A hotbed of LGBT activism in the Peruvian Amazon

A small region deep in the Amazon managed an LGBT victory that has so far eluded Peru’s capital.

In 2010, the government of the Loreto region passed a nondiscrimantion ordinance that protects LGBT people. A similar ordinance proposed by Lima Mayor Susana Villarán in 2011 stalled in the face of multiple marches organized by religious conservatives.

Hate crimes remain a fact of daily life in Loreto–two trans sex workers were actually assaulted while I’ve been here. But the politics around the issue are fundamentally different than in the rest of Perú. “It’s like they have their own Yogyakarta principles,” remarked George Liendo of the national LGBT group PROMSEX, alluding to the international declaration in support of LGBT rights outlined in Yogyakarta, Indonesia in 2006.

Loreto’s geography would seem to make organizing difficult independent of the cultural barriers. The sparse population is spread over a territory that accounts for almost one-third of Peru’s landmass. The regional capital, Iquitos, is so far into the Amazon that no roads reach it. Other towns and villages are even more remote. Yet the nine-year-old LGBT group Comunidad Homosexual de Esperanza para la Región Loreto (CHERL) has a strong presence in Iquitos and is working with smaller organizations in five of the region’s smaller centers.

But CHERL activist Carlos Vela, who also works with the HIV-prevention organization Selva Amazónica, sees the community’s smallness as a plus.

“We’re closer to the authorities–let’s say we know almost everyone,” he said, adding that these social relationships have also helped members of the LGBT community work their way into positions inside the government.

An additional reason for this success seems to be that religious conservatives are much less active in local politics than in other parts of Peru, although the Seventh Day Adventists and several evangelical denominations have a wide reach even into remote villages. Loreto also borders countries with a much more liberal attitude towards homosexuality, Colombia and Brazil, which local activists say makes the conversation fundamentally different in Iquitos.

“The movement and gay life—through art, a little through culture, from the style of living of the Brazilians that always expresses … fantasy, bohemianism … it arrives faster here,” said Clauco Velasquez Wong, head of CHERL.

The region’s former congressman, José Augusto Vargas Fernández, even introduced a civil union bill during the last congress. It died in committee.

But this bill caught LGBT activists by surprise. In Loreto, couples’ rights remain a relatively low priority. The movement here is primarily focused on making the streets safer for gays and trans people (and there are a surprisingly large number of trans women in a town this size); concerns about couples’ rights are a relatively low priority. Work opportunities are also high on the agenda in a region where poverty is widespread.

As Velasquez put it:

There are very few job opportunities given to our trans friends or our gay friends because there always is a stigma or parameter that gays only can be a cook or a hairdresser, or a trans person can be a hairdresser or a sex worker…. We have to break [this stigma] and say that to be gay is synonymous with a great teacher, gay is synonymous with a great artist, that trans is synonymous with a great colorist, that trans is synonymous with a great nurse.

And despite the fact that marriage legalization is within sight in both Colombia and Brazil, Velasquez and the other LGBT activists I’ve talked to in Iquitos agree that it’s far too soon to be talking about it in Peru.

I am a diehard activist for the rights of LGBT people. But I and a group of colleagues believe that … marriage between people of the same sex still cannot be—civil unions could… Society is still not ready for the types of cases that are coming in nearby countries like Argentina…. For us, especially me, before we have marriage between people of the same sex here in Loreto, we first have to destigmatize the great prejudices that exist.

Uruguayan parliament continues work on gay marriage bill

The Commission on the Constitution of Uruguay’s House of Deputies takes up a bill legalizing gay marriage on Wednesday.

The bill got its first hearing in July and was introduced in June with the support of a majority of members of parliament.

If passed, it would arguably make Uruguay the most liberal country in Latin America on questions of sexuality. The country just passed a bill decriminalizing abortion, joining Cuba as the only other country in the region to legalize the procedure.

How Argentina Did It 3, or the Power of Cities

This is the third in a series of posts examining the forces that made it possible to pass a same-sex marriage law in Argentina. The first, on the political factors, is available here; the second, on religion, is here.

One of the most surprising things I heard during my reporting in Argentina came when I asked Patricia Kolesnicov—an editor at one of the major daily papers who wrote a moving piece about her marriage to her wife–what she thought a project looking at gay marriage should address.

Look into the economic changes that made it possible, she told me.

The fact that this caught me by surprise is a sure sign that it’s been too long since I’ve read Marx. But a social change like the reorganization of the family can’t help but be affected by the kind of work people do and the places they live to labor.

If it’s not the force driving the change—as Marx would see it—even a really crude demographic analysis shows how important these structural factors are in determining the course of the gay marriage debate.

By these measures, it should be no surprise that Argentina was the first to legalize gay marriage. It’s among the wealthiest countries in the region with some of the highest education rates.

This is the primary explanation offered for the LGBT movement’s victory offered by Deputy Laura Alonso, who represents Buenos Aires in Argentina’s Congress.

“I think that this is a process that has to do with the economic, social, and educational development of this country,” she told me in an interview in her office next to the Congress.

But perhaps especially important is the fact that it’s such an urban country. It turns out there’s a pretty strong correlation between urbanization and legal victories for same-sex couples in Latin America. Continue reading

Don’t take a Mac abroad (and some preliminary Peruvian thoughts)

Reporting in Peru has been harder than I expected. Not because the subject matter is sensitive in some places, nor because I don’t know anyone in the country, nor because it’s a large country with sometimes challenging infrastructure. No, the main problem has been Apple’s fault.

Our brand new Macbook Airs (bought for their extra portability) consistently have issues connecting to the internet even in places where there is wifi that works for everyone else. I guess that serves me right for shelling out for top-of-the-line computers for a trip to the developing world.

I called Apple’s technical support after we arrived in Iquitos this weekend and explained that we often couldn’t access the internet in the Amazonian city even when we could successfully connect to a wifi network.

The technician’s suggestion? “Can you take it to an Apple store?” Continue reading

Fifty foreign couples to wed in Argentina

Argentina’s becoming quite the host spot for same-sex weddings, according to the Federación Argentina LGBT.

An article published last week by La Nación quotes FALGBT President Esteban Paulón, who says that most of these couples are from Latin America and the United States, though there’s also a number of Italians waiting their turn.

The story was focused on the recent marriage of Peruvian Edgar Ayala and American Ralph Zakheim. Their wedding followed one in September by two Russians, Natalya Gavrilova and Irina Niemelainen.

Though Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010, it was only this year that some municipalities (most importantly Buenos Aires and Rosario) passed laws that allowed foreigners to take advantage of the law.

How Argentina Did It: The Religious Answer

This is the second in a series of posts examining the forces that made it possible to pass a same-sex marriage law in Argentina. The first, on the political factors, is available here.

When I first started reporting in Argentina, I repeatedly had the same conversation. Every time, it made my head want to explode.

“Why was it possible to legalize gay marriage?” I’d ask.

“Because Argentina isn’t very religious.”

“Then why is abortion so illegal?” I’d reply.

“Because the Catholic Church is so powerful.”

The fact that the same people can simultaneously believe both of these things to be true shows that the religious politics of sexuality in Argentina are not straightforward. Religion operates in the country’s politics very differently than in the United States. And, unlike in the US, attitudes towards same-sex marriage and abortion don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

Continue reading

How Argentina Did It: The Political Answer

Gay marriage would never have been legalized in Argentina if the couple who’ve dominated the country’s politics for the past decade hadn’t found it in their political interests. And it wasn’t until I understood this that I could make sense of how LGBT activists made Argentina the first country in Latin America to allow gay marriage.

President Cristina Fernández of the party Frente para la Victoria has been in office since 2007, and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, was president from 2003 to 2007 and a member of Congress after leaving the Casa Rosada. (He died in 2010.) Their brand of leftist populism has never made them popular in Buenos Aires, which is much wealthier than the rest of the country.

The gay marriage issue presented them, they hoped, with a way to establish a beachhead in the city, where polls showed overwhelming support for marriage legalization well before the law passed.

Diana Maffia, a former Buenos Aires city lawmaker and an academic who studies sexuality and gender, said, “This was a way to capture a progressive vote. [The Kirchners were], of course, thinking that, ‘If I give them equal marriage, all the gays are going to vote for me.’ That’s a little primitive …. but I think there was opportunism.” Continue reading

First public gay wedding in China’s Fujian province

Lu Zhong and Liu Wangqiang married this week in a ceremony in Fujian that brought out an estimated 1,000 onlookers.

The write-up of the wedding from Gay Star News is kind of odd, but it suggests that they were threatened by “ruffians with clubs” even during the celebration.

They had also faced official impediments to holding their wedding, the couple said. ‘Government officials exerted pressure on different hotels, while the Public Security Bureau went about in karaoke boxes telling people to seize us,’ Lu said. ‘They even sent ruffians to look for us.’

The downside of marriage equality for one gay Mexican

Well, it looks like LGBT rights advances in Mexico aren’t a plus for all Mexicans.

At least not for Efren Neri-Garcia, who fled Mexico in 1994 and sought asylum in the United States claiming he was persecuted for being gay. Eighteen years later, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that the US has the right to deport him.

The immigration judge who ruled on the case before it reached the appeals court said that Neri-Garcia’s experience explains why he initially fled Mexico; his claim might have been valid when he first came to the United States. The appeals court summarized:

[Neri-Garcia] testified to discrimination,  threats, and physical attacks by family members, fellow students, and police officers. Nearly three decades ago police officers arrested him for a theft he did not commit  and then tortured him to extract a confession. Following his conviction for that crime in 1984, he was incarcerated in a penitentiary in Guadalajara, where he was housed with psychiatric patients because he is gay.

But the judge “discounted” Neri-Garcia’s claims that violence against gays remains so prevalent in Mexico that he can’t return. Continue reading

Drinking with the Peruvian congressman and other reporting updates

The past week has been a total whirlwind, so I wanted to take a minute to give an update.

First, I’m totally blown away with your generosity. It’s been less than a week since I launched my Indiegogo campaign, and I’m already more than halfway towards my goal. Thank you so much!

I spent last week running around Lima, which is an amazing city. The food is top rate (everything from chili stews to Amazonian rice-balls packed with meat to Chinese food), it’s got a beautiful walk along the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, and the people are really warm and welcoming.

I would have liked to have had more time to explore it; I spent most of my week running from back-to-back interviews. (I also missed a day recovering from food poisoning.) I met with a city councilman who provoked a backlash from religious leaders with a proposed gay rights ordinance, an alum of Liberty University who helped organize anti-gay protests, and several leaders of the LGBT movement in the city.

The highlight, though, was the time I spent with Carlos Bruce, a member of the Peruvian Congress who was the vice-presidential nominee of former President Alejandro Toledo in the last presidential campaign. (They started the campaign in the lead, but ultimately lost.) Despite the very real power of the church in Peruvian politics, Bruce has endorsed civil unions and took time to record a video for Peru’s equivalent of the “It Gets Better” project in the middle of the campaign.

He’s not entirely circumspect in his personal life, either. The night after our formal interview in the Congress, I met him at the bar he owns in the Barranco neighborhood, which he says is one of the city’s few bars attracting a mixed gay and straight clientele. That night, it was hosting a “fashion show” featuring women in bikinis and male bodybuilders in boxer shorts.

“Something for every taste,” Bruce said.

I’ve since headed inland, taking a break from interviewing to try and make sense of what I’ve gathered in Lima and in Argentina. The traveling has been a little bit more difficult than I expected–for some reason Peruvian wifi networks don’t like my computer very much, and it’s been a balancing act to stay connected, find hotels, and get myself from one place to the next.

I write now from a dumpy hostel on the outskirts of Cajamarca in the northern highlands, where I was awoken several times by packs of barking dogs and crowing roosters. I hope to get settled somewhere more manageable shortly.

Thanks again for everyone’s support, and I’ll check back in soon.