Panama  is a quite tolerant and open-minded place for a predominantly Roman Catholic Latin American country. I’ve yet to hear a story, for instance, about a police raid on a gay club. However, gays and lesbians are still for the most part closeted. Same-sex affection on the streets would cause a sensation at best, an ugly encounter at worst. Homosexuality is not illegal in Panama, but neither is it legally protected.
Foreigner status helps protect gay and lesbian travelers from harassment. Gay and lesbian acquaintances in Panama say they’ve never felt threatened, but it’s hard to know how much of this is just the natural immunity that comes from having power in a society that’s sharply divided between the haves and have-nots. Poorer gays do sometimes get beaten and harassed, and they have little protection or legal recourse.
In 2001, after a three-year battle, Panama gave legal recognition to its first gay and lesbian organization, La Asociación de Hombres y Mujeres Nuevos de Panamá (AHMNP, The Association of New Men and Women of Panama, tel. 264-2670, www.ahmnpanama.org ). AHMNP advocates the rights of “sexual minorities,” including gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered people. It also aims to provide education about preventing sexually transmitted diseases and support for those infected with HIV.
In 2007, activists from 14 countries in the Americas met in Panama for a conference that ran parallel to a meeting of the general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). The meeting was meant to encourage greater participation of gays, lesbians, and other sexual minorities in the OAS. Among the speakers was Aristides Royo, a former president of Panama and the country’s chief representative to the OAS.
The visibility of gays and lesbians in popular culture is also increasing. Local soap operas, enormously popular in Panama, have introduced gay characters who are portrayed in a positive light, and a few years back one of the hosts of a popular TV chat program, La Cocoa, was an openly gay man. Gays have also been allowed to enter floats in Panama’s Carnaval celebration in recent years, complete with a Carnaval queen in drag. However, Panama was not quite ready for this: Cross-dressing in Carnaval parades has now been banned throughout the country on “moral grounds.” In 2008, gay groups withdrew from the parades in protest.
For more information on international gay rights issues, check out the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (www.iglhrc.org ), the International Lesbian and Gay Association (www.ilga.org ), and http://gaynewswatch.com . Information on gay-run and gay-friendly accommodations can be found at www.purpleroofs.com . None of these groups has much information on Panama, however.
Information on parties, clubs, and events in Panama aimed at the GLBT crowd is available at www.farraurbana.com .