Simón Cazal, the first LGBT activist to be invited to a public meeting with Pope Francis, left the encounter Saturday afternoon in Paraguay feeling that the pope had issued a strong call for the country's church to be more inclusive.
"Diversity is the way that societies get better," Cazal quoted the pope as saying during a "roundtable" including 1,600 leaders from civil society held in the stadium in Paraguay's capital, Asunción. "He gave a very harsh critique of the local church and the local authorities, saying that you cannot exclude anyone, that the organizations that are here represent Paraguay's diversity."
Shortly after BuzzFeed News published this interview with Cazal, however, the head of the Vatican Press Office rejected the idea that the pope's references to "diversity" should be interpreted as support for LGBT people, according to reports in the Paraguayan press.
The pope's remarks were "of a general character" and calling for respectful disagreement, Father Federico Lombardi reportedly said in a 9 p.m. press conference. "It was not an internal discourse about the church [or] about how the church confronts situations of sexual diversity."
Cazal, who leads Paraguay's LGBT group SOMOSGAY, was surprised when he received a letter on June 4 inviting him to participate in the event. Cazal married his husband, Sergio López, in 2012 in neighboring Argentina under a marriage equality law that Pope Francis denounced as "sent by the devil" when he was the country's top cardinal.
Cazal said he had worried his participation in the event might help "pinkwash the church," bolstering Francis's reputation for being more inclusive towards LGBT people while still upholding the church's opposition to homosexuality and rights for same-sex couples. But, he said, "the church had more to lose than to win" by including him in the event.
"In a country as conservative as mine, it is very difficult for the church to win face by inviting a gay group like mine," Cazal said. "Here in Paraguay, where there are 54 murders of transgender people that have not been investigated, the fact that the church has put itself on our side — there is no way to discount that."
Cazal said that he even perceived the pope as explicitly rebuking seemingly anti-LGBT references to the family by local bishops.
"He responded directly to that and said, no, not only one [kind of] family exists," Cazal said. "All of his discourse was about diversity."
Though the pope spoke extensively about the "great social value" of the family that "other institutions cannot substitute for" during an event in Ecuador last week, Cazal said in his remarks on Saturday the pope "Celebrated the diversity of all families."
"I'm sure that sexual diversity was one of the things he wanted to include," Cazal said, adding that the pope also spoke about the treatment of indigenous people, poverty, and the status of women.
"There are no first, second, or third class citizens. All citizens are equal and have the right to happiness," Cazal summarized the pope's message.
Cazal said he hoped the event could help make it easier to add a non-discrimination provision to Paraguay's constitution that includes protections for LGBT people. He also hoped for marriage equality to be established in Paraguay, though it is now one of only three countries in Spanish-speaking South America that does not even have civil unions for same-sex couples.
"What has to happen here to change society is the state has to treat everyone equal," Cazal said. "If the state treats us differently, that's not going to change."