Queer in Costa Rica

Author name
Jamie McGhee

Over Spring Break, I traveled to Costa Rica with Duke Chapel.  I carried preconceived notions of the country, most notably that its predominately Catholic population would be homophobic and unwelcoming.

Costa Rica (literally “Rich Coast”) has a population of 4.5 million people, and is located snugly between Nicaragua and Panama.  The average family makes $10,200 dollars a year.  Seventy percent of Costa Ricans identify as Roman Catholic, fourteen percent identify as Protestant, and two percent identify as Buddhist.  And same-sex civil unions are legal.

Because I was traveling with the Chapel, I stayed in the closet while other students discussed whom they wanted to marry, and what they wanted to name their children, and which seminaries they hoped to attend.  The Chapel is gay-friendly, of course, but some situations aren’t. 
We slept in a Methodist church in San Isidro de El General, a small town filled with flower farms and fruit plantations, a town with streets of asphalt and sidewalks of dust, a town where tourists seldom travel and I passed as a local from Limón.  I talked to dozens of people during my stay.  I talked to mothers and pastors and the doctor who stitched up my knee.  I talked to Chapel administrators and students from Wake Forest.  I talked to storeowners and students.  Although we discussed dating and marriage, sexuality never came up, even in my conversations with Americans.
However, it’s still a pertinent issue in Costa Rican culture.  In 2000, the Costa Rican Supreme Court opposed the closing of a gay sauna in San José.  In 2008, the President declared May 17th as the National Day Against Homophobia.  In 2011, gay inmates were allowed to receive visits from partners.  And in 2013, the Legislative Assembly allowed gay citizens to have civil unions and domestic partnerships “without discrimination contrary to human dignity.”
Costa Rica also has a vibrant LGBT tourism scene.  Manuel Antonio Beach attracts thousands of queer visitors, while organizations such as GaytOurs help visitors find particularly gay-friendly activities.  Furthermore, America has approximately three million gay baby boomers, many of whom are looking toward Costa Rica as a possible retirement destination.

While I doubt that Costa Rica is the gay Mecca that GaytOurs claims it is, it is more welcoming and accepting than I expected.  In Costa Rica, just as in the United States, the question of gay rights is complex.