Argentina once led on LGBTQ rights. After 4 lesbians are set on fire, critics blame rising intolerance on Milei’s government

It was an attack that sent shockwaves through a country long considered a pioneer in LGBTQ rights. In the early hours of May 6, four lesbian women were set on fire in Argentina. Only one of them survived.

It happened at a boarding house in the Barracas neighborhood of Buenos Aires, where Pamela Fabiana Cobas, Mercedes Roxana Figueroa, Andrea Amarante and Sofía Castro Riglo were sharing a room. Witnesses say a man broke in and threw an incendiary device that set the women on fire.

Pamela died soon after. Her partner Roxana died days later of organ failure. Andrea died on May 12 in a hospital.

Andrea’s partner Sofía was the sole survivor. She spent weeks recovering in hospital and is alive today only because Andrea threw herself on top of her to shield her from the flames, Sofia’s attorney Gabriela Conder told CNN. “Her partner saved her,” Conder said.

Local LGBTQ rights advocates condemned the attack as a hate crime and lesbicide, saying the women were targeted because of their sexual identity. Police have arrested a 62-year-old man who lived in the building but, according to Conder, aren’t currently treating the incident as a hate crime as they say the motive is still unclear.

For Argentina’s LGBTQ groups – many of whom are planning to commemorate the four women with a rally this weekend – the attack represents an extreme manifestation of what they consider a growing wave of hostility against them. Those they blame most for this rising intolerance are the people in power. Chief among them, they say, is the country’s new far-right leader Javier Milei.

“Things changed with the new government of Javier Milei,” said Maria Rachid, head of the Institute Against Discrimination of the Ombudsman’s Office in Buenos Aires, and a board member and founder of the Argentine LGBT Federation (FALGBT).

“Since the beginning of the new government, there are national government officials expressing themselves in a discriminatory manner and those hate speeches before our communities from places with so much power, of course, what they do is generate – actually legitimize – and endorse these discriminatory positions that are then expressed with violence and discrimination in everyday life,” Rachid said.

Women light candles during a vigil in front of the boarding house where two lesbians were killed in Buenos Aires on May 8, 2024. - Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images
Women light candles during a vigil in front of the boarding house where two lesbians were killed in Buenos Aires on May 8, 2024. - Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images

Milei under fire

When Milei ran for president in 2023, he and his party were accused of making offensive remarks against LGBTQ communities which were deemed hate speech by multiple groups, including Argentina’s National Observatory of LGBTQ Hate Crimes.

In a YouTube interview ahead of the November election, Milei insisted that he does not oppose same-sex marriage, but in that same interview, he went on to compare homosexuality to having sex with animals.

“What do I care what your sexual preference is? If you want to be with an elephant, and you have the consent of that elephant, that’s a problem between you and the elephant,” he said, angering LGBTQ communities, who called the comments dehumanizing.

In late October, then-congresswoman-elect Diana Mondino, who would later become Milei’s foreign minister, told an interviewer that she supports marriage equality in theory, but at the same time, compared it to having lice.

“As a liberal, I’m in favor of each person’s life project. It is much broader than marriage equality. Let me exaggerate: If you prefer not to bathe and be full of lice and it is your choice, that’s it. Don’t complain later if there is someone who doesn’t like that you have lice,” she said.

After taking office in December, Milei took steps that critics say weakened protections for LGBTQ groups. He banned the use of gender-inclusive language in government; replaced the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity with a less powerful undersecretariat within the Ministry of Human Capital; and effectively closed the national anti-discrimination agency, saying the Ministry of Justice would absorb its functions.

People take part in the LGBTQ Pride Parade in front of the Congress building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 4, 2023. - Martin Cossarini/Reuters
People take part in the LGBTQ Pride Parade in front of the Congress building in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on November 4, 2023. - Martin Cossarini/Reuters

Milei’s administration argued that some of those moves were part of his plan to cut public spending in response to the country’s economic hardships. But critics say his actions have normalized a culture of discrimination toward LGBTQ groups, and in the most extreme cases, have led to violent attacks such as the deadly May 6 arson.

“When hate speech is enabled by those in power, these sectors start to feel legitimized to attack,” Esteban Paulón, a former FALGBT president who was elected to Congress last year, told CNN in a phone interview. “And obviously, behind the verbal attacks come physical attacks.”

“(Attacks) always happened. That’s the reality. But they increased more in this current government due to the hate speeches constantly maintained on television, including hate speeches that our president Javier Milei exerts,” said Jesi Hernández, a lesbian and communication member of Lesbianxs Autoconvocadxs por la masacre de Barracas (Self-convened Lesbians for the Barracas massacre).

“Today it was Pamela, Roxana, Andrea and Sofía. And tomorrow it can be me.”

CNN has repeatedly reached out to the presidency for comment on these allegations but has not received a response.

Rise in hate crimes

In 2023, an annual report by the National Observatory of LGBTQ Hate Crimes recorded 133 crimes in which the victims’ sexual orientation, identity and/or gender expression were used as a pretext for the attacks. Those numbers rose from 2022 and 2021, when 129 and 120 crimes were recorded, respectively.

Rachid points out that the observatory’s numbers only represent attacks that have been officially recorded, and that the real figures are likely much higher.

Hernández, meanwhile, notes that daily life for many people has been impacted in ways not shown by statistics alone. Some now fear they could be targeted next.

“The truth is that now, sleeping peacefully in your bed is a privilege,” Hernández said, referencing the May 6 attack, “because you don’t know if you have a neighbor who will throw something at you or come in. Sleeping is now a privilege for us.”

Despite calls from LGBTQ activists, the arson is currently being investigated as an aggravated homicide rather than a hate crime, according to Conder, Sofia’s attorney. Sofia is set to testify at the end of the month, Conder said. CNN has reached out to the criminal court investigating the case but has not received a response.

Shortly after the May 6 killings, the presidential spokesperson Manuel Adorni condemned the attack but dismissed the notion that it was motivated by hatred toward the sexual orientation of the victims.

“I don’t like to define it as an attack on a certain group,” Adorni said at a press conference. “There are many women and men who are suffering violence and these are things that cannot continue to happen.”

Progressives condemned his remarks, insisting that the government should regard lesbicide as a hate crime.

Adorni responded on social media with a picture of a Spanish dictionary that said lesbicide is not a registered word.

Progress in Argentina

Argentina was once a progressive pioneer in Latin America.

In 2010, it became the first country in the region to legalize same-sex marriage. In 2021, it also became the first to allow nonbinary people to mark their gender as “X” on national identity documents.

LGBTQ activists fear these historic gains are now being undermined – and potentially threatened – by the current government. But they also take comfort in surveys that suggest anti-LGBTQ views are the minority in Argentina.

According to a public opinion survey conducted in May by the University of San Andrés, some 72% of respondents said they are in favor of marriage equality, 70% said they support policies that protect transgender people from discrimination, 75% said they do not consider that transsexuality is a disease that should be treated medically, and 79% said that comprehensive sexuality education in schools is a positive thing.

The recent attacks have galvanized activists to fight for new policies and actions that would further protect LGBTQ rights.

Congressman Paulón told CNN that lawmakers are working with rights groups on various laws that would, among other things, punish discriminatory acts, prevent harassment in schools, and ban efforts to try to “correct” people’s sexual orientation, identity and gender.

He also said that to reduce attacks on LGBTQ communities, their voices and demands should be amplified in more societal sectors.

To that end, Hernández encouraged LGBTQ groups to push back against hate speech, telling those communities: “They are not insane, they are not sick, they are not people with lice. Quite the opposite. I would tell them that they are a disruptive person, that they are breaking out of the molds of ‘normality.’ And that they are very brave … and that they are whatever they want to be, despite all this.”

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