A few years back in college, I decided I was going to do a paper on the history of homosexuality in Latin America (it was for a Latin American History class). Well besides the fact that I was a little bit ambitious, I did learn a great deal about the culture of homophobia in Latin America in general (and I learned even more about Cuba, after a narrowed my topic down). Who knew that paper would end up manifesting itself into further exploration and discovery later in my life?
At any rate, I remembered that I had read some articles on an organization in El Salvador called ENTRE AMIGOS, an organization devoted to the GLBT population of El Salvador. In my reading, I discovered that the founder was one of the few openly (and public) gay figures in El Salvador at the time. I also remembered that he had received death threats and such for his work with the GLBT community.
After my personal research, I found nothing else to note about the group and figured that it had fizzled out, thinking that maybe it was suppressed by the government, or maybe the founder just decided to go back underground. How very wrong I was...
About a week ago I was having lunch with a coworker and she was sharing some pictures that she brought from home. Pictures of when CARECEN first started (the organization I work with), pictures of her family and some of her friends. Then she showed me this one picture taken a few years ago. The photo captured her with about five other men, including an drag queen (depending on the culture, you might also refer to her as transgendered). My coworker continues to explain that these are her friends from "AMIGOS" and that they are all gay. She specifically points out the other woman in the picture (besides her) and says, "that’s a man!"
I smiled and told her that I knew...
We continued on with our conversation about her friends, about the GLBT population here, gay culture, and the misc. people who come into our office that are gay. Apparently there are a lot, and she knows them all! In addition, she has a lot of friends who are in the sex industry here, both men and women. He tells me about so and so who sells things at the market by day as a woman, and at night she is a cross dressing prostitute....or some of the men she knows that don’t even hide their identity and dress in women’s clothing, sell things at the market and also provide sexual favors. She knew a lot more about gay culture here than I had ever expected I would learn as a "Catholic" volunteer.
In my curiosity, I asked her how she knew all these gay people. She proceeded to tell me that she only hangs around gay people...she doesn’t really like straight people (even thought she identifies as straight). This I found interesting. But basically, her extensive knowledge comes from the fact that she has been involved with ENTRE AMIGOS for a long time, the same group I had thought fell off the face of the earth.
Much to my surprise, ENTRE AMIGOS is flourishing here in San Salvador, and by the next day, I was on an official tour! As it turns out, EA is so close, that I pass the office everyday on my way to and from work!!!
What I learned...
At EA, we had a long conversation with one of the directors, Joaquin. He talked about the history of the group and what they do now, which includes advocacy work and a lot of community education in relation to homosexuality in general, and also a safe sex campaign. EA is the only group in El Salvador that works directly with the GLBT population and does HIV / AIDS education. Basically, the conservative administration here won’t even touch the population, and EA is forced to tackle the reality alone. While other AIDS organizations get a ton of money to do education work, EA has to rely on private international donations. If you want to talk about human rights, look at the inequality of funding here...it will make your head turn!
Joaquin told us about their creative campaigns and the extent of their work. As it turns out, even our organization has worked with EA in the past, helping HIV + migrants, travel in a safer way. I also learned about their charlas they do (little chats) in the parks and areas where there are a high concentration of gay people (who probably aren’t being educated correctly).
At any rate, I gave Joaquin my name and number and told him that I would be interested in helping the organization. I explained with a smile, that although I am a Catholic volunteer, I still have a life and free time to work with other people..and have diverse experiences. The way I see it, the GLBT community is one of the most oppressed and marginalized populations here, and so I think it’s my job to learn more about them, and be a witness to their struggles.
So when I actually start doing something with ENTRE AMIGOS, I will let you know.
On another note...and related to the topic at hand.
I went to a mass on World AIDS Day at the Cathedral here. I noticed that there was a person on the opposite end of pews who would be identified as trans. I couldn’t help but think to myself, "Man, she has a lot of courage to step into this church, with the culture of homophobia surrounding her!" She was surrounded by people when the mass started, but as the mass went on, people gradually got up and left their seat for another location, so that by the end, she was all by herself.
My heart was very affected by this observation, and it has sat with me ever since. I think it’s kind of funny that a week later I was introduced to ENTRE AMIGOS!
Everyday, I learn more and more about the culture here...including the things that people don’t normally talk about. Even though I am Catholic, I am glad and grateful that people have been comfortable enough to share such personal, and sometimes controversial things about their lives. I am a better person for it all.