El Salvador’s New War: Lesbian/Gay Activism Confronts “Social Cleansing”

Against the Current, No. 78, January/February 1999

Anne Schenk

QUEER ACTIVISM AND visibility are on the rise in El Salvador and throughout Latin America, coupled with an alarming increase in repression against queers and queer activists.*

In May of this year, Karla, a seventeen-year-old transvestite active in El Salvadors gay rights movement, was abducted off the street and assassinated death-squad style.

According to a bulletin released in June by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Karla’s murder was the latest in a wave of anti-gay violence that has struck the departments of San Salvador and Sonsonate. In the three months preceding Karla’s murder, seven gay men were killed and many other gays, transvestites and sex workers were attacked and seriously injured.

Police response has been apathetic at best. Authorities claim to be investigating the attacks, though progress is hardly apparent. According to CISPES, no suspects have been identified despite eyewitness reports that include detailed descriptions of Karla’s killers.

Gay activists who have demanded a thorough investigation into Karla’s murder have been threatened with death, and the office of the gay rights organization Entre Amigos has received bomb threats. Salvadoran authorities refuse to view the series of attacks as a deliberate wave of violence targeting gays and transvestites; each incident is considered in isolation.

A Murderous Campaign

The recent violence against gays, lesbians, transvestites and sex workers in El Salvador is only the latest since the end of that country’s twelve-year civil war. The 1992 peace accords ended the armed popular struggle against El Salvador’s right-wing government and military.

The accords, however, did little to dismantle the right-wing paramilitary apparatus that has terrorized the population for decades. To this day, death squads continue to operate with impunity, targeting new victims among the poor and disenfranchised: sex workers, drug users and queers. HIV and AIDS prevention workers also are targeted, with the explicit goal of thwarting AIDS prevention efforts in order to hasten the extermination of homosexuals.

In November 1994 Wilfredo Valencia Palacios, an AIDS educator with the Oscar Romero AIDS Project, received death threats from men who, according to an IGLHRC report, were “here to clean up the city and if AIDS doesn’t kill the faggots, we will.”

In June 1995 the office of FUNDASIDA, a non-governmental HIV and AIDS education center, was raided by three armed men claiming membership in “La Sombra Negra” or “Black Shadow” death squad. The men stole the FUNDASIDA computer, which contained confidential client information, and took the files and membership list of the gay mens group Entre Amigos, which met in the FUNDASIDA office. The men said they came to kill FUNDASIDA’s director, Dr. Francisco Carrillo, who was not there at the time.

The attack against FUNDASIDA occured almost simultaneously with the announcement by San Salvador’s right-wing mayor, ARENA party member Mario Valiente, that he would actively work to rid the city of homosexuals and prostitutes.

Gay Pride and Repression

This campaign of “social cleansing” is not unique to El Salvador. Last year Guatemala witnessed an upsurge in repression against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transvestite and transsexual people, including the assassination of Conchita, a transvestite sex worker and AIDS activist who was shot and killed thirty meters from the AIDS prevention organization he worked with.

In Argentina transgender women and men are especially singled out for persecution. Also referred to as “Travesti” (traditionally a pejorative but reclaimed by the transgender movement), transgender people are arrested and detained in deplorable conditions at a rate of 150 per month in Rosario, Argentina’s second-largest city, despite the adoption of an anti-discrimination clause that includes sexual orientation.

Penalties include twenty days for cross-dressing and thirty days for prostititution, and forced HIV-testing is routine, despite a federal law forbidding such a practice. In the conservative province of Mendoza, transgender men and women are arrested off the street for appearing non-gender conforming, and suspects who attempt to flee are shot. Those who are detained are often beaten, and have to bribe police or submit to sexual acts in order to regain their freedom.

Despite the relative impunity with which both police and parajudicial forces carry out repression, queers in El Salvador and other Latin American countries continue to nurture movements in support of civil rights and liberation. Pride marches take place in many Latin American countries, including Mexico and Brazil.

In El Salvador in 1995, a handful of women founded the Media Luna, the Lesbian-Feminist Collective of the Half Moon, for the purpose of demystifying lesbianism and “conscienticizing the social and political movements where [lesbians] can come together in acknowledgment and defense of their rights as civilians.”

In 1997 gay men and transvestites held a pride march in San Salvador culminating in a drag show in a public plaza.

Groups across Latin America are struggling to break down degrading stereotypes of sexual minorities, and continue to press for the establishment and enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation and other laws to protect the human rights of queers.

ATC 78, January-February 1999