"The Struggle isn't Over": Venezuela Moves Towards Marriage Equality

VA's Jeanette Charles speaks to María Helena Ramírez Hernández of the Sex and Gender Revolutionary Diversity Alliance on the Supreme Court's recent decision to declare Article 44 of the Civil Code unconstitutional - giving the judicial green light to same sex civil marriage in Venezuela.

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Social movements mobilize outside the National Assembly in Caracas as they deliver their legislative proposal for same sex civil marriage in 2014 (Paola Martucci).
Social movements mobilize outside the National Assembly in Caracas as they deliver their legislative proposal for same sex civil marriage in 2014 (Paola Martucci).
By Jeanette Charles and María Helena Ramírez Hernández
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“The fight for same sex marriage has generated a lot of energy and momentum to mobilize even more for our movement so, the struggle doesn’t stop here,” reflected María Helena Ramírez Hernández, a youth organizer from Táchira state, as she shared her reactions to the recent Supreme Court of Justice (Tribunal Suprema de Justicia, TSJ) decision which gave the judicial green light to same sex civil marriage in Venezuela by declaring Article 44 of the Civil Code unconstitutional.  

After two years since first introducing the proposal for same sex marriage in January 2014 to the National Assembly and more than one year and three months since presenting the case before the TSJ, the sex and gender diversity movement's goal of amending Article 44 and define marriage as “the union of two people without gender distinction” is one step closer to finally being realized.

The recent decision comes after the landmark TSJ Sentence 190 in2008, which affirmed that the National Constitution does not discriminate based on sexual orientation and therefore, “the Venezuelan State shall not infringe upon the rights of same-sex couples under a legal figure such as marriage, so such unions are not prohibited nor condemned.”

However, the question still stands: will Venezuela join countries like Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and Uruguay that have approved similar measures recognizing the rights of non-heterosexual unions and marriages?

There is no denying that the Bolivarian Revolution has expanded the rights of historically marginalized and silenced communities calling for transformative changes in labor, housing, education and rights in favor of anti-racism as well as gender and sexuality inclusion. Yet, the next legal step toward this making this inclusive proposal a law now rests on the decision-making power of the National Assembly, which is currently in the hands of Venezuela’s rightwing opposition.

Ramírez, a political studies major at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela (Univesidad Bolivariana de Venezuela) and a member of the Sex and Gender Revolutionary Diversity Alliance (Alianza Sexo Genero Diversa Revoulcionaria, ASGDR by its Spanish acronym), speaks about the ongoing challenges and struggles that lie ahead for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities as well as her collective’s radical work to transform people’s consciousness.

Q: Can you explain the work that your collective does with the sex and gender diverse community on a local, national and international level?

We have struggled in defense of the civil, cultural and human rights of the sex and gender diverse community for more than six years. We have participated in many spaces like ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America) or rather, Social Movements of the ALBA, and alongside other social movements at gatherings organized by UNASUR and Mercosur. We have also participated in forums in the US, with collectives in Chicago and we have built with feminist movements in Argentina, Ecuador and other countries.

In Venezuela, we work to change our society’s culture since the Catholic Church has a lot of weight influencing people’s ideology. We are working to transform Venezuelan ideology which has been repressive toward the sex and gender diverse community and has discriminated against people because of their sexual orientation and gender identities.  We work to create and recuperate spaces that have been recovered by the Revolution, so that Venezuela becomes a country free of homophobia, lesbophobia and transphobia.

Right now, in Táchira, we are hosting a film festival to commemorate May 17th (International Day Against Transphobia and Homophobia) as well as for June, which is celebrated as diversity month here in Venezuela.

Q: What is it like to organize in Táchira? Are the conditions for organizing in your state different to the rest of the country?

Here in the Andes, despite the great influence that the church has had on education, media and culture, people have been opening up more and more to the sex and gender diverse community especially in places like El Páramo. In El Páramo, we organized workshops and little by little we have started to organize people in support of sex and gender diversity.  We are working to build the struggle in Táchira.

It is also distinct working along the border [with Colombia] and it doesn’t come as a secret to anyone here that the paramilitaries target queer people. We are their first targets.

The paramilitaries [in Táchira are part of an organization that] exists outside of any official state organism. They were created in Colombia under ex-president Álvaro Uribe and have continued to encroach on Venezuelan territory causing insecurity*. The Venezuelan government has tried to take on the issue of paramilitaries and it has been successful. Paramilitaries have the custom of targeting and killing marginalized people: drug addicts, the homeless, prostitutes and trans people, to clean out the “problem people” trying to create a “better society”.

Q: This week, the TSJ released their sentence in favor of same-sex marriages, how does your collective interpret this decision?

From our collective, we see this in a positive light. I believe it means revolution, equality on legal terms, recognition and the establishment of legal unions for same sex couples and trans couples. It is not a step backwards. It is very important that one of the branches of our state has taken a step ahead. This decision has its roots in the TSJ Sentence 190 from 2008 which interprets the Constitution as based on principles of non-discrimination against people for their gender identity or sexual orientation. This sentence is an achievement for the rights of our community.

Since the decision, our community has reacted in a variety of ways, for example by engaging in debates about whether this will only include same sex civil marriages or if it will also include civil unions. Even if people have a difference of opinion, people will not protest against the decision, it’s something positive regardless.

Now, we are waiting for the National Assembly and other state entities to apply this sentence. There is a legal framework that respects our community and same sex civil marriage which has been an arduous struggle carried out by the work of many organizations, especially Venezuela Igualitaria (Equality Venezuela).

Q: What does this decision mean for the National Assembly?

Well, the National Assembly needs to change the Civil Code, but they can decide not to do it as well. Sometimes the National Assembly listens to the TSJ and sometimes it doesn't, according to its own economic and political interests. The strange thing is that the opposition of the National Assembly has not released a statement about the decision as of yet. This could play into Tamara Adrian’s position to push for it (same sex civil marriage) from inside the National Assembly [as the only first and only transgender assembly member and of the opposition bloc].

This (decision) is a significant advancement and the truth is that historically these have been rights denied to our people by the politicians and elite of the 4th Republic. This is also why the opposition of the National Assembly has not said anything.

Q: What are some of your movement’s victories and what are some of the struggles that lie ahead?

Firstly, it’s important to note that the TSJ did not come to this decision because it is in agreement with a certain wing of the government, but rather because the decision is for everyone, Chavistas and non-Chavistas, for our entire people.

There have been many marches for this movement on a national level in Caracas, as well as in other states such as Zulia, Mérida, Aragua, Carabobo and Bolíviar, and we have mobilized a lot as the sex and gender diversity movement. We have won victories. For example, Mérida’s state constitution is the first state in the country that adopted a constitution that is explicitly against the discrimination of people for sexual orientation and gender identity. Our national constitution also expresses the same sentiment.

As a movement, we have also grown a lot since 2011 and more young people have become involved, with a lot of energy and a more rebellious nature. We have created alliances with other movements so that people see that the sex and gender diverse community is also Chavista, and committed to making the Venezuelan Bolivarian and socialist dream a reality.

The National Assembly in Revolution, meaning when the majority of the National Assembly was with the Revolution, approved and amended 7 laws that defended the rights of the sex and gender diverse community. These laws include the Labor Law, the Popular Power Law and the Renter’s Law among others.

First, we must organize so that the National Assembly approves this law [in favor of same sex civil marriages]. Our greatest challenges deal with cultural changes, with recognition, with changing society and especially working toward eliminating discrimination toward the sex and gender diverse community, especially towards trans people. We must end domestic violence between same sex couples and trans couples. Trans people are on the margins of society and are hardly recognized as part of our society. We have a lot of work ahead of us.

We must also defend the right to dignified labor and dignified housing so that same sex families and trans families are included in Venezuela’s Great Housing Mission. The struggle for same sex civil marriage is emblematic, not only because it guarantees our rights, but also because it opens up the struggle for other rights such as the right to an abortion and secular education. We need to transform the education system from a hetero-normative education system to a liberating, emancipatory education model. There is a lot of work still left to do.

Q: Are there any additional comments you'd like to make?

In our struggle to defend same sex civil marriage, other movements’ experiences from Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay and others have informed us so we can advance our work and change history. It is important that we share our experiences because the struggle in other countries is very similar and important. For example, in the case of the 

Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos tells the story of a compañera, La Magdalena, a trans woman that falls in love with another compañero in the movement. This story talks about integration and how the community has organized around these issues.

It is important to learn about other movements: socialist, communist, the Zapatistas, our own Bolivarian revolution here and across the region in Latin America and the Caribbean.. We need to exchange our political, economic and cultural experiences.

We hope that the National Assembly approves this law despite the fact it is in the hands of the opposition, the country’s oligarchy. We want to celebrate along with other countries like Colombia that have achieved similar victories.

*Here Hernández is referring to the emergence of paramilitaries in Venezuela's border states, and not to their emergence in Colombia.