Tag Archives: Guatemala

State of Queer: being gay in Latin America

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IGUALES: an organisation promoting a wider inclusion of minorities into the society

Many countries in Latin America have been quick to adopt legislation towards the greater inclusion of LGBT individuals in society, but the struggle is far from over. México, Chile and Guatemala illustrate some of the differences, and the challenges looking forward. For a bigger picture, have a look at this map.

Edgar Sosa Meyemberg was an openly gay man and an active member of Ave de México, an organization that promotes awareness of HIV – a problem that is even greater among the homosexual community in México. He was last seen 24 February 2014, only to be found dead a month later. Ave de México, where Sosa served as director of development, demanded a prompt investigation of the case, but it ran into institutional and societal indifference. Though the authorities are not exclusively negligent in cases that involve members of the LGBT community, impunity being the norm for most Latin American countries, but they are quick to dismiss crimes like these on the grounds that they are usually crimes of passion. Both the attorney of the Texcoco and Nezahualcoyotl municipalities declared the crime to be so, after a photograph of Edgar with a rainbow flag surfaced in the investigation.

This sort of stereotype, says Carlos García de León, a fellow activist and friend of Sosa, is not rare in Mexican society. “Cases like these bring to light the sheer ignorance of the reality and dynamics of homosexual individuals by the authorities, as it is guided by stereotypes and indifference”, he claims. He also cites the death of another Ave de Mexico team member that was never investigated, Francisco Estrada Valle, who died in 1992, and the more recent killing of a 24 year old gay activist, Christian Iván Sánchez, in July 2011. Sánchez was involved with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), who is friendlier among Mexican political parties when it comes to LGBT issues. General violence and hate crimes, based on the victims’ sexual orientation, is a grave issue in Latin America. Between 1995 and 2005, around 400 victims lost their lives to violence due to their sexual orientation in México, whereas 312 were killed in Brazil during 2013. There is hope, however, as a wave of legislative changes have mobilised the region towards greater acceptance of LGBT individuals as part of society and will continue to do so in the following years.

A silver lining

A crime, in fact, can be a trigger for change, as the case of Daniel Zamudio in Chile illustrates. Zamudio was a 24 year old man who was attacked and tortured in 2012 when his attackers learned about his homosexuality. He was severely injured and died three weeks later, but the media attention and the prompt response by local activist organisations sped up public discussion and legislation against discrimination. Then President Sebastián Piñera urged the Chilean parliament to speed up the adoption of a law against discrimination, which banned discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, appearance and disability. Also under Piñera, a project to regulate civil unions for non-married couples, heterosexual and same-sex alike, was introduced for discussion partly through the pressure of civil society and activist organizations. It is now known as the AVP, as the Spanish acronym for life partnership accord. Political momentum was not enough, as the discussion of the project has been delayed for about 4 years and is only now in the final stages of approval.

Luis Larraín, knows that the project is only a step in the direction of greater acceptance for the rights of LGBT individuals, which is the long-term goal of the organisation he presides over; Fundación Iguales. In fact, the AVP has been disputed both by hard-line activists, who don’t want civil unions to overcrowd the diversity agenda thereby pushing other topics off the table, as by conservatives, who perceive it as a threat to the institution of family. But Larraín and his co-founder, writer Pablo Simonetti, and the team at Iguales all agree on the necessity for gradual change. Civil unions are just one more milestone in a longer path: “Though the discussion has amplified from the AVP to equal marriage, the legal project has been pending approval for 4 years, and is coming close to finally being sanctioned. Introducing a new project right now would take at least a few months to get approval”, stated Larraín. “The time that passes translates into lives of people whose relationships and rights are not duly recognised”, he clarifies.

In fact, the delay has been put to good use, as public debates have engaged Chilean citizens in an honest discussion about the inclusion of all citizens to democratic processes – a wave that also encompasses changes in education and tax reform, as well as better treatment of women, migrants and indigenous peoples. “Next steps include the gender identity law, which would allow trans individuals to adjust their identity documents, which we hope will be approved next year. We’re also proposing adoption by same-sex couples, though not yet at the legislative level, and are socialising a proposal for equal marriage. Hopefully, it will be granted its proper importance and will be voted as part of [current President Michelle] Bachelet’s term”, Larraín explains.

The main success for the cause of LGBT peoples in Latin America, however, has come from sharing a message that appeals even to non-LGBT peoples. Andrés Zúñiga, programmes manager at Iguales, sums it up: “Besides being gay, you’re also a student, a brother, a son, a poor or rich, right-wing or left-wing person. People are recognising that increasingly”. Both also noticed that the issue is closely related to the prevalence of homosexuality having a more prominent spot on the public agenda, but other gender identities have started to gain track in recent years. “It’s more than just about homosexuality; it’s about diversity”, adds Zúñiga, who is also a psychology student.

 An Unequal Transition

Chile has had a steady, though slow, progress toward greater inclusion. So has Argentina, the first country in the region where gay marriage was legal since 2010, Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico. The middle to high-level income in those countries may be a one reason why social movements towards greater inclusion have been successful. In fact, inequality is a problem even domestically, as Zúñiga points out that “Lower-income constituencies are more at risk than their middle and high income counterparts. The underlying reason is their lack of access to education, and the corresponding influence conservative or religious leaders may have with them”.

But as Javier Corrales, a political science professor at Amherst University points out, social movements are also strong in Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru, and their struggle to institutionalise change cannot be explained with recourse to education and income alone. “What seems to make a difference is … whether they forge strong ties with national-level political parties”, he writes  in the New York Times.

Worryingly, there are a few countries where the voices for LGBT activism are not nearly as organised. Such is the case in Guatemala. As the host country for the 43rd General Assembly for the Association of American States (OAS), held in early June 2013, the president Otto Pérez Molina was forced to take a stance on abortion and gay marriage, topics that were intensely discussed as part of the summit’s agenda. He promptly and almost candidly affirmed that “Guatemala is a conservative country, and is therefore against abortion and marriage between homosexuals”. A few dozen people had been protesting outside the meeting, calling for the defense of “life, family and marriage”. They later sent him a letter thanking him for his “resistance to pressures”, signed by 150 people. Jorge Lopez Sologaistoa, president of OASIS Guatemala, presented a public denunciation against the President and other government officials at the Office of the Human Rights Procurator. “That type of comments incite discrimination, and violates the universal human rights. You cannot recognise them in one place and not in other”, López explained , but the demand went mostly under the radar.

Sadly, people in most countries of Latin America still face enormous social pressure to conform to expectations about masculinity and femininity that are based in culture or religion, some of them live in countries without the institutions that might help provide a better council, or support. Then, most gay, lesbian, transsexual, bisexual, queer and bisexual individuals are bound to negotiate their rights at a great disadvantage, even if it doesn’t translate into actual violence. Luckily, a high level of engagement and the work of courageous individuals point to higher grounds.

By Luis Eduardo Barrueto

Picture: Paola Ossandón

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The long road to nowhere

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Courage, devastation, anger and sorrow all mix together in these stunning stories that represent the migration struggle in South America. Luis Eduardo Barrueto reports from Guatemala the tragedy of crossing the Mexican border that immigrants have to face, bravely risking their lives to reach the ‘American dream’.  

The Faces of Migration 
The producers of the Mexican film, The Golden Cage (La jaula de oro, 2013), decided to portray the story with more than a dash of hyperrealism when they searched for their cast in Guatemalan communities with a high degree of emigration. The selected cast portrays the two Guatemalan youngsters – a boy and a girl – and a Mexican tzotzil boy in their route across Mexico towards the United States.

The cast is composed of non-actors. According to producer Inna Payán, they were very much aware that the story they were portraying was all too real, all too painful.

The action portrayed is thus on the dividing line between fiction and documentary but it struck a cord with European critics when it was presented at the Cannes Film Festival. Its possible that analysing a story that takes place across the Atlantic Ocean allows Europeans to fully understand the logic of the migration that takes place, in a different guise, within their own borders?

La arrocera
One work of non-fiction however, is the story of Paola, interviewed by Oscar Martínez in a project called “On the road”, by the regional digital newspaper El Faro.

Paola, a Guatemalan transexual, was 23 when she narrated the story of unbuckling belts and whispered negotiations behind her back on board a train recently into the Mexican border in her trip (“You go first, then it’s my turn”). These raw comments did not disturb her upheld posture when she decided to interrupt them and without even turning her back to see their reactions, she told them to do whatever they wanted with one condition : “Look, do whatever you want but wear condoms. There are a few in my backpack, the red one over there. I recommend you do that because I have AIDS”. She added a not-so-veiled threat: “I though you were too manly and only fucked women”, despite the fact that she had by then effectively switched identities at the time and did not recognize herself as anything but a woman.

Paola didn’t have AIDS, but what she did have after five years of being a prostitute, was a precise intuition of men’s measure, added to a self-earned resilience. She was left alone, not without being robbed and insulted profusely first, but this demonstrated that her false threat had been effective. Tall and victorious, she took what was left in her red backpack, put on some makeup and a black blouse, and was then certain about that which she had only previously ever been warned of: something always happens in La arrocera. All 45 of her companions were assaulted in this short section between Tapachula and Arriaga, a danger zone for migrants that consists of barely 28 ranches and takes its name from an inhabited rice warehouse that is falling apart in the road.

Unspoken kidnappings
Barely across the border from Guatemala, la arrocera is one of the first hardships that travelling across Mexico presents the migrants with, but it is hardly the only one. Tapachula, Tenosique, Ciudad Hidalgo are all frontier towns in the south of Mexico where abductions are common practice, as Oscar Martinez reports for the newspaper El Faro. Migrants fret, alarmed, asking for someone to do something, as well as asking for anonymity when they speak to journalists as they describe what happens daily in that territory. The Zetas and their allies, in broad daylight, kidnap dozens of Central Americans and place them in houses that are well known to many people – including the authorities.

“The commercial logic is simple”, writes Martínez, “It is better to kidnap 40 people over several days in order to get a ransom of around $300 per person [from their relatives in the United States, usually], than kidnapping just one businessman, who despite delivering the money in one go, may call up the attention of the press and the police”.

Those are the kidnappings whose stories are untold and whose victims remain without proper recourse or compensation. They wouldn’t denounce it even if they could, because that may put them in danger of deportation, setting their whole journey back to the starting point.

The beast
José Luis Fernández, 17, took every precaution, survived the assaults and the perks of such hard travelling. He never imagined fainting from the heat in the last train he boarded from Torreón to Juárez. He boarded and he was sitting in a small juncture where the wagons couple together, and he tells journalist Alejandra Gutiérrez for news website Plaza Publica that “I was sitting, but my feet were hurting from the swelling caused by all the walking. I was thinking about that when the lights turned off and I fell. It was like a faint. Imagine that. I took care of not falling asleep, from not being caught by the migration police, from the assaults, but I never thought that I would faint. The heat in Chihuahua and the fact that I hadn’t eaten in three days made me fall. The train pulled me and I woke up, the train cut my leg and the pain made me reach for it with my arm, which also got caught. I wanted to die because I didn’t even lose consciousness and couldn’t even move to get myself killed by the train […] I’m only alive because a man passed by and immediately called the Red Cross”.

His story is representative of yet another danger posed by migration, caused by the crossing of Río Bravo in the US-Mexican border or in the process of climbing aboard and getting off moving trains, regularly between 10 and 15 trains in total across from Arriaga, Chiapas, towards different points in the northern border. The whole network is dubbed The beast or the Death Train because the falls and deaths are not uncommon, due to a mix of tiredness, famine, and emotional stress. The question remains open regarding what states could change towards their migration policy to make it more efficient, and also, more humane.

A global phenomenon
Though these stories are an attempt to portray migrants’ reality, they are all but fragmentary bits and pieces of an incredibly complex phenomenon with scarcely any systematically compiled information. The way that their episodes are framed in this piece avoids the usual narrative provided by most media’s treatment of migration.

Inasmuch as their accounts can be fully provided with context, they are a representation of a story that is familiar to Central Americans and Mexicans en route to the United States, but also to Cuban balseros, groups of Africans arriving to land in the European mediterranean coasts or Iranians crossing, via Indonesia, towards the Christmas Island in Australia in harsh sea. Despite differences in transport mode, hardships faced and outcomes achieved, the reality of migration is this one: they leave because to die trying is preferable than to remain living, in a land deprived of opportunities.