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Males who foam at the mouth when asked if they're gay, nevertheless think it's okay to have sex with a male cross-dresser.

Related Gully Coverage

Portrait of An Activist
Against HIV/AIDS, and for lgbt human rights in Guatemala.

Gay Life Emerges In Guatemala
Activist bar owners, gay HIV/AIDS prevention pioneers, and more.

How To Be A Lesbian In Guatemala
An interview with lesbian activist Claudia Acevedo.

Gay Mundo
Our ultra-queer coverage.

gay pride guatemala
Gay Pride 2000, Guatemala. Jorge López Sologaistoa


Making An Oasis
In A Culture of Violence

by Ana Simo

OCTOBER 23, 2000. The cover of Guatemala's preeminent satirical student publication recently featured a drawing of Guatemalan Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchú sticking a tube up the ass of General Efraín Ríos Montt.

The General, who currently presides over the Guatemalan Congress, was the country's military ruler during the bloodiest years of a civil war that left 200,000 people dead. Many consider him a genocidal criminal. A protegé of his, Alfonso Portillo, was elected President last January.

The metaphorical punishment of the presumably genocidal general with anal sex translates into very real violence against anyone perceived as queer.

This summer, in two separate incidents, two male "transvestite" sex workers, Astrid La Fontaine and Beverly Lineth, were murdered in front of witnesses. The Guatemalan police, which routinely terrorizes "transvestite" sex workers, is not interested in investigating the murders.

In Guatemala, as elsewhere in Central America, male "transvestite" prostitution is huge, often a consequence of the prostitute's abject poverty and homo-shame, and the john's rabid homophobia. Males who foam at the mouth when asked if they're gay, nevertheless think it's okay to have sex with a male cross-dresser or a transgender woman: after all, only the "receiver" is a dirty homo.

No Oasis
Six to 10 murders of this kind have been documented each year since 1997 by OASIS, a Guatemalan HIV/AIDS prevention organization focusing mostly, but not exclusively, on gay men and sex workers. So far, all the murderers remain unpunished.

OASIS is the Spanish acronym of the not-for-profit Organization to Support an Integral Sexuality In the Face of AIDS. The gap between the evocative acronym and the closeted official name reflects the group's perilous position as it juggles a crumbling paper democracy at home, and funders abroad willing to shell out a buck or two to save Astrid and Beverly from AIDS (as an afterthought: women and children first!), but not from homophobia. 

Founded in 1993, and still largely run by gay men, OASIS "began its work at a difficult time for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people" in Guatemala, according to OASIS Vice-President, Jorge Lopez Sologaistoa, who is also the editor of ViceVersa, the group's magazine. "The only way we could start then was by not mentioning that we were going to do HIV/AIDS prevention work specifically with lgbt populations," he added. The peace agreements that officially ended the 30-year Guatemalan civil war were only signed in 1996, three years after OASIS began.

Seven years later, OASIS appears poised to step up its queer human and civil rights work.

Making The Queer Transition
fernando bancesLast July, OASIS supported the country's first Pride March, organized by the newly-formed Grupo Promotor del Colectivo Gay-Lésbico de Guatemala (Group for the Advancement of the Gay and Lesbian Community in Guatemala). Fernando Bances, a leader of the new group, and one of the original founders of OASIS, had been critical in the past of OASIS' perceived closetedness.

Now, however, Bances and some 350 people, many of them members of OASIS, marched peacefully and joyfully through the center of Guatemala City. This time the cops behaved, perhaps because the march was under the protection of two morally, if not practically, significant entities in Guatemala: the national Human Rights Ombudsman and MINUGUA, the U.N. watchdog group still overseeing the wobbly aftermath of the Guatemala peace agreement.

OASIS is also coordinating a regional Latin American and Caribbean human rights project for ILGA (the International Lesbian and Gay Association). The goal is to develop queer human rights networks in the area and launch public awareness campaigns. As part of the project, the ILGA bulletin will be translated into Spanish and distributed, along with a locally produced regional bulletin, a resource handbook on lgbt human rights, and an ILGA Latin American directory.

photoClaudia Acevedo, who manages the ILGA project, is also helping organize Lesbiradas, an independent lesbian/bisexual group that OASIS is now trying to foster. (See How To Be A Lesbian In Guatemala). "We have realized that this sponsoring strategy works; Gente Positiva, a group of women and men living with HIV/AIDS, began under the OASIS umbrella and now has its own funding, Board of Directors, and so on," said Lopez Sologaistoa.

In addition, a ground-breaking report on the marginalization of queers in Guatemala prepared by OASIS Executive Director and co-founder, Rubén Mayorga, and the group's Research Director, María Antonieta Rodríguez Leerayes, is now in the hands of UNDP, the United Nations Development Program, which may publish it, or incorporate some of its findings into its influential Guatemala 2000 Development Report. Either way, it would be a coup.

United Nations agencies are generally loathe to mention the l, g, b, or t words, lest our problems become their problems, by taking root in the international agenda, as women's did a decade ago. Even UNAIDS, their global war-against-AIDS shindig, in its soft-sale frenzy, pretends that AIDS in third world countries has nothing to do with male homo-sex and everything to do with those late-night charity perennials, Women and Children.

Pioneering Work
In spite of its new emphasis on queer human rights, HIV/AIDS prevention among "sexual minorities," however expansively defined, will probably continue to be OASIS' mainstay in the immediate future. This seems practically preordained by the evolution of the epidemic in Guatemala, governmental inaction, and foreign funding realities (most of OASIS' annual $300,000-plus budget is funded by foreign HIV/AIDS donors).

The organization has done pioneering, impressive work in the prevention area. Between January and May of this year, for example, the OASIS educational van, which goes out every Friday and Saturday night through the streets of Guatemala City, the capital, made contact with more than 4,800 sex workers and their clients. Most of these sex workers were male "transvestites" (3,217) or women (2,904).

In addition, the OASIS HIV/AIDS prevention workshops reach annually thousands of Guatemalans, ranging from gay and bisexual men and high-school students in impoverished urban areas, to government public health and welfare employees. The latter are also instructed, many probably for the first time, about the need to respect the human rights of people living with HIV/AIDS.

About 100 people participate every year in art and other creative workshops at the OASIS headquarters in Guatemala City. Film screenings, performances, panels, traveling exhibits and Pride events are also routinely organized. In some ways, OASIS may be the closest thing to a gay and lesbian community center in Guatemala.

Movement Building
The spectacle of an institution-driven queer emancipation movement, however enlightened or activist the institution, is somewhat incongruous to those of us accustomed to grass-roots activism and direct action almost always being the cutting edge of social change.

photoHowever, in Central America and other poor regions of the world, the AIDS epidemic and the foreign funding to combat it have opened a tiny window of opportunity for queers to breathe freely for a second, and begin talking to each other. HIV/AIDS prevention saves lives in more than one way by offering the modest cloak of respectability and funds needed to begin breaking a brutal silence.

The dangers of crushing queer activism with the weight of charitable not-for-profit bureaucracy and social worker-speak are real, in Guatemala, and anywhere else where AIDS forces queers to organize themselves for the first time—as, of all things, social service providers. But, as OASIS and others are showing, opportunities are there to be seized, and moral imperatives—to save lives ravaged by AIDS—should be followed.

Whether OASIS stays as is, shrinks or swells, evolves into Guatemala's first queer community center, or successfully nurtures the future components of that community, may depend as much on vision as on funding.

Their mostly European funding will begin drying out in 2001. And the need to help emerging queer communities in places like Guatemala—where, incidentally, many future American voters are being born and raised or are preparing to immigrate at this very moment—has not yet begun to register in Gay America's radar screen. It should. Not a moment too soon.    

López Sologaistoa's photo: Vinicio Alvarado
Additional photos: Jorge López Sologaistoa

Related links:

For basic, accurate facts on Guatemala, peruse the CIA Factbook.

For a look at Guatemala's rulers, see John Ward Anderson's Guatemala Swears In New President—Admitted Killer Makes Pledge To Fight Crime in The Washington Post.

For the Human Rights Watch report on Guatemala.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

En español

Retrato de un activista

Cómo ser lesbiana en Guatemala

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