by Heather Vrana
Now that the glitter is ground into the carpet and the rainbow flags are put away ‘til next season, it is crucial to remember our comrades in Central America whose gay pride parades sometimes lead northward toward the Mexico border, across the deadly Sonoran Desert, and into the United States.
To be LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer) in Central America is “to carry a heavy colonial burden,” in the words of Nahil Zeron, Honduran Latinx scholar-activist, who spoke at the Latin American Studies Association meeting in May. “We migrate across borders of gender, heterosexuality … to liberate our bodies.”
That is not to say that there is no fun. Central American gay pride celebrations have multiplied since the 2000s. Tens of thousands of people attended San Salvador’s pride march in June 2018. A smaller annual celebration stops traffic in Guatemala City where capital city residents have come to expect it and often pause to observe. Hundreds of Hondurans celebrate pride in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, despite death threats and brutal attacks.
Central American capital cities and secondary cities, like Quetzaltenango, have thriving gay club scenes, which have long provided young people with a home away from home. But as daily life continues to be difficult for many Central Americans and more and more LGBTQ people are forced to migrate to United States, these support systems are destabilized.
Since the mid-twentieth century, the Constitutions of the Republics of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have opened with an affirmation of the state’s duty to guarantee the freedom, justice, security, and common good of all inhabitants of the Republic.
On paper, the constitutional guarantees endured through the nations’ civil wars, while the government systematically targeted its citizens, reveals a foundational hypocrisy.
Since the end of the civil wars and in the so-called post-peace era, this impunity has only deepened. While criminal justice systems eagerly criminalize young, poor, and LGBTQ people, they repeatedly demonstrate their reluctance to prosecute cases of corruption and violent crime.
Emblematic of this determined impunity is El Salvador’s 1993 blanket amnesty law that was passed just days after the release of the United Nations Truth Commission Report that evaluated war crimes and proposed accountability measures.
The Legislative Assembly, dominated by right-wing ARENA partisans, voted to shield all military and guerrilla personnel from prosecution for human rights abuses committed during the war.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has since declared the amnesty law a violation of international law and the nation’s Supreme Court struck down the law in 2016.
But, as recently as April, newly-elected president Nayib Bukele is considering a new amnesty law. In any case, impunity rates in El Salvador (and other Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala and Honduras) are as high as 95 percent in some regions. El Salvador’s status as one of the world’s most violent peacetime countries endures.
In this already precarious context, LGBTQ people are particularly at risk.
For one, many LGBTQ Central Americans are poor, indigenous, or from rural communities—all groups that have been targeted by the state for centuries.
Even more, because of the very low public opinion toward LGBTQ people, violence against them is underreported. Simply collecting statistics about anti-LGBTQ violence is nearly impossible.
In other words, violence against LGBTQ people usually does not make it to the offices of the public ministry to be considered part of the astoundingly low 95 percent impunity rate.
Hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, like so many other crimes, are scarcely prosecuted and are largely tolerated. In immigration detention centers/concentration camps, LGBTQ detainees are subjected to higher rates of sexual violence, harassment, and neglect than other detainees.
This is the precariousness of life and the criminalization of sexual identity and expression that so many people are fleeing when they cross the border to Mexico, and then travel northward through extreme conditions to cross another border to enter the United States, where their fates remain uncertain.
A 2017 Amnesty International report found that “gay men and trans women are exposed to gender-based violence at every point on their journey [to the U.S.] in search of protection.”
The report, entitled “No Safe Place,” found that threats of violence were so pervasive as to constitute LGBTQ people as one of the “risk profiles” for asylum seekers, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The report states “it is therefore acknowledged that these people may need international protection in accordance with the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.”
Even the U.S. State Department acknowledged that “NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against sexual minorities” in its Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2017.
It is well-known that the state agencies in charge of processing identification documents, the police, and the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals when they applied for identification cards or reported cases of violence.
Furthermore, public opinion surveys on questions of basic social equity in housing, civil status, access to health care, and public safety consistently demonstrate that public opinion toward LGBTQ citizens is discriminatory, and that these opinions are informed by conservative evangelical and Catholic religious beliefs.
The governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala consistently demonstrate that they are unwilling to protect their LGBTQ citizens. They shirk their basic responsibility to ensure their right to life, leaving LGBTQ people uniquely vulnerable.
So, what is to be done? LGBTQ advocacy groups in Central America persistently fight for visibility by forming community organizations, holding marches, pressuring lawmakers, falling in love, and simply holding hands on the street.
Congresswoman Sandra Morán, the first out lesbian to be elected in Guatemala, has been tireless in her work as an intersectional feminist and gay icon. Translatinx scholar-activists like Zeron and Pilar Sálazar Argueta are pushing the conversation forward in the diaspora.
Other experts in Latin American history, culture, and politics are responding to urgent emails from attorneys representing asylum-seekers, writing expert witness briefs, testifying in courts that to be forced to return to Central America is to be made to confront of a life of day-to-day risk, housing and health insecurity, and street harassment—or worse.
As an ever-more-corporatized Pride Monthä fades, it is time to ask: what is a parade, a march, a migration? Don’t we all want to feel free? To belt out “At first, I was afraid, I was petrified …,” then “Did you think I’d crumble … Did you think I’d lay down and die?”—and all together now—“I will survive … Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive … I’ve got all my life to live … And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive … I will survive …”
Human Rights Coalition of Alachua County: https://hrcalachua.com/
Madres Sin Fronteras: https://www.facebook.com/MSFGainesville/
QLatinx (Orlando-based organization of queer Latinx folks): https://www.qlatinx.org/
Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement (national organization working to achieve collective liberation of trans, queer, and gender non-conforming Latinxs): https://familiatqlm.org/
TransLatin@ Coalition (Los Angeles-based group that supports Latinx leaders and community organizers): https://www.translatinacoalition.org/