation surgery—referred to in the press of the time as a “sex change”—in May of 1973, when Chile was still under the leadership of Allende and his Unidad Popular (Popular Unity) Party. Nonetheless, neither her own self-identification nor the surgery made Marcia Alejandra a woman in the eyes of the State under Allende. In 1974, the Pinochet regime granted her the first recorded legally recognized change of name and gender marker in the history of Chile.
Despite the seeming progressiveness and benevolence of this act, according to Alejandra Carvajal (2018), the Pinochet regime seized upon this situation to advance its own ideological agenda of normative gender. That is, in allowing Alejandra to gain legal “womanhood,” the regime used her an example of correct and incorrect ways for gender non-conforming people to exist. In other words, while Alejandra’s gender identity was recognized, the Pinochet regime was more invested in maintaining the gender binary than any kind of gender fluidity or non-gender conforming identity. In short, far from allying with the trans community, the Pinochet regime took advantage of the precarity of one trans woman to further its own conservative, cis-heteronormative agenda under the guise of compassion.
Echoes of the Fascist Past
On October 19, 2019, images began to circulate of familiar Santiago landmarks—Plaza Italia, the Alameda, metro stops—overtaken by crowds of people, often in flames. What began that day would become known as the estallido social (the social explosion), a period of months stretching into 2020 in which millions of people took to the streets to demand a new constitution. The movement quickly grew as Chileans began to imagine a radically different kind of document. Crucially, this new constitution would—in theory—guarantee rights to gender identity, sexual and romantic self-determination, and abortion, all hotly debated issues in contemporary Chile.
In a chilling case of history repeating itself, in the early days and weeks of the estallido, the Piñera government reactivated Pinochet-era legal provisions that allowed for military forces to take the streets. Military police sexually assaulted protesters, which conjured memories of state-sponsored sexual torture at the hands of the military regime. Gendered state violence was mobilized with frightening agility and speed, as if dictatorship-era structures of power had never really been dismantled.
Chile is unique in its preservation of a constitution written under a dictatorship, virtually impossible to overturn through the legal mechanisms it established. While demands for a new constitution have been a central focus of activism for decades without much traction, the protests of the estallido took on new gravity as they coincided with the 30-year anniversary of la Transición (the transition from authoritarianism to democracy), a process that many never feel meaningfully addressed the violence of the Pinochet dictatorship. However, a 30 peso (roughly .04 USD) increase in public transportation prices was what ultimately led to the estallido, giving birth to the slogan No son 30 pesos, son 30 años (It’s not about 30 pesos, it’s about 30 years).
"As such, it is unsurprising that as the Chilean Right becomes more repressive, the gender politics that have historically defined it should also resurface."
Despite a disinformation campaign financed by figures on the Right, on October 25, 2020, Chileans overwhelmingly voted yes on two issues: they wanted a new constitution (78%), and they wanted it to be drafted by citizen representatives (79%). Elections were held for representatives, and the first round of the drafting process seemed to augur a bright and substantially different future for Chile. Led by Elisa Loncón, a Mapuche linguist and activist, the constitutional convention guaranteed gender parity, as well as the participation of Indigenous voices through reserved slots (escaños). Much was made of the diversity of this group, which also included eight queer and trans representatives (though, importantly, no trans representatives). The final proposed draft guaranteed parity of gender and for queer and trans minorities in government representation; the right to personal integrity (including sexual and romantic autonomy); the right to a life free from violence, especially for girls, women, and queer and trans Chileans; and the right to abortion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, upon the draft’s ultimate failure in the final plebiscite of September 4, 2022, many on both sides also pointed to these broad, diversity-based goals as a possible explanation. (Photo 1)
Although Chile’s most recent Right-wing governments have been democratically elected, their willingness to deploy dictatorship-era tactics against their own people during the estallido social, combined with their own very real links to the violence of the Pinochet regime, cannot be overlooked. As such, it is unsurprising that as the Chilean Right becomes more repressive, the gender politics that have historically defined it should also resurface. In both dictatorship and democracy, they have consistently supported gender politics that promote normativity and the “traditional” family—now expanded to include homonormative, married same-sex couples—while engaging in gendered state violence as a means of control. Though this violence has often been physical, it is also present in the Right’s staunch opposition to abortion rights of any kind, a lack of material support for gender minorities who are unable or unwilling to make use of the Gender Identity Law, and its continued outcry against “gender ideology.” (Photo 2)
Given the recent increase in both state violence and anti-queer and trans rhetoric from the Chilean Right, it is perhaps unsurprising that trans/homophobic hate crimes in Chile increased 66% between 2021 and 2022. Despite their seeming embrace of certain kinds of gender and sexual diversity, the Chilean Right’s continued demonization of trans/homophobic politicians and discourses reveals the cynical of nature of this support, as a smokescreen for their ultimately oppressive gender politics.
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Baird Campbell holds a PhD in sociocultural anthropology from Rice University and an MA in Latin American Studies from Tulane University. His research focuses on practices of online activism and self-making in Santiago’s trans community. He is currently a Post-Doctoral Teaching Fellow in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University.
Cite this article as: Campbell, Baird. January 2023. "Gender and State Power in Chile." Today's Totalitarianism. https://todaystotalitarianism.com/gender-power-chile