Venezuela's sexual revolution
At the January 2006 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 pro-Chavez 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. â€œIn June we organise gay and lesbian rights forums, presentations and workshops, cinema screenings and other political meetings ending with a gay pride march.â€ Last August, on the international day of action against homophobia, Lambda â€œheld a big protest in the Simon Bolivar plaza ... We took down the national flag and raised the rainbow flag.â€ According to Hung, â€œThe new 1999 constitution includes no discrimination based on sexual orientationâ€, but there is a push to extend it to cover transgender discrimination as well.
â€œWe are also campaigning for same-sex marriage rightsâ€, Rivera Lopez said. â€œOn December 28, Venezuelaâ€™s vice-president Vicente 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 â€” 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 â€˜year of the battle of ideasâ€™. This is a huge step forward for our rights.â€
Hung believes â€œit will be a long road to get to same-sex marriage. In the state of Merida we currently have civil unions. Six months ago with six other non-government gay organisations we made a petition to the Supreme Courtâ€ to replicate this nationally.
Lambda is part of the International Lesbian and Gay Association. Hung explained that in Venezuela, Lambda is the â€œonly 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.
â€œWe promote safer sex and we provide medical counselling about HIV. This government provides full free treatment for people with HIV that ask for it.â€
Quintana works with HIV-infected children and adults, providing free counselling and drugs. â€œWe work with 950 children who are infected with HIV. We work with another 550 street kids and single-mother familiesâ€, he said.
â€œThere are 18,000 people registered with HIV in Venezuela. We donâ€™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 â€” Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. We fought to have HIV drugs distributed for free before [the 1998 election of Hugo] Chavez. It was a hard fight, but we won universal access a short time before Chavez was elected.
â€œWhen elected, Chavez advanced â€” rapidly â€” 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.â€
There is also a battle against corruption. Quintana described a protest action he was involved in, which invaded the health department, â€œbecause 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.â€
According to Hung, â€œThe 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.
â€œLast year, the attorney-generalâ€™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].
â€œOur 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.â€
According to Hung, it is â€œdifficult 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.
â€œTeenage suicide used to be a huge problem 20 years ago. Now the big issue for teenagers is vulnerability to STDs. They still donâ€™t know much about sex education. So thatâ€™s why we work on this.
â€œThe 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 â€˜Get out, we have more mouths to feedâ€™. Hence child prostitution among young GLBT people is common, but not well-known.
â€œIt 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 people. Not enough people have access to the shelters, but the government is doing well.â€
Gay bashings are a big problem in Venezuela. â€œOut of all the violent bashings that occur and are reported, five per cent are gay bashingsâ€, Hung said, adding that many people lack the confidence to report incidents. He explained that reporting attacks can be â€œa very bureaucratic processâ€, and many people fear repercussions if they are recognised.
â€œIf you are working and say â€˜I am a homosexualâ€™, then people might not fire you immediately, but they wonâ€™t give you a better job or a raise. There are no problems for people who are employed in the public government or working for themselvesâ€, Hung clarified. â€œEvery worker has legal protection. But if you are working for a private company, coming out can be hazardous. Same when you become HIV infected.
â€œWhen 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 â€” administrative trainer, cashier, bankteller â€” the company is not interested in keeping you on the payroll and will get you to quit.â€
Hung said that along with other countries in the region, Venezuela has experienced an increase in herpes and syphilis. â€œThe 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.â€
According to Hung, one of the Chavez governmentâ€™s â€œgreatest achievementsâ€ is the provision of health care. â€œIn the main hospitals they have the specialists. In the barrios they have free doctors. Tests and drugs are free.â€
â€œChanges are coming through. We are going to be great. The movement here is growing stronger and stronger. I pray we get same-sex marriageâ€, concluded Hung.
[Contact Moises Rivera Lopez at <firstname.lastname@example.org> and Marcel Quintano at <email@example.com>. Visit Lambdaâ€™s website at <http://www.lambdavenezuela.org
Abridged from Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.