At the January World Social Forum in Caracas, Green Left Weekly’s Rachel Evans and Maurice Farrell caught up with Ricardo Hung from the Alianza Lambda gay-rights organisation and Moises Rivera Lopez, the coordinator of the Sexual Riverside Network for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community.
Rivera Lopez is also employed by the mayor of metropolitan Caracas Juan Barreto to work on anti-homophobia campaigns. GLW also spoke to Marcel Quintana, the president of Consultants for Education and Health Venezuela (ASES), an HIV care group.
Hung explained that Lambda is part of a coalition of gay and lesbian groups that organises activities throughout the year. “In June we organise gay and lesbian rights forums, presentations and workshops, cinema screenings and other political meetings ending with a gay pride march.” Last August, on the international day of action against homophobia, Lambda “held a big protest in the Simon Bolivar plaza ... We took down the national flag and raised the rainbow flag.” In September, Lambda helps with a gay and lesbian film festival and with a December cultural festival.
According to Hung, “The new 1999 constitution includes no discrimination based on sexual orientation”, but there is a push to extend it to cover transgender discrimination as well.
“We are also campaigning for same-sex marriage rights”, Rivera Lopez said. “On December 28, Venezuela’s vice-president Vincent Rangel announced that a national referendum would be held to make same-sex marriage legal for the first time. Because referendums are expensive, he announced there will be other issues within it — abortion, for example. I think that the referendum will not go ahead this year because of the big push to win 10 million votes for Chavez for the December [presidential] elections. I think the referendum will be in 2007, named the 'Year of the battle of ideas’. This is a huge step forward for our rights.”
Hung believes “it will be a long road to get to same-sex marriage. In the state of Merida we currently have civil unions <93> Six months ago with six other non-government gay organisations we made a petition to the Supreme Court” to replicate this nationally.
Lambda is part of the International Lesbian and Gay Association. Hung explained that in Venezuela, Lambda is the “only gay-rights association that is legally based and has community services, medical counselling, a doctor and a surgeon. Anyone can get involved in Lambda. We have straight supporters come to meetings and students doing research projects on the state of our human rights. We hold meetings every week where government representatives have also come along to ask us questions and hear about our issues.
“We produce educational programs with gays and lesbians for young teenagers. We have just begun a focus on education in the countryside, where we have established mini branches of Lambda ...
“Our main goal is to provide education to other people, so that people in the street will stop someone who is bashing a GLBT person ... We promote safer sex and we provide medical counselling about HIV. This government provides full free treatment for people with HIV that ask for it.”
Quintana works with HIV-infected children and adults, providing free counselling and drugs. “We work with 950 children who are infected with HIV. We work with another 550 street kids and single-mother families”, he said.
“There are 18,000 people registered with HIV in Venezuela. We don’t know how many of them are gay men. ASES distributes free HIV medicines, which would cost US$750 per month [per patient] if we did not receive cheaper generic drugs from India.
“Only three countries in Latin America provide free HIV drugs — Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. We fought to have HIV drugs distributed for free before [the 1998 election of Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez. It was a hard fight, but we won universal access a short time before Chavez was elected. When elected, Chavez advanced — rapidly — the program of universal access. There are five hospitals, broken up into every region in the country, that offer drugs. Alongside this drug distribution program the hospitals have infectious disease units. We have these five points of control because of the black market. Hospital Vargas has a one-year-old infectious disease unit, which is just great — the best in the country.”
There is also a battle against corruption. Quintana described a protest action he was involved in that invaded the health department “because people who worked there were stealing anti-retroviral drugs to sell on the market. Afterwards Chavez chucked the minister out and now we have a better relationship with the department.
“ASES provides housing and entertainment for children with HIV. We also teach computer and technical programs for people who work with the government’s free health-care program, Barrio Adentro.”
According to Hung, “The history of what we have been able to achieve in the movement is clearly linked with the Chavez government. The first Gay Pride march took place under the Chavez government six years ago. We have never, ever seen this kind of devotion, open-minded activities and behaviour in a government. The government has really promoted diversity and is based on the integration of all the alienated branches of society. Hugo Chavez is promoting this.
“Last year, the attorney-general’s office passed an act that created a division called the Department for Information to the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community. Every person in Caracas can go to that office and receive counselling to see if their issues can be dealt with. This is a big step because now GLBT issues are part of the government [agenda].
“Our movement has grown with this support. Six years ago our first Gay Pride parade took place and was 100 people. Last year it was almost 20,000. Permission is very easily obtained. We have the support of the police during the parade, which has been great. The Caracas mayor gives us the sound system for free. Now there is an amendment to the constitution [proposed] in order to promote same-sex marriage.”
According to Hung, it is “difficult to come out of the closet when you are in a precarious economic position. It is easier if you are from the upper class. We are also up against a culture of machismo. Everyone is brought up with that ... We have problems with gay bashings. On the other hand, it is easier if you live in a big city than in the countryside.
“Teenage suicide used to be a huge problem 20 years ago. Now the big issue for teenagers is vulnerability to STDs. They still don’t know much about sex education. So that’s why we work on this.
“The other problem for young Venezuelans is getting kicked out of home when they come out. Those at higher risk are the ones from lower-income families. If you have a family with 10 children, are in poverty and find out your child is gay, then it is easy to say 'Get out, we have more mouths to feed’.
“Hence child prostitution among young GLBT people is common, but not well-known. It really has to be dealt with on the social level. The new mission to eradicate homelessness ... Negra Hipitolia, is providing education and shelter for young homeless. Not enough people have access to the shelters, but the government is doing well.”
Gay bashings are a big problem in Venezuela. “Out of all the violent bashings that occur and are reported, 5% are gay bashings”, Hung said, adding that many people lack the confidence to report incidents. He explained that reporting attacks can be “a very bureaucratic process”, and many people fear repercussions if they are recognised.
“If you are working and say 'I am a homosexual’, then people might not fire you immediately, but they won’t give you a better job or a raise. Gay Venezuelans who come out often have financial security. They can be gay publicly because they have their own business. This is why I came out — I can sustain myself.
“There are no problems for people who are employed in the public government or working for themselves”, Hung clarified. “Every worker has legal protection. But if you are working for a private company, coming out can be hazardous. Same when you become HIV infected.
“When you are a top executive, you have all the benefits the company can provide: social security and so on. If you are in lower work — administrative trainer, cashier, bank-teller — the company is not interested in keeping you on the payroll and will get you to quit.”
Hung said that along with other countries in the region, Venezuela has experienced an increase in herpes and syphilis. “The Ministry of Health provides free condoms to us to give to the people, but outside these free condoms, condoms are expensive. They are about US$3 for a packet. This is equivalent to two lunches. We still have a high rate of unemployment and people are worried about living and eating. So they look for escape holes, like not buying condoms.”
According to Hung, one of the “greatest achievements of the [Chavez] government” is the provision of health care such as treatment for STDs. “In the main hospitals they have the specialists. In the barrios they have free doctors. Tests and drugs are free.”
“Changes are coming through. We are going to be great. The movement here is growing stronger and stronger. I pray we get same-sex marriage”, concluded Hung.