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Opinion and Analysis: Gender and Sexuality

Attempts to Malign Venezuela as “Homophobic State” Have Backfired

Earlier this month, a delegation from a Venezuelan NGO presented a case to an OAS Human Rights Commission claiming “alarming” homophobia levels had been nurtured by the Venezuelan state since 2009.

The delegates were Quiteria Franco and Yonatan Matheus of the LGBTI network, which, according to some activists, is an organization that all but disappeared from the social justice scene in the '90s.

“They have been almost entirely inactive in the community,” Katherine Castrillo, a member of the Sex-Gender Diverse Alliance (ASGDRe) told venezuelanalysis.com. “Their spokespeople only appear to make these kinds of denouncements abroad.”

Indeed, the allegations appeared at a conspicuous time- not only as the corporate media clutches at any scrap of story that points to Venezuelan despotism in a now tedious parade of disinformation, but also when juxtaposed with Venezuelan current events.

The delegation, which made their appeal on March 17th in Washington D.C., made no mention of Venezuela’s first National Congress of the Sex-Gender Diverse, an event which brought representatives of 235 municipalities to discuss the challenges faced by LGBTQ Venezuelans on March 24th, in Caracas.

Backed by state and federal funding, the Congress featured key government officials who came to show their support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community. Attendees included a Vice-Minister of Sports, who highlighted the need for LGBTQ athletes to represent Venezuela, and Police Chief Freddy Bernal, who seized the opportunity to make a public apology for undeniably homophobic comments made earlier that week in a television interview.

LGBTQ activist Leandro Villoria told venezuelanalysis.com that Bernal’s speech was well received, considering. The police official told reporters last week that homosexual men were welcome to join the police force, as long as they didn’t make their sexuality known by “wearing pink shirts or lipstick.”

Conservative Currents & NGOs

“Most of the work we do is to challenge the conservative currents within our revolution,” said Leandro, who represents the Emancipative Army Collective.

“We’re not only asking for legal rights, we also want authorities who recognize our struggle as vital to the wider revolutionary aims. And Freddy Bernal showed up to say he would do that. For a police chief to make that kind of gesture, that’s significant," the LGBTQ activist stated, especially in light of  Venezuela’s not-so-distant past.

“There used to be a law against ‘layabouts and miscreants,’ explained Leandro. “It was chiefly enforced in the Caracas district presided over by former [currently jailed] mayor Antonio Ledezma. The police there [Bernal among them] would arrest gay and trans people on the grounds of indecency, and ship them off to the notorious prison camp of El Dorado. A number of my colleagues spent years there, and were tortured by prison guards.”

Although the law was abolished in 1997, Leandro conceded, it was only upon Hugo Chavez’s arrival and the 1999 Constitutional Assembly that, “Venezuelan public policy did a 180.”

“We’ve celebrated 15 years of revolution, and 15 Pride Parades in Caracas. Before Chavez, we were never granted the permits to march,” Leandro said. “Now the government pays for the stages and events.”

Katherine explained that the drop in NGO popularity was no coincidence after the Bolivarian process was set in motion.

“In the 90s, there were no public spaces to talk about gay rights- the NGOs were all people had, and they focused their efforts pretty exclusively on equal marriage rights.

“But the political spectrum at the time openly discriminated against the poor, while the economy benefitted only a choice few. Why would we ever want to get married in a system like that?”

At best, NGOs measure progress of the Bolivarian process, observes Katherine, but at worst they tend to excoriate its faults in an unproductive manner. Either way, they remain on the sidelines.

“We are building a communal state, hand in hand, and the fruits of our activism can be found in the constitution. If you don’t participate, your struggle will remain on the sidelines.”

Incidentally, she went on, some of those who are regularly picked to represent Venezuela before international bodies have visible ties to opposition parties- such as “the ubiquitous Tamara Adrian,” who works closely with Leopoldo Lopez’s party, Popular Will.

Tamara Adrian, a transgender attorney and law professor, is the president of the acclaimed International Day Against Homophobia committee, based in France, but Villoria says her ties to Venezuela's aristocratic and right-wing circles have isolated her from the majority of the country's grassroots activists.

Transgender Visibility

That’s not to say that some of the delegations’ criticisms were without grounds.

“Just because we’re not eager to march into Washington D.C. and announce our weaknesses in the midst of a media war does not mean we’re unaware of them,” Katherine said.

In his presentation to the OAS, Mattheus reported 46 Venezuelans murdered in hate crimes since 2009. Katherine is familiar with the figure and it weighs heavily on her heart.

“The majority of those victims were transgender women- who are undeniably the most vulnerable sector of our community. Firstly, because a number of them live on the margins of society, working and living on the streets. Secondly because the Women’s Ministry and government has repeatedly failed to provide protection for them.”

The ASGDRe activist recalled a support shelter for Caracas trans which was initially funded through the Women’s Ministry, then repealed after the term “gender” was removed from key documents.

Additionally, Leandro said, “Since 2010 the law 146 of civil registry permits name changes on the basis of gender identity, but the national registrar, Alejandro Herrera, has yet to approve a single petition submitted by a transgender individual.”

“It’s bureaucracy that prohibits our laws from benefiting the communities they were created for,” Katherine agreed.

Many activists have taken it upon themselves to fill the bureaucratic void.

Rummie Quintero, founding activist of the transgender organization Divas of Venezuela, has spent the past few years lobbying the Electoral Council, with isolated success, to place trans workers among the teams that facilitate voting booths, to prevent discrimination.

In a March 16th interview with the media site Sin Etiquetas (Without Labels), Quintero sent a message to the trans community; “You should consider yourselves citizens, because we have six laws that recognize the principle of no discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression….but we need to rise to these laws, because without [our participation], they are dead words. The state alone cannot be responsible.”

Race, Class, and Sexuality

In the Venezuelan constitution, there are four articles which prevent employers, landlords, and financial institutions from discriminating against citizens based on race, gender, and/or sexuality.

“The impact of these cannot be underestimated,” Leandro stressed.

Other policies for inclusion, such as free public healthcare and nondiscriminatory university education, further ensured the basic needs of Venezuela’s diverse peoples. Additionally, a January 2015 law protecting the equal rights of people living with HIV/AIDS has laid down the groundwork for specialized family care. It also outlaws the clinical practice of testing for HIV without a patient’s consent.

Although social programs empowering the poor have undoubtedly benefited the LGBTQ, the latter still carry the double burden of economic exploitation and hegemonic norms. 

"A gay man from the East [of Caracas, the wealthiest area] can secure a landlord’s approval with expensive clothes, a prominent family name, and of course, money; but if you are from the barrio, if are black and gay, the odds are stacked against you,” says Leandro.

“Many of the laws that dignified popular sectors benefited the gay community indirectly,” Leandro continues. “But we’re working to make that path more direct. The missions have changed millions of lives… there’s even a mission to protect street animals. What we need is a mission for sex-gender equality.”

Katherine argued the most urgent need is for a public defense office dedicated to LGBTQ, and particularly trans rights, to provide legal assistance when the existing laws are not upheld.

Neither mentioned the creation of a ministry for the sex-gender diverse.

“Please,” Katherine said, “The last thing we need is more bureaucracy. Our needs could be absorbed into the existing ministries, as long as those offices eliminate the barriers surrounding gender identity.”

At the close of the National Women’s Congress in February, Nicolas Maduro touched upon this same issue. The Venezuelan president sent a “special greeting” to the LGBTQ community and called upon the ministries to deepen the debate of how to serve the sex-gender diverse.

National Day Against Homophobia

If the OAS Human Rights Commission decides to check up on the so-accused “homophobic state,” they’ll be met with a strange sort of celebration on May 17th.

In a surprise turn of events, the first Vice-President of the National Assembly, Elvis Amoroso, appeared at last week’s Congress to make the announcement: Venezuela will adopt an official holiday against homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.

“Sure, we can’t just declare the holiday, put up signs, and expect homophobia to disappear,” Leandro told venezuelanalysis.com. “But this is a huge step, this is a formal recognition of our dignity and our rights as equal citizens. This is a platform on which to continue legitimizing public policy.”

The Assembly proposal includes clauses for a public awareness campaign and anti-bullying initiatives in schools, as well as sanctions for media outlets that emit homophobic, misogynistic, or heterosexist messages.

Shopkeepers and restaurants will be required to place signs indicating that no patron will be singled out for their sexuality, in uncanny contrast to the US state Indiana’s latest "religious freedom" bill.

The denominated National Day Against Discrimination Based on Sexual Orientation is expected to pass Congress on May 12th, in order to be observed on May 17th, the corresponding International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO).

Opposition figures were quick to discredit the new holiday as a scheme to win more ballots in the upcoming elections.

“They always say that.” Leandro laughed. “In Venezuela we have elections every time you turn around. We’ve had 20 elections in 15 years, but no matter what time of year it is, we are busy pushing pro-people legislature through Congress. So it’s not the best argument.”

“If you want to know what the opposition would have us do, look at the [party alliance] MUD’s agenda for Congress in 2015. There is not one mention of sexual diversity or gender equality.”

The World Police

As international news outlets takes turns at bashing Venezuela for alleged human rights violations, with even Fox News pretending to care about free healthcare long enough to report on the country’s medicine shortages, it’s unsurprising that LGBTQ issues would eventually be used as further media fodder. And just like Israel continually attempts to pinkwash war crimes with gay-friendly tourism, the United States is trying to wield homophobia as a labeling tool to demonize uncooperative administrations.

Just weeks ago, the US State Department sent an “openly gay envoy” on a mission to monitor and “defend” LGBT rights around the world.

But Venezuelans are tired of John Kerry playing world policeman.

“They need to get their act together first before they tell us what we’ve got wrong,” Leandro concluded. “We don’t need human rights lessons from a war-mongering state any more than we need lessons in tolerance from the country that just legalized discrimination in Indiana,” referring to a new law that may endorse heterosexist prejudice in the south-central U.S. state.

But as long as Venezuela’s NGOs dominate the international human rights scene, little word of the country’s progress will reach LGBTQ groups across borders.

Some US activists, including organizers at San Francisco’s Center for Political Education (CPE), have worked to build ties between the two countries’ grassroots organizations.

Internationalism is at the core of Bolivarianism, since the time Simon Bolivar dreamed of a united South America rising against colonialism.

Leandro believes that Venezuelan revolutionaries prefer the term “sex gender diverse” in a reflection of this attitude.

“There are many ways to be a woman or a man, and by using this term we aim to be inclusive to heterosexuals as well,” he said.

“In revolution, you have to break down as many barriers as possible. We are united in this struggle: women, afro-descendants, workers and homosexuals. We’ve been oppressed by the same system, we have to work together to overcome it.”