The front page of one of Peru's major newspapers blared the headline: "I'm gay, and proud to be so."
It was a quote from an interview with Carlos Bruce, a former cabinet minister, one-time serious contender for the vice presidency, and now one of Peru's most popular members of Congress. His sexual orientation had long been widely discussed, and for years he'd answered direct questions about it by saying: "I don't discuss my personal life."
Bruce's abrupt change in strategy last week signals just how much the politics of LGBT rights are changing in Peru, which has lagged far behind while many other countries in South America have become world leaders on the issue. Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil have all established marriage equality since 2010. This week, one of Brazil's top bishops said that "same-sex couples need legal support" and endorsed civil unions. Meanwhile, Peru's cardinal has denounced a civil union proposal Bruce introduced last September as a "caricature of marriage that will later destroy it."
Bruce came out just as his civil union proposal has become one of the most fiercely debated subjects in Peruvian politics. The bill still seems likely to fail — recent polls show between 61 and 73 percent of Peruvians oppose it — but the fact that he no longer believes coming out is political suicide suggests a cultural shift may be taking place that is even more significant than a change in partnership law.
"Carlos Bruce is one of the most beloved members of Congress in Peru," said George Liendo, of the Lima-based sexual rights organization Promsex, noting that Bruce won loyalty from many through his role in helping get Peruvians into homes when he was housing secretary. "The fact that a person like him says he is gay and is proud to be so, ultimately changes the negative connotation of homosexuality."
Bruce hadn't exactly gone to great lengths to hide being gay before coming out. His evasion of questions about his sexuality, he says, was a pretty obvious non-denial denial.
"That was a way of saying yes, but I don't want to speak about it," Bruce said in a phone interview with BuzzFeed. "Everybody knew."
And he has mostly been unmoved when the media or his political opponents tried to make an issue of it. Politicians have called him the equivalent of "faggot" on the campaign trail, national comedy shows have mocked him as the "godfather" of effeminate homosexuals, and Cardinal Cipriani accused him of using his office to "justify" his sexual orientation when he introduced the civil union bill last year.
But until this week, he felt the cost of acknowledging it would be too high. "If I can imagine a politician saying he's openly gay, for sure he [would lose] 80% of his voters," Bruce told BuzzFeed in a 2012 interview. Even if he kept his seat in Congress, it would mean writing off another bid for national office, he said.
Now he believes it might even help him if he makes another run.
"Maybe it can be a good thing for higher public office," Bruce said. "One thing that everybody is saying here — even the people who are against me — 'I don't like this guy but I have to say he has courage'."
Such as the many tweets like this one that appeared after the story ran last Sunday:
“People are calling him a faggot, but they wish they had the balls to make such a confession in this very prejudiced country.”
He’s gotten praise from the press too, such as this editorial cartoon published the day after the news broke. "Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” “No, it’s Bruce.”
It isn't all praise, of course. In the hours after the news broke, there was a flood of homophobic comments on social media, which Peruvian outlets rushed to
compile and republish. But for the most part, the attacks hurled at Bruce in the political arena have been noticeably oblique. Instead of suggesting he's not fit to serve because he's gay, his opponents have accused him of an unethical conflict of interest in promoting LGBT rights legislation without disclosing that he would benefit.
"We haven't elected congressmen to legislate in their own interest, but rather for the good of the majority of the population," said Congressman Julio Rosas, an evangelical pastor who is leading opposition to the civil union bill. Rosas, who believes that homosexuality is an illness that can be cured, also said Bruce would be welcome in his church.
"Every Christian church takes in all people without discrimination, whether they be homosexuals, lesbians, or transsexuals, and all are welcome because Jesus came to save the sinner," Rosas said.
Others have suggested that his decision to come out was a "desperate" political move to save the civil union proposal from defeat, a charge Bruce laughed off in a television interview on the day the El Comercio interview was published.
"I'm not desperate about anything," Bruce said on the news program Cuarto Poder, pointing out that given the majority opposition to the civil union proposal, the disclosure will probably hurt him at the polls. "What I wanted to do is open a little the debate on what it means to be gay or not. If this disqualifies someone from being a good public servant or not. … Someone's sexual orientation doesn't qualify them as a good person or a bad person."
He also rebutted the conflict of interest charge, saying that is only a concern when a politician has a financial stake in a government decision. But, he said, "When we're talking about human rights, there is no [such thing] as conflict of interest."
Bruce leaves Peru at the end of this week for a two-week visit to Australia, where he may finally get a break from the media spotlight. "The worst thing about coming out is all the interviews you have to do," he joked.
The debate over the civil union bill will largely be on hold until he returns. After several delays, the congressional committee with jurisdiction over the bill is expected to begin work on it sometime in June. But the organizers of the coalition supporting the bill, known as Unión Civil ¡Ya! (Civil Unions Now!) is concerned that committee leadership is still trying to duck the issue. They are rallying for a march on June 6 under the hashtag #DebateAhora (#DebateNow).
The coalition already brought more than 10,000 supporters to the streets in April, but opponents of the bill have marched in even larger numbers, and earlier this month presented more than one million signatures on a petition opposing the legislation.
Even if the bill does get a hearing, it could be threatened by a counter proposal endorsed by Rosas and other conservatives, which would essentially allow two unmarried people to establish contracts protecting shared property, but would exclude them from any family rights. This is not acceptable to LGBT rights activists, but it is another sign of how far the debate has moved — it is very similar to a proposal Bruce himself unsuccessfully put forward in 2012.
Though now out, Bruce continues to walk a fine line, going to great lengths to emphasize that the bill does not give same-sex couples completely equal rights. The full name of the proposal is "Non-Matrimonial Civil Unions," and the proposal would not allow for same-sex couples to adopt. He says this is because the science is "inconclusive" as to whether it harms a child to be raised by two parents of the same sex, though he himself is a father.
"That's what the studies are available right now said to us," Bruce said. "If we include that gay parents can adopt kids, we have to justify it... If they're conclusive in the coming year, maybe we will change this."
Bruce said that when he decided to put forward the bill, his main goal was to get anti-LGBT politicians to show their true face. "If they're going to be homophobic, let them be homophobic. I was not positive that it was going to have too much possibility [of passing]," he said.
But things are changing fast. "Now I think it could happen," Bruce said. "All the conservatives are very afraid."