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.

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