Kelly Sans Culotte


Guatemala's Dykes Dig in Their Heels
Violence won't stop lesbian organizing.
By Kelly Cogswell

"Montt is an assassin. There will be assassinations, kidnappings, torture, rights violations, poverty, hunger, destruction."

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JULY 25, 2003. The news from Guatemala these days is not good. Efraín Ríos Montt, a general who seized power in 1983, then massacred an estimated 17,000 people, mostly Mayan Indians, is aiming for the presidency in November.

His bid was initially approved July 15, then rejected days later by Guatemala's Supreme Court while thousands demonstrated on the streets. Ríos Montt is appealing, arguing that the 1985 constitutional ban on former dictators and coup participants which the court cited does not apply to him because his coup preceded the ban.

Ríos de sangre — Rivers of Blood
Claudia Acevedo, the coordinator of Lesbiradas, a Guatemalan organization working for lesbian visibility and human rights, told The Gully that, "Everybody is waiting to see if he's elected or not. Half of Guatemala's human rights activists will leave the country, particularly those who were exiled and returned after the end of the civil war, in 1996. They're afraid. There's a culture of fear in Guatemala."

The 36-year war was marked by carnage. It left as many as 200,000 Guatemalans dead in this Central American country of 13 million, and drove another 1 million into exile. Many of Ríos Montt's paramilitaries remain active, assasinating and intimidating political opponents, and enforcing his extremist brand of fundamentalist Christianity.

The violence is compounded by the influx of gang members due to a reverse migration from the United States. Local police estimate there are now more than 200,000 gang members in Guatemala largely with roots in Los Angeles' gangs.

Laws and Order
If Ríos Montt does run, he may well win both because he is the most convincing, if blood-stained, law-and-order candidate, and because he is already the president of Guatemala's Congress, and head of the ruling party, the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front. His daughter is vice president of Congress, his son a top military leader, and his brother a Roman Catholic bishop. Since becoming the majority, his party has also installed allies in important judicial positions.

The general told reporters, "I make the laws of Congress, I approve the budget of Congress, so I am already president."

During a recent visit to the New York office of Amnesty International, which sponsored her trip here, Acevedo seemed serene and composed, despite Montt's increasing power.

"We're afraid, all of us, because we lived through the last years of the repression in Guatemala. Nevertheless, we believe that if we don't continue, the situation will never change, and not only for us, we're also joined with other struggles trying to change the political and social situation of Guatemala."

Closeted Left
A Ríos Montt presidency, however, would probably suspend Lesbiradas' efforts to find a congressional sponsor for their draft law against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The left adamantly refused to include sexual orientation in a law against discrimination based on gender and ethnicity that it managed to pass last year.

"Legislators on the left say 'yes' to us in private, but don't come out of the closet in public, don't want to commit themselves publicly. And not a single left-leaning legislator has met with us; we've only had access to their aides," said Acevedo.

In fact, Nineth Montenegro, of the left-leaning New Nation Alliance and reputedly one of Guatemala's most progressive politicians, told Lesbiradas that "discrimination against homosexuals doesn't count for much when people are dying of hunger..." Montenegro later told the daily Prensa Libre that "right now there are more important things than to talk about lesbians and homosexuals."

That kind of rationale isn't much consolation for the transgendered people murdered by paramilitaries or for gay activists like Jorge López Sologaistoa, one of the leaders of the HIV/AIDS group OASIS, who was briefly kidnapped a couple of months ago, but managed to escape. Death threats are a regular occurrence for him.

Lesbians Aren't Women
Montenegro, head of Guatemala's women's rights commission and herself a target of paramilitary groups, also seems unable to understand that the problems of lesbians are rooted in those of women. Already this year, more than a hundred women have been murdered in Guatemala, many after being raped. Recently, Guatemala's Congress, where only ten of the 113 deputies are women, decided that sexual harassment is not a crime. One deputy even chastised women for mistaking "gallantry" for harassment.

The use of violence as a means of social control to keep women compliant and invisible is a huge problem for lesbians. It keeps them out of public spaces, enforces the closet, and leaves them prey to homophobic families. "Even our discrimination is invisible," Acevedo told us. "It doesn't happen in the streets the way it does with gay men and transgendered people, because we, as women, are not in the streets. As a result, we have little factual evidence of human rights violations against us."

In Guatemala, "when families find out that their daughter is a lesbian, they lock her up at home, rape her, force her to marry," said Acevedo. She offered the example of Carla, who was imprisoned at home after her parents found out that she had a girlfriend.

"They locked her up in her own bedroom. They'd just open the door to give her food. She was only let out to go to the bathroom, always escorted by a brother who was assigned to guard her day and night. Shortly after her eighteenth birthday, she managed to escape and got to us. The family found out where she was and got the police involved. The authorities supported the family and tried to bring charges against us for kidnapping, even though the girl was of age. We got a lawyer for Carla and countersued her family. It was a long process.

"At every turn, the authorities pressured the girl to drop her lawsuit; each time, Lesbiradas denounced them and fought back. Eventually, at a court hearing, the family persuaded Carla to return home. She accepted and they quickly got her out of Guatemala. We don't know where she is now. But we're satisfied that we held our ground. It's not against the law to be a lesbian in Guatemala, even though your rights aren't protected."

Breaking Loose
The difficulty of reconciling the priorities of lesbians with those of gay men led to the 2001 break between Lesbiradas and the mostly male, AIDS-focused OASIS, which had helped them in their early stages. "We were looking for autonomy so that we could do the actions we dreamed of doing," Acevedo said.

Since then, Lesbiradas has been visible at International Women's Day and anti-violence demonstrations. It also got out 80 lesbians to the 2003 Guatemala City Pride march and has organized two direct actions. "In Guatemala City's central park we did a kiss-in. We took off pretty quickly afterwards," Acevedo said laughing, "because it's dangerous to be a lesbian in Guatemala."

In June of 2002, Lesbiradas launched a sticker and poster campaign in Guatemala City declaring "Enough! No more exclusion. Lesbians for an education free of prejudice." They put them up at universities, bus stops, and bars, and also hung four banners at the four entrances of the city. "They lasted a couple of days before being torn down," Acevedo said. For that campaign, they got attention in the newspaper, El Periódico, and the national TV station, TeleDiario.

Last August, after incorporating as a non-profit organization, Lesbiradas finally got a space of their own. "It's pretty large, two floors, several rooms." They had a big party to celebrate.

Visible Solutions
In addition to their traditional lesbian empowerment workshops and a popular monthly party which attracts about 100 dykes, Lesbiradas is now offering one on one consulting to lesbians. "We talk to those who have a problem, help them solve it, or refer them to whoever can help them," Acevedo said. They have also begun a major effort to document human rights violations of lesbians.

"This is very difficult, because everything is hidden, it's done in secret. The victims themselves don't speak out because they're ashamed," said Acevedo. Lesbiradas is modestly funded by Hivos, the Dutch development aid agency, but they hope, and need, to find other funding sources.

Lesbiradas is "alarmed at the increasing violence and at the Ríos Montt candidacy," said Acevedo. But they are determined to continue even if the general gives the coup de grace to a legislative option already weakened by fearful leftists. "There's another path which we are taking simultaneously: trying to change the culture, at least to create visibility for lesbians, to have a public, civic presence."

From the Web

World Factbook: Guatemala

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