Abelardo Araya, one of the leading LGBT-rights advocates in Latin America, has passed away at 42 years of age.
Friends and relatives found Araya dead at his apartment on Thursday after not hearing from him for a couple of days. Police have ruled out foul play and believe that he died of a heart attack. Araya had recently spent a few weeks at a local hospital for ailments related to high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes.
La Nación says that Araya developed his thirst for activism while living in Ecuador in the 1990's. When he returned to Costa Rica in 1998 he became the coordinator of a program offering support to parents and relatives of gay and lesbian children at the Latin American Health Prevention and Education Institute.
He would later launch Movimiento Diversidad (the Diversity Movement), a non profit LGBT-rights organization which sought to visibilize the Costa Rican LGBT community and increase its political power.
Speaking to Telenoticias 7, Marco Castillo, the organization's attorney and a close friend of Araya's said that while members of the LGBT community already had begun to organize, Araya was the first person in Costa Rica to organize public LGBT conferences and offer invitations to media to cover the events.
Araya had last appeared on Telenoticias 7 on December 29th when he announced that members of the LGBT community would provide entertainment to the public during the end of the year bullfighting ceremonies. Yet another way that Movimiento Diversidad sought to give the community a public face.
One of Araya's biggest political battles was promoting the legal recognition of same-sex partnership rights. In 2006, several legislative leaders sought his counsel in authoring a bill that would make civil unions legal for same-sex couples in Costa Rica. Several versions of the bill have been drafted but have failed to get much traction to this date.
In May of 2011, Movimiento Diversidad also provided support for two gay couples who went to court and demanded the right to marry. The court ruled against the couples but the action drew so much attention that Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla was put on the spot.
Chinchilla, who had ran on a "family values" platform and had previously spoken against same-sex partnership rights, stunned everyone when she said she would actually not be opposed to the legalization of same-sex marriages in her country.
In December, 20 legislators sent President Chinchilla a letter asking her to be the lead sponsor of a same-sex civil union bill. She turned them down saying that her job as a president was to focus on the country's economy and public safety.
Former Costa Rican José Meino del Rio, one of the sponsors of the 2006 civil unions bill, showed up at yesterday's wake to talk about the integral part that Araya played in moving these bills forward. Addressing Araya's mother directly, Meino del Rio spoke of the hateful homophobic insults her son had endured from the religious right.
The  bill and others that have been introduced since then have created a national debate in which we heard, in effect, the voice of hate from the religious leadership. Pay it no mind, Mrs. Araya. Have no doubt that wherever [Abelardo] is, he is looking at us. And, from there, he is saying "Have faith! Push forward! Do not let them win, do not give up! Let my death not be forgotten as an example because no one dies as long as someone remembers you'.Tico Bears, of which Araya was a proud member, posted a video of Meino del Rio's remarks which I have excerpted above.
Even after death, homophobia in media: On a related matter, as news of Araya's death hit social media yesterday, people on Twitter were outraged by a story on Araya's passing posted without a byline in a Costa Rican MSN News affiliate.
The post, which has since been removed but can be read in a cached version here, was shocking in its homophobic insensitivity.
Saying that Araya had spent years fighting for "the so-called rights a same sex couple could enjoy," the writer chalked up his recent ailments as "just one additional problem that added to his suffering."
He goes on: "Araya had already spent more than ten years leading of these kind of people, a group that has grown larger than it ever should as the days go by; nevertheless, even though it's all sorrow to them, they will have to let the days pass and then sit down to figure out who might become the new captain of their Love Boat."
Kölbi, The cell company that runs the MSN News page on which the article was posted later apologized and said that the site had inadvertently reproduced content from a separate site not affiliated with the cell brand of MSN News.
"Kölbi reiterates the respect we have for sexual diversity and expresses our deep sense of solidarity with Mr. Araya's friends and family," said a statement from the company, "Kölbi commits itself to give absolute respect to sexual diversity, as it has done in the past, on the basis of the corporate guidelines of our parent company, the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity."
I have a feeling that Araya would be proud that, even in death, his legacy would lead to a national company restating their commitment to respect the LGBT community in his country.
Rest in peace, Abelardo.
UPDATE: Tuanix Interactive Media, which provides content for Kölbi, has released their own statement apologizing to the Araya family, to Kölbi and to MSN for the homophobic column. They have announced that the author of the piece, Walter Carrera, was fired on the spot on the same day the company became aware of the column he had authored.
- Costa Rica's LGBT community mourns death of leader (Tico Times)
- Abelardo Araya's FB wall (Facebook)