This is the part in a series of posts about LGBT communities in Central America. 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: How would you explain the history of the LGBT community in El Salvador?
The Beginning: Violence against Trans People
The history of the Salvadoran LGBT movement goes back until 1985 in San Salvador, when the country was still in civil war. There were two battalions that were involved in the story I’m about to tell you, called the Bracamonte and the Atlacatl. They were both trained in the School of the Americas in torture techniques. One night, the battalions rounded up transgender sex workers on the street and kidnapped between 10 and 15 of them. They disappeared, were tortured and raped by members of the battalion, then assassinated, and their bodies were left in an area next to a highway. This information is recorded in the Truth Commission Report (which can be read here) in the United Nations but it is unable to be reviewed because of the Amnesty Law that was passed right before the report was released, so this story is known by word of mouth.
The Launch of an Organized Movement
At that time, a man who was well known nationally and internationally, William Hernández, and his now partner, Joaquin Caceres, formed Entre Amigos (Among Friends), the first organization that worked in favor of the rights of the LGBT community here. They began by working on human rights as it relates to the LGBT population, but especially with the HIV-affected population, because a great deal of money and support is being offered for this issue by the United Nations.
This is mostly gay men we’re talking about. Working for lesbian rights really hadn’t come on the scene yet. There were small pockets of activism for lesbian rights and awareness, but they stayed within the feminist circle. It wasn’t very public. There were other LGBT organizations starting to team up with Entre Amigos or other groups that also work with gay men or transgender people.
Govt. Efforts against Marriage & Adoption Rights
The movement entered a new phase in 2005. That year, the first legislative correspondence was submitted to try to change the constitution of El Salvador to say that marriage was between one man and one woman, “born that way”-- so that excludes transgender people. The [LGBT] community hadn’t asked for marriage or anything yet, [the government] just wanted to define it. This reform was also to prevent adoption by any couple that wasn’t heterosexual, and to install the heterosexual nuclear family idea as the only possibility of building a family in El Salvador.
In 2008, the proposed reform was debated to be ratified, and that’s when LGBT activists came together to create a common front, which was called the Alliance for Sexual Diversity. This alliance was made up of organizations as well as activists, including myself. They began to see that there was a different possibility with a leftist government in the executive, and they could start working on LGBT rights openly.
Because of pressure from organizations like this Alliance, they were able to have high level meetings with the majority party in congress at time, which was the FMLN. The lobbying of the LGBT activists convinced them to abstain, and that kept the amendment from being ratified.
The Salvadoran government had actually signed a domestic treaty, the Bustamante treaty. That opens the possibility for couples to get married, move back to El Salvador, and be legally recognized. The president of (what is now) the PES party, he saw that as a risk to or an attack on family, and that’s why he proposed the amendment. In March of 2012, again, they used the subject of LGBT rights--marriage specifically--to pressure the FMLN to ratify the reform and to damage their image with the population, which is in general very conservative.
This struggle for marriage never came from the LGBT population; it was a political game that came from the political right and was basically an attempt to mobilize their own interests. We have never asked for marriage or adoption. We have publicized the fact that we do want non-discrimination to become policy, we want access to work, to education, to healthcare, but we’ve never asked for marriage or adoption. [Most of the] money that this conservative party has, comes from Focus on the Family. The name here is Real Familia, but they are the same. They are the donors to this organization, Sí a La Vida (Yes to Life), which is the one that gives all the money and support to take this issue to the congress.
We’ve had a new government since 2009 when President Maurico Funes was elected, so we lobbied to create a department or a place in the government to present our community. We managed a way to speak with First Lady Vanda Pignato and the Secretary of Social Inclusion, which is a new institution from our government that works with excluded populations. In May of 2010, they created the Sexual Diversity Division, which is headed by a lesbian woman—that’s the first time that’s happened in El Salvador’s history. Currently, we’re working with them on several issues relating to sexual diversity.
That same month, President Funes made an executive decree that emphasized the willingness of this public administration to eradicate all discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identities, so now we have Executive Decree No. 56. That, now, is the only legal tool we have as the LGBT community to fight for our legal rights. This only applies to people in the public sector. As soon as you’re outside of the public administration sector, this decree does not apply.
AB: How much understanding does the majority of the Salvadoran population have about sexual diversity and these issues that you’ve brought up? How do they learn what they know? How do the media portray people who are LGBT?
AA: The media does not help us at all. For example, last year, one transgender woman was killed, and they portrayed her death as “man found dressed as woman.” It’s very difficult to rely on the hope that the media will know how to properly handle this type of news. When I work with the heterosexual population, most people don’t know the meaning of “lesbian” or “gay” or “transgender.” They’ve never heard these words. We are so poor in terms of sexual education overall, so it’s pretty rare that the average Salvadoran knows about what it means to be an LGBT person. The way the media covers the news and the press, they never really translate the truth. They always use stereotypes to refer to us; like, “the dyke says that she doesn’t agree with…” so it’s pretty difficult to erase the stereotypes of what it is to be an LGBT person.
They just think we are deviants or people that rape minors. It’s very difficult to try to create almost a new culture in regards to sexual diversity because we literally have to start at zero, Diversity 101. The media is not prepared to hear from us what they need to do. The Sexual Diversity Division had a meeting with heads of newspapers and television channels to explain the importance of clarifying the news, but they don’t really care. They refer to us as faggots, as dykes, as men dressed as women, and so society believes that we are those things.
VR: The public ministries that are in the government (ministry of education, etc.), there’s no interest at all among them in learning about the subject or learning other terms to describe sexual diversity. Even the creation of the Sexual Diversity Cabinet was high criticized. It was purposefully created as something that’s dependent directly on the executive branch; it cannot be voted on because it was so criticized. Even the structures in the government are so clearly and without shame conservatively Catholic or Christian and operate on the prejudices that come along with that.
I work in the public school system with my NGO and we hear teachers make comments about “strange children”: the boy who wears clothes that are too tight or wears his hair in a certain way or the girl who wants to wear pants instead of a skirt, and how you have to “cure them,” or make sure “weird children” like that don’t attack other children. There are schools like that all over the country. Those are not the exception. What you’re looking at is an overwhelming situation.
AA: it wasn’t the LGBT movement nor was it the conservative political forces who labeled this debate “the gay marriage debate.” It was actually the most conservative, very powerful newspaper in the country who wrote an article about this proposed reformation, titled the article “Gay Marriage” something, and from then on out, that’s what it was called, just because of that one article.
VR: I only know of two sources of the press, both of which are digital newspapers, which are nominally open to social issues like this, that have ever covered the gay pride march. The only thing they’ve done is a photo gallery of transgender women at the march. They focus on the feathers, the outfits; they sexualize them. They call it ridiculous, and that’s the only thing that makes it into the media.
Photos Courtesy of Danielle Mackey. 1-3: Pride March in El Salvador. 2: Activist Veronica Reyna. 4: Iglesia Rosario in San Salvador 2006.