I’m sipping iced coffee at a Brooklyn café with Diego Palma, a 27-year-old Uruguay native living in New York. On the other side of the hemisphere, an open letter he wrote last week has shaken up the Uruguayan establishment and helped usher in the four-leaf clover as a new symbol of diversity and equality. Move over pink triangle and rainbow flag, you have company.
It started Thursday when Mercedes Rovira, the head of Uruguay’s top university, Universidad de Montevideo, told the Busqueda newspaper that homosexuality is "an anomaly," like a four-leaf clover, and sexual orientation "obviously plays" a part in hiring decisions at the school.
Predictably, an explosion of outrage followed on social media while Palma, a former student and teacher at the university, published his views in an open letter to Rovira. He sent it out through the blogsphere, Twitter and Facebook, and it quickly went viral.
"If like you said, homosexuality is like 'finding a four-leaf clover,' he wrote, "the Universidad de Montevideo has had, does have and will always have lots of luck…The next time you walk down the halls of the university you now lead, take a look around and you will find students, professors and staff that are offended by your comments."
The letter racked up 7,000 views in two days (sizable for a country with a smaller population than Los Angeles). It was published in the top newspapers, and was read on every Uruguayan evening news broadcast.
By Saturday, Rovira accepted the university’s request for her resignation.
"I didn’t know it was going to get this big," Palma says. "When people speak their mind—at the same time—I think the message becomes more powerful."
Soon people hopped offline and took to the streets. On Friday a crowd of some 300 people, gay and straight, marched to the university carrying four-leaf clovers, kissing, and dancing to Lady Gaga to protest the comments. A bunch more changed their Facebook profile picture to a four-leaf clover.
There are now talks of using the clover as the logo for the new marriage equality law that’s working its way through Uruguay’s parliament, news sites report. "I think it's gonna stick," Palma says. (Same-sex unions are allowed in the country, but the government is expected to vote on the full equality law next month.)
As the most secular South American country, Uruguay has a history of being forward-thinking. It was the first to legalize divorce and allow women the right to vote, and has made headlines recently for considering legalizing marijuana sales. But Universidad de Montevideo is affiliated with the conservative Catholic group Opus Dei, and though the institution's framework stipulates nondiscrimination and encourages free thinking, many of its staff live strictly by the values of the church.
At the request of the Ministry of Education (the education arm of the Uruguayan government), the university condemned the offensive remarks, and Rovira herself wrote a letter back to Palma, denying that sexual preference plays a role in hiring decisions, but admitting "today I understand it was not appropriate to speak of anomaly."
But if it's true that being gay hampers your chance of being hired, the practice isn't just prejudiced; it's illegal. The former dean went to court Wednesday to explain the remarks, and an investigation is underway to see if discriminatory hiring practices are widespread at the university, Busqueda reports.
Meanwhile, Palma's inbox has been flooded over the last week with hundreds of emails and comments. He sent me one of his favorites:
I am 14 years old and after reading your letter I decided to get in touch with you. Honestly, I have never been in favor of homosexuality but I feel great respect for you now. I think we need more four-leaf clovers like you. I hope more people support your letter because it is worth spreading.
The fast and overwhelmingly positive public response we saw last week is encouraging, Palma says—hopefully, it'll make the road easier for future equality laws.
"I saw this as opportunity to say, ok, I'm not gonna stay silent this time. And also, because I feel it's our responsibility as young people—a new generation—to make the change happen," he says. "I think in the future we're gonna see the pace of change, because of social media, increase. I think we’re seeing it already."
Photo via (cc) Flickr user AlexisLouise