Solidary & Actions: Interview with Young Lesbian Activists in El Salvador, PART 3
This is part of a series of posts about LGBT communities in Central America (you can read Part 1 and Part 2 here). I recently interviewed two young adult, lesbian women activists in El Salvador. Andrea Ayala, 29, has been an activist since 2007 and is currently working through Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas de la Diversidad. Veronica Reyna, 29, is currently involved with two lesbian-oriented collectives, and has worked on LGBT issues with various NGOs and organizations for the past six years. The interview was translated by journalist and blogger Danielle Mackey.
“This sounds silly to say this,” Veronica told me, “but it surprises us when other people are interested in hearing our stories and hearing our history. But this is a country that is rich in stories and history, and we certainly hope this information is helpful and can generate new relationships and solidarity and actions.”
AB: Could you talk about the lesbian dating scene? Is it safe or easy to go out on the weekends with partners or friends? How do you meet partners? Is the gay social scene visible or is it kept hidden underground?
AA: When I think back to my adolescence, I had to discover where the bars were. You realize that once you find out where the bars are, that’s where your social scene can happen. For example, I went to a place called Escape, which was a disco, when I was seventeen, and that was like the Mecca of lesbian dating. In addition, you develop your own “gaydar.” You know someone who you think must be a lesbian and you throw your little fishing line out, as we say in El Salvador.
You realize that in order to satisfy your need to be in contact with people, your only options basically are bars and discos. You don’t really have the opportunities to get to figure out if the girl you like is a lesbian or not. You’re not going to get help on that. If you go to places like cafes or restaurants, and you show any sign of same-sex affection, you will be immediately invited to leave the premises. If you don’t, you will be taken into custody, so there are very few options outside of bars.
VR: That being said, there are at most 5 gay bars in San Salvador.
Perhaps the most credible, practical tool is Facebook. Social media has become a safe way to, for example, create a false account, add friends, start talking to people who can help you through figuring out your sexual identity. It’s a practical way to meet partners or friends and feel safe while doing that. Despite the fact that lesbian relationships are eroticized and are seen as eye-candy for men, that sort of expression is not okay in public.
AB: Could you talk about the pride march and any other sexual diversity events?
AA: Since 2008 or 2009 when the Alliance for Sexual Diversity came together and started to do our work, I do think we’ve had a stronger presence with public activities as well as with things like investigations, calling out and reporting human rights violations, things that are absolutely vital to our struggle.
Since 2010, we have named the month of June “Diversijunio” (a play on words, June of Diversity). We’ll do movie discussion nights, we have meetings, bring speakers on the subjects in forums, like family for instance and subjects related to LGBT.
The annual pride march is the last Saturday of June every year. We have even started this year to give awards to media who try to cover LGBT issues in a more responsible way.
We do a meeting among activists called Sopa al Parque, where we go to a park and a bunch of us make soup together. We discuss our ideas for the year of activities, etc.
There’s the Day of Lesbian Visibility. To celebrate this year, they’re trying to put together an art festival. LGBT organizations are basically entirely funded based on whether or not they do HIV work, so it becomes a titanic job to be able to find funding to do something like a lesbian art festival that has no apparent connection to HIV.
The 17th of May is the day against all of the phobias---homophobia, lesbian phobia, trans phobia, bi phobia, etc. We do a march as a commemorative act in honor of those who were victims of hate crime.
This year, during June, I put together a sports day with three other women where many LGBT folks came and played soccer. There was a great turn out. It promoted another social context that LGBT people could come together and not just go to a bar and drink together, but do other activities.
AB: Do individuals or gangs ever react violently or abusively to these celebration events that you were talking about to gay bars or pride events you mentioned or any public displays of affection?
AA: This discrimination is everything from general terms up until even violent reactions. I ride a motor scooter through the streets, and that makes me very vulnerable. People try to run me over or throw things at me from the street or yell things when my partner and I are on the motor scooter together.
During the time of the attempted constitutional reform (see Part 2), we started to receive personal death threats. We had to change where we were living. There was a death squad that formed that said they would start going after every face they saw on TV defending the LGBT population, and they started to distribute flyers that said they would kill us, one by one. We submitted this case to the human rights oms buds person here in the country, and there was never really a follow up.
When I was in charge of writing a report on human rights violations against the community in 2012, we would have cases like a trans member of our community who would be kidnapped, held for seven days, tortured that whole time, and in the end they would find her body, she would be assassinated, her penis in her mouth, her anus completely outside of her body. That’s the sort of violence that the LGBT population lives, from that generalized social violence in the streets, up to torture.
VR: Groups like the civilian national police, the agents of municipal security, the armed forces that patrol the streets---the cases of violations by them against the LGBT community show excessive force, evidence of torture, shades of hate in how they handle LGBT people. This is something where you’re not only killed, but before you’re killed you’ll be raped, tortured, dismembered, and your body will be destroyed to show the victim that you’re worth even less, to humiliate even more. That’s a characteristic that is actually common among femicides as well, the killing of women for being women.
These sorts of abuses by the police against the LGBT community are not things that happen every 5 or 6 years, they happen on a regular basis. In terms of gang violence, I heard about 6 homicides that happened at the same time of one gang towards members of the rival gang, and the only homicide that didn’t happen by, you know, 5 or 6 gunshots, was that of a gang member who was a gay man. Because he was gay, they killed him by stoning him and stabbing him to death. It was as if to say, not only are you a rival, you are a faggot, so you must be killed differently.
AA: For lesbian women, in addition to the psychological and verbal abuse, there is also a process of corrective rape that happens, and that actually happens most commonly in the family; a brother, uncle, or cousin is charged with raping a female family member who they think is a lesbian because she “doesn’t know what it means to be with a man.” We have a case of a woman who was murdered in front of her young child, by her ex-husband. He drove an ice pick into her heart because he found out that she was in a lesbian relationship after they split up. We can say that corrective rape and assassination practices like this are common but they’re treated by the police, etc., as crimes of passion or as crimes against “men dressed as women,” and they’re not treated specifically as hate crimes.
AB: What do you see life being like for the LGBTQ community for the years to come in El Salvador?
VR: Perhaps it sounds like I’m merely giving up too easily but my idea for the future is that we can live in peace, and I say that not just for the LGBT community, but for El Salvador as a whole. We have such a high level of violence that is not just expressed as homicides or as gang violence, even though it’s usually reduced to that, but there are all sorts of violence---gender, social, physical, sexual, economic violence. You’re not only targeted for your sexual orientation, but for whatever—whatever excuse they could possibly make—and it’s difficult to coexist and live peacefully in this country. Of course, it’s more difficult as a lesbian, but my dream for my own life is to live openly with my partner, my friends, my family at some point, without causing a problem by living openly as who I am, and to be able to feel like I’m living safely here, not because I have a soldier with a loaded gun behind me, which tends to be the image of peace that is propagated in El Salvador, but because I live a peaceful coexistence with the people in my society.
AA: As an activist, I think the challenge for our community is to truly find a common agenda with the whole LGBT community where we are together reclaiming our human rights. As we already mentioned, we aren’t asking for marriage because marriage doesn’t deal with life and death, and our lives are in danger. We have to be able to fully develop as people within this society. In order to do that, we have to establish relationships with institutions and to create public policy and a public agenda with LGBT rights included because it’s the political parties and governmental institutions that have the ability to protect us and promote our human rights. My dream as an activist is that there be a legal framework created that will respect us, that El Salvador becomes a country that the world looks to and identifies as a place that respects LGBT rights.
Another one of our struggle as an LGBT community is to show our society what it’s like to be an LGBT individual, what sort of reality we face. I think that’s an opportunity that we sometimes don’t take, to show the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights, for instance, what our reality is like.
I also have a dream of, as an LGBT activist, to not be immediately related to the HIV struggle, to be able to find funds and other support that comes to us not under the umbrella of HIV/AIDS.
As a lesbian woman, I echo a lot of what Veronica was saying. I have a dream of living with my partner in this country that has such deeply rooted violence. Living in peace does not mean an absence of war. It means, to me, not fearing that I’ll be robbed if I get on a public bus or not fearing holding my partner’s hand on the street. Surviving, truly, is an accomplishment. My dream is to live in a place where we have a fraternal environment where differences are respected and we can all coexist.
AB: Why do you think it’s important for people in your country and around the world to know what life is like for lesbian, bisexual, and trans women in El Salvador?
AA: The answer is pretty simple. It’s only with international pressure that real change happens in government. What governments care about is how they appear to more powerful governments and whether the money will continue flowing based on that appearance. The Salvadoran government has depended almost entirely on foreign funds, and almost entirely on US funds. We’re a quasi-US colony in El Salvador. As an activist, I know that the only way our reality is going to change is because of pressure from the US.
We can be awesome in what we do as activists, but if the government doesn’t receive the pressure it needs to move, it will not change. It would like a car with three wheels; it will never go forward. We, as activists in the country, are not influential enough to make real change. The wealth here is overly concentrated in something like .1% of the population. If these wealthiest people don’t suddenly start liking LGBT rights and funding campaigns to support LGBT rights, which is never going to happen in a million years, then the political & economic power is not going to be favorable for LGBT rights.
VR: Another reason that this interview is so important is that creating solidarity and relationships with people in other countries, especially countries with significant political power in El Salvador---it is significant to share strategies with people in other countries, to share our experiences, to offer each other support. When we denounce hate crimes and violations of human rights, it’s important that we do that in other countries. If we continue to only focus internally, on me, on these four walls that surround me, on my borders, we won’t be able to build a world community of globalized struggle for LGBT rights, which is what we so desperately need. We need a wider vision of what unity means, a worldwide community that struggles in favor of the LGBT population.