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Exclusive | Chile: A Sliver of Transformation

Exclusive | Chile: A Sliver of Transformation

Andean skiing, dune-boarding, and seafood in a UNESCO town: Chile shakes off her Catholic conservatism and gets gay-friendlier, even outside the capital.

The capital city of Chile and home to over six million, Santiago gets a bum rap since it's often seen as a bland, too-modern city in pale comparison to its flashier sisters Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. The Chileans with their humble self-image and nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic don't seem to know how good they have it. The city's parks are spotless, the populace healthy and well-educated, and the mishmash of colonial, Art Deco, and modernist architecture fascinating. The place reeks of prosperity and sophistication, and the looming 18,000-foot Andes mountains materialize above the city's smog-draped skyline.

What's most interesting is that gays are coming out in Chile in force. I strolled down JM De La Barra Avenue in the Parque Forestal neighborhood, where a long line of sidewalk cafes host gays sipping cortado coffees and coyly eyeing one another. Chic Parque Forestal, with its jutting crown of Santa Lucia Park, its Art Noveau-era Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, and its designer shops and restaurants, looks like it could have all been imported directly from Paris. It's no surprise that most of Santiago's gay population resides in the tony apartments here.

Later, Cristobal, a Chilean travel writer friend of mine, took me to explore the low-rise, leafy, laidback, and also gay-popular Bellavista area. Everywhere I looked, sophisticated and sleek New York-style bistros and artsy San Francisco-style bars overflowed with patrons.

Cristobal and I climbed into Bellavista's largest gay club complex called Bokhara, and found a cabaret stage show going on upstairs, a neon-lit basement dancefloor, and a chatty outdoor caf?, all packed with out gays of all ages and stripes.

"The gay scene is happening in Chile after all," I remarked to Cris. The city seemed to be titling lavender before my very eyes.

"You should have seen the gay pride march last week in front of the capital building. It was the largest we had ever had. But the police were there with tear gas just in case."

"Why? It seems everything is so accepted here."

"Many of my friends won't come out to the bars," Cristobal confided. "They are afraid of bumping into someone they know."

"But wouldn't the others in the bars be gay as well?" I ventured.

Cristobal just nodded and rolled his eyes. He told me how Chile was still trying to shake of its Catholic conservative past, how homosexuality was only legalized in 1998, how the archaic anti-divorce law was only repealed in 2004 (hence, it's estimated up to half of Chileans are born out of wedlock).

"But things are changing here really quickly with our female president, who is an unwed mother. There is even some talk about passing same-sex marriage here. But if you ask me it could be awhile."

"However," he added over a smile that bespoke of an impending social revolution, "we Chileans are slow to change, but when we do change, we do it quick."

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

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