AfterMarriage awarded Alicia Patterson fellowship

The winners of the 2013 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship have just been formally announced, and I’m thrilled to say that I’m one of them. This grant funds the kind of in-depth reporting projects that are becoming increasingly more difficult to do with changes in the journalism business. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to keep working on this marriage reporting.

I’m still finetuning my reporting plans for this year, but I hope to report on the experience of refugees who go to South Africa seeking partnership benefits, the spillover impact of Nepal’s landmark 2008 Supreme Court ruling protecting LGBT rights, the growth of Taiwan’s marriage movement, and the international networks that have evolved around this issue.

I’m also honored that my project was selected alongside those proposed by such a talented group of journalists. The full list of projects, as well as more about the fellowship, is here. And thanks so much to everyone who contributed to making my work so far possible—it’s because of your help that I was able to compete for this grant.

Gays in Mayan Chiapas? A (colorful) conversation.

I’d arranged to meet Chip at five. “We can do coffee at Na Bolom or margaritas at El Paraiso,” he’d said when I’d called him on our walk into San Cristóbal from our cabin just outside of town.

“You know this town better than I do,” I said.

“It depends whether or not you want margaritas.”

The woman who was renting us the cabin in San Cristóbal de las Casas recommended I connect with Chip. He is an American who’d won a MacArthur Genius grant for his work on Mayan textiles in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. She thought he might know something about gays in the indigenous communities. This could be an interesting conversation—I was coming from getting my hair cut by a kid from one of the more indigenous parts of neighboring Oaxaca state, where he was telling me homosexuality is accepted and trans women are revered.

I found El Paraiso, a block from the main cathedral, with deep blue and beige stucco walls. The restaurant was empty except for one bearish man who looked like he could have been Mr. Natural’s cousin. He had a long, scraggly ponytail and a full beard that almost reached his chest.

“Chip?”

He stood, smiling so faintly I barely detected it beneath his mustache.

“How long have you been working in Chiapas,” I opened after getting settled at the table.

“Forty years,” he said. “It was a town of 14,000 people. There were no stoplights, no restaurants, and one bar.”

“How did you come here?”

“By accident,” he said, reaching for some peaunuts. He spoke so softly I could barely hear him.

“By accident?”

He was traveling with a friend who had a friend who was working down here, so they swung by. He was so impressed by the textiles that he stayed.

I told him about my project.

“I don’t know much, but I have some stories,” he said. A neatly dressed waiter in a white shirt and black vest came over and Chip ordered us two margaritas. They came out in enormous, shallow blue glasses filled with pebbles of ice, too much salt coating the rim.

“One time I took a gay couple to Zinacatán,” said Chip, Continue reading

Legislating under court order: Colombia and gay marriage

Senador Armando Benedetti

Senador Armando Benedetti

The day after U.S. voters approved gay marriage in three states and the French government adopted legislation of its own, I was offered an interview with the sponsor of gay marriage legislation in the Colombian Senate. I got the email just a couple hours before I needed to be at the capitol, and I wasn’t in the best shape for the meeting. I’d gotten about four hours sleep because I was up late watching the U.S. election returns, I was experiencing acute intestinal distress, and I didn’t have even a basic understanding of the politics in Bogotá. But I jumped at the chance and spent the next several hours cramming.

The day was an odd one for LGBT politics in the Colombian capital. There had been a showdown that morning in the Bogotá city council between councilman Marco Fidel Ramirez and the director of the local public television channel, Hollman Morris. Ramirez, who objected to pro-LGBT programming on the channel, had demanded a list of all of its LGBT employees.

Having committed the president’s name and the partisan split of the Senate to memory, I walked down to the capitol. Continue reading

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.

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

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.

Gay marriage “on the path of the Gospel of Jesus”?

Nicolás Alessio

Faced with the possibility of a law allowing people of the same sex to be “married” and to experience love and sexuality deeply, we understand that approving it … puts us on the path of the Gospel of Jesus.

These words began a statement issued by a group of priests from the city of Córdoba during the debate over Argentina’s gay marriage law. The priests belonged to the Grupo Sacerdotal Enrique Angelelli, a group affiliated with the Liberation Theology movement named for a bishop of Rioja killed by Argentina’s military dictatorship in 1976.

The group was led by Nicolás Alessio, who had been a priest in the San Cayetano for 26 years. In an interview, Alessio told me he thought that by opposing the marriage law, the church was committing the same sins it had during the junta, allying itself with the oppressors against the oppressed.

The [Catholic] hierarchy had collaborated with persecution, discrimination, stigmatization, of homosexuals. The church collaborated with the prejudice of considering homosexuals sick, sinners, and also delinquents.

The priests affiliated with Alessio were not the only ones to speak out in support of the law. Another group even published a statement in Pagina/12, one of Argentina’s major papers.

Most were allowed to continue being priests. But not Alessio, who refused to stop speaking out on the issue after his bishop ordered him to. He was suspended, and then decided to leave the church.

Today, Alessio explained,

I do pastoral work with a “remnant” of the community [from my old church] and with other “remnants” of various communities that don’t feel included by the official space. We are “the same other Church”; the “same” because we’re nog going to create nor build new structures, but “other” because we feel free from Roma, from the Vatican … free to live a faith that is plural, inclusive, of the poor, and prophetic.

Dollar difficulties and peso problems

I thought I might take a break from the gay marriage news to share a bit about the reporting life so far. The truth is, virtually all I saw of Buenos Aires our first week was the inside of banks, change houses, and my computer screen, where I’ve been writing notes that alternate from contrite to furious to our Argentinian landlord.

I could have had a much more interesting itinerary over the past couple days if the landlord had just told us he wanted payment in US dollars in one of the many emails we exchanged before our arrival. I assumed we were booking the apartment the same way we booked our hotel in Brazil—the price was quoted in dollars, but payment would be made in local currency. We haven’t been traveling with any cash, instead relying on ATMs. But when we arrived at 2 AM on Sunday morning, our landlord told us he wanted cash in dollars.

I’ve spent the week learning why dollars are so precious here—and fearing we were going to get evicted. Continue reading

LGBT Movement stalls in Mexico?

After legalizing same-sex marriage in two states and winning nationwide recognition for these unions through the court, it sounds the Mexican gay rights movement has lost unity and direction.

That was the message from Antonio Medina in a conversation I had with him last night. Medina is a Mexico City-based activist and journalist who helps run Letra S, a monthly supplement to the newspaper La Jornada covering sexuality and HIV issues.

But perhaps the bigger news from this interview is that I can, in fact, do a telephone interview in Spanish. (At least that was what I was most excited about when I got off Skype at 9:30 last night, exhausted but sure that I really did understand everything Medina said.) I’ve done reporting before in Mexico, but doing it on the phone–and not having been in a Spanish-speaking country for more than two years–I wasn’t entirely sure I could pull it off and I was more than a little nervous about the fact that we’re leaving for South America in just about two months.

Medina and his partner, an economist named Jorge Cerpa, were the first couple to register as domestic partners under a law Mexico City passed at the end of 2006. (They chose to be the first because no one else wanted to take the step, and Medina was worried about how it would look if no one used a right the movement had faught so hard for.) Full marriage was legalized three years later with leadership from the leftist PRD Party, and  Mexico’s high court later ruled that these marriages must be recognized nationwide.

Gay marriages are also now performed in the state of Quintana Roo–home of Cancún–thanks to some very clever activists, who realized that the state’s marriage laws actually were written without references to gender.

But the victories by LGBT rights activists–that also include a domestic partnership law in Coahuila–provoked an organized counterattack from the Catholic Church, Medina said, and the gay marriage bills that had been introduced in other states stalled. And the activists in other states are not well equipped to make an organized push.

“The reality is that in the vast majority of states, activists have neither the strength nor the level of organization that the Distrito Federal has,” Medina told me. And, because anti-gay violence is more common in other states, he said, “It is a very frightened kind of activism.”

Medina also said that the movement in Mexico was divided (“sectorizado“) over what issues matter most, and that it hadn’t found a way to unify around a common agenda.

The movement, he said, “is moving, with all honesty, in a way that is a little bit unequal. There is a very active movement in Mexico City, but … we’re not all advancing in unison, to a more-or-less standardized track. I think that is our big problem–we haven’t agreed on the minimums that we can achieve as a collective.”