Secret Meetings, 'Conversion Therapy' and Male Power -- LGBT Life in El Salvador

"Solidarity & Actions": Interview with Young Lesbian Activists in El Salvador Part 2

This is part of a series of posts about LGBT communities in Central America (you can find Part 1 here). I recently interviewed two young adult, lesbian 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 speak about personal experiences as lesbians in El Salvador? Are violence and sexism big problems?

VR: The situation in El Salvador, like I would imagine in the rest of the world where sexism is a problem, is that a strong patriarchy exists. Being a lesbian accents the discrimination you already live as a woman. You’re living as someone who transgresses the power structure that exists. As a lesbian, you display a lack of need for men. In the collective consciousness, it is impossible for women to not need men. Discrimination has different forms in your life---personal life, work life, in school, with your family, or in society in general. Maybe you’re walking down the street and you look too masculine or your partner looks masculine and people scream at you. Many lesbians experience being outed by someone else and having a bad reaction, like being fired from a job or applying for a job and not being hired, because of sexual identity.

Decree 56 (see Part 1) is the only legal base we have against such discrimination, and that itself is only a job half-done. It asks for respect for human rights for LGBT people but there’s no sanctions, no enforcement for transgressions of the decree. It supposedly provides other tools through the ministry of labor or the ministry of education, but the tools don’t function.

My identity as a lesbian, for me, has been a challenge in many ways, but especially with my family. It’s a challenge I still face. Primarily, the rejection has been from my mother and father and sisters. From the time I was 23, I’ve lived as an open lesbian woman. I told my mom, and then my whole family found out and I stopped hiding it. Since then, I have felt that little by little I have to separate from my family, leave my family and create my own family, which is one that I create with friends, who are mostly gay.

I work at an NGO where we have gay men on our team and I’m at out lesbian there. The openness, accompaniment, and genuine inclusion I have on my team and even from my boss is truly, extremely rare in this country; I can be open, I can discuss LGBT issues, I can take my partner to work events.

It’s becoming fashionable in this country for people to claim that they don’t discriminate against sexual orientation, that they’re “okay with gay.” But there’s still a clear public objection to if someone is openly living their sexual orientation or defying gender norms. The objection to that is clear and constant.


AA: I came out to my family when I was 16 years old. It was something I really had to do because they found me kissing a friend of mine, who was a woman. My mom was the first member of my family to confront this reality and ask me directly if I was gay. I said yes and that there was no solution, that’s how it was going to be. She told my dad and they decided I needed to see a gynecologist to check to see if I was still a virgin. My dad became fixated on knowing. It’s a laughable situation to me now but when I was 16 with a much different understanding of who I was and no other network of support, it was an extremely stressful situation. Not even my school friends knew I was gay.

My teachers found out what happened between me and the other girl, and they called me in to talk to me. This is the first point in my story where I found support. Although I went to a Catholic school, they were very rooted in Liberation Theology. At the meeting was the coordinator of my grade, who was a layperson, as well as a priest, who was the spiritual director of the school. When they called me into the office that day, they told me that they respected me; they respected who I was and my right to live as who I am. That day, in fact, we had library time, and they took me to find books about sexual orientation. They were the first sources where I could actually learn about who I am and what being a lesbian meant.

My parents as a last resort, sent me to a psychologist. I didn’t realize I was actually going to conversion therapy. When I started, she actually gave me pills, medication, and to this day I don’t know what was in those pills. Therapy consisted of looking at photographs of men, drawing pictures of myself as a woman, and answering the question, “why do I want to be the man?” I realized that this would go on forever if I was open about who I was, so I decided to just say “yes” to everything she asked. She’d ask, “don’t you like boys?” and I’d say, “yes, I love them, they’re the best ever.” For two hours a week for six months, I maintained that lie. After those six months, the psychologist told my parents that I was cured.

Of course, I was never cured because I was never sick and I love women, but I had to live a parallel life; the life in front of my family and a hidden life as a lesbian, where I would have to escape from class to see my girlfriend in high school.

When I was 23 years old, my mom sat me down and said, I’ve lost all this time in your life and I finally realize that you are my daughter. The only difference is that you like women, but you’re still my daughter. Since that moment, my family has started a process of acceptance. Over the past seven years, they’ve been an active part of my life and I’ve lived with my partner for the past five years, and we’re living totally integrated lives.


AB: How different is life for LGBT people in cities compared to those in rural areas?

AA: There are nearly 7 million inhabitants of El Salvador and 5.5 million of those live in the capital, in an urban environment. The population in the rural area lives in a different reality. They have very little access to basic services to things like LGBT services and organizations. I’ve become aware of people who have to be totally hidden to work with people in this area, who have to have ultra-secret meetings in their own communities. It’s without a doubt much more difficult to be an LGBT-identified person in a rural area, not only to live openly, but to undergo that process of accepting yourself. For instance, Vero was talking about the need to find support from family or to make your own family, and there’s a lack of support in rural areas.

I mentioned that I started to work with rural LGBT communities this year, and the common response to finding out that you’re “one of the letters” is to be kicked out of your home. Most of these people are minors, so what they do is they go to the capital and start working as a sex worker because they’ve been excluded from their home and formal education so sex work is their only option for living.

VR: There’s less access in rural areas to information about all of this. There are fewer people to go to help you figure out your feelings, the process of living. Machismo, the sexism, in this area—the beliefs and lessons about how to be a proper man or woman—exist in the cities but not as much in rural areas, and I realize that there are some women who don’t know they’re lesbians; they don’t know that word exists or what it means.

Just as we mentioned there being silences around the issue in rural areas, there are also silences around the subject in the city. Maybe people have identified themselves as gay to friends they can discuss it with, but their access to organizations that can help them learn about their identity and their courage to come out to these organizations so that they can work for equal rights, so they can learn about who they are, so they can integrate their sexual orientation into their identity as a human being---that sort of opportunity is not necessarily the most common, even in the city.


AB: Are the patriarchy and the machismo the reasons that these social and legal disparities are able to continue? Are there other contributing factors?

VR: My partner said to me, “maybe religion could be a cause,” but I really don’t agree. I think, in the end, the social and the legal discrimination all comes back to the same cause---the social construction in El Salvador is in favor of men, constructed by men, and it reproduces the same system in all areas. You cannot challenge men because they have the power and women are their property.

It could be that, for instance, in the US there’s a nice change in the discourse in favor of equality between men and women, and perhaps efforts to diminish violence against women, and that’s actually the situation here—there’s been a nice change in discourse in favor of gender equality and a lot of legal efforts to lower violence against women.

But in reality, in the day to day life that we life, that has not changed. Men still rip off their pants, pee on the sidewalk, they still can say whatever they want to when you’re on the street or at work. At work, I’m seen as a young woman who has no power. They don’t even look at me if I’m sitting in a meeting with other men; they only look at each other. It’s a serious offense to question this power that men are supposed to have.