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Divorce, abortion and gay rights have far greater support in public than they do among politicians, who tend to be held hostage by a binomial electoral system.Roberto Candia/The Associated Press

Claudio Arriagada has served for 10 years as the popular mayor of La Granja, a middle-class municipality on the outskirts of the Chilean capital. When he announced a plan earlier this year to run for parliament as a Christian Democratic candidate, he seemed like a shoo-in. Then, at the party's national convention in July, he came out publicly as gay, and criticized the party's opposition to gay marriage.

Just a few years ago, that would have been enough to kill his candidacy. But on Nov. 17, Mr. Arriagada, the first openly gay candidate for a mainstream party in Chile's history, was elected to parliament with a comfortable majority. And in the coverage of his win, his sexual orientation didn't come up at all. "It's not something relevant for anybody," he said the next day.

This election may well prove to be the watershed moment in the slow fight for gay rights in this country. "We're used to being on the outside, knocking, saying, 'Please listen to us,'" said Luis Larrain, president of Fundacion Iguales – the Equals Foundation. "This time it's different."

Chile's journey back from dictatorship has been a slow one, a series of gradual reforms – the country still uses the constitution imposed by General Augusto Pinochet, and drafted by a far-right Catholic politician. Gen. Pinochet was still commander of the military just 15 years ago – and the strong influence of the military encouraged social homogeneity. Even the left-wing governments in power since the transition to democracy in 1990 have had strong conservative Christian elements. None of this produced a political culture that left much space for gay rights.

Yet most Chileans have evolved much more swiftly, into a more liberal society that was not, until now, reflected in its politics. Divorce, abortion and gay rights have far greater support in public than they do among politicians, who tend to be held hostage by a binomial electoral system.

Now the influence of the slow tide of gay rights spreading across Latin America, where courts and legislators have sometimes moved faster than public opinion, has finally crested the Andes.

Uruguay was first, legalizing civil unions in 2008 and adoption by gay couples a year later. Ecuador gave gay families equal rights in 2009 (although adoption by homosexuals is still illegal). Argentina took the boldest step in 2010, with a law that permitted same-sex marriage and allowed gay couples to adopt. Brazil effectively legalized gay marriage last year, after a court ruled notaries could not refuse to marry same-sex couples.

Here in Chile, seven of nine presidential candidates in the election endorsed marriage equality, although it is not clear that Michelle Bachelet, who has a huge majority going in to the presidential runoff vote next month, will want to spend the political capital to legalize same-sex marriage. Polls show support for gay marriage at anywhere from 30 per cent to the high 40s, depending on how the question is phrased; political analysts say the lower figure is probably more accurate.

But that's up from less than 20 per cent just five years ago, and the change is due in part to crafty strategy from gay groups.

"We've been able to put our claims in a context of broad inequality in our country," Mr. Larrain said. For the past three years, Chile has seen massive student-led demonstrations about inequality in income and access to health and education; groups such as his worked to make legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people part of that debate. "We've tried to use words and images that speak to equality. The name of our foundation is Iguales, not Gay People Fighting for Gay Rights, and there's a reason; it's a strategy. And it's been successful."

Mr. Larrain's personal story helps, too: He is the suave, Paris-educated son of a dictatorship-era cabinet minister – a scion of the old Chile – except he also happens to be gay and out and tweets about it. He talks publicly about how coming out brought him closer to his parents.

"Bachelet won't do anything until she realizes it doesn't have a huge cost," Mr. Larrain said. "Our job is to make this visible enough and popular enough to get the polls above 50 per cent – and with those polls, she won't be able to maintain the current situation as a progressive leader of a progressive coalition, when we're behind five other countries in the region."

While his group pursues the political lobbying, three Chilean couples have taken a case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, charging that the fact they cannot marry here violates Chile's commitments as a signatory to the pan-continental human-rights treaty.

"It's not a question any more of whether there will be marriage equality, it's a question of when – probably within four or five years, either from government or from the commission case," said Rolando Jimenez. He heads Chile's oldest gay-rights group, the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation, known by its Spanish acronym MOVILH, which is backing the lawsuit. "Conservatives have tools to slow it, but they can't stop it."

The Catholic Church has been outspoken in its opposition to marriage equality, and also opposed an anti-discrimination law adopted last year because it included gay and transgender people. Evangelical Christian churches are growing rapidly in Chile, as they are throughout the region, and they, too, oppose all steps to broaden legal protection for gay and transgender rights.

But gay rights groups have engaged even the conservative elements of government – it was the outgoing right-wing government of Sebastian Pinera that introduced a civil unions bill (though it has not yet passed Congress) – and they have capitalized on international change, too, Mr. Jimenez added. "It used to be that any cultural change abroad took 20 years to reach Chile – in the digital age it's instant."

MOVILH had worked with government for a decade on an anti-discrimination bill that languished in Congress. But in 2012, a young gay man named Daniel Zamudio was attacked in a Santiago park, beaten and had swastikas carved into his skin. He died of his injuries 24 days later, and the crime horrified Chileans of all political persuasions. The public outcry prompted Mr. Pinera to push the anti-discrimination law through parliament.

Last month, another young man was attacked, in a working-class town a few hours from the capital. Despite the fact that the men who beat him yelled they were going to "kill the faggot," Mr. Jimenez said, the judge in the case refused to apply the new law, saying that was a normal thing to say in a fight. The victim is still in a coma; his family came to MOVILH, who helped them appeal, and the case is going back to court as a hate-crime. Mr. Jimenez says there is still much to be done, but the speed of change is nevertheless remarkable.

"Today in Chile to say 'I'm homophobic' is politically incorrect. Ten years ago, it was a label, almost a medal, that you wore proudly."

(Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Daniel Zamudio.)

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