Monday, January 23, 2012

Ecuador: Lesbian who led fight against 'gay conversion' clinics appointed to Presidential Cabinet

Presidential Cabinet appointment: Continuing with his LGBT-friendly record, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa announced this week that Carina Vance Mafla, who is a lesbian, would take the reigns of the country's Health Ministry.  The appointment followed the resignation earlier in the month of the previous health minister over criticism he had failed to modernize a health system that has been mired in inefficiency.

Vance made no mention of her sexual orientation when she was introduced to the press on Wednesday nor did the press ask about it.  Instead, the press picked up on it a day later after the Ecuadoran LGBT-advocacy organization Equal Rights Now (Igualdad de Derechos Ya!) released a press statement calling her a "lesbian activist" and saluting her appointment as a historic first.

In the statement, the organization goes on to say that they hope the newly appointed minister will pay attention to current delays in the distribution of HIV medications, create guidelines to prevent discrimination against LGBT individuals at hospitals and health centers and take action on shutting down illegal religious "clinics" that promote "cures" for homosexuality.

Background: It's not as if Vance is unwilling to talk public about being gay.  In the April 2010 issue of the Ecuadorean magazine Cosas she describes coming to terms with her sexuality after a harrowing experience that happened on a bus when she was just thirteen years old.

Born in Oakland, California, Vance lived in Europe during her teens. In the article she describes hanging out with her first crush and holding hands with her as they rode a public bus in Europe. She says that she stopped holding hands the moment she realized a group of guys in their twenties had noticed the gesture.

Vance says that one of the men got closer and  started spitting at them while a second man sat behind them and shouted insults.  When she turned around to confront the guy shouting homophobic epithets, he punched her in the face.  She thought she would be safe the moment she got off the bus but she was wrong.

"They followed me home, kicking me and shouting at me," she says, "for me, it was a matter of pride that kept me from running, so I just walked on forward even as they continued to kick me. [The experience] not only helped me to become fully aware of my sexuality but also made me aware of the societal reaction to it."

Vance would then move to Quito with her family where she attended high-school but says that she felt it was impossible for her at that particular time to live openly.  She decided to move back to the United States after graduation where she spent twelve years finishing college and graduate degrees.

"When I returned [to Ecuador] in 2004, it shocked me to see the gay flag prominently displayed at a university" she says.

Vance realized just how much Ecuador had changed for the better and told the magazine that she now lived in Quito happily and openly without fear of being attacked.

"Lesbian torture clinics": In 2008, I wrote about a two-part investigative report in Ecudor's El Universo which exposed a network of 140 illegal "clinics" that promised to "cure" gays and lesbians and turn them straight ("Ecuador: Kidnapping, torture and confinement at ex-gay therapy centers").

The articles earned the paper a prestigious journalism award and led to calls for the government to shut down the so-called clinics.

Most recently, the "clinics" gained renewed attention when U.S. based online activism petition sites and launched calls in November for the Ecuadorean government to shut down the "lesbian torture clinics" at the request of Ecuadorean lesbian-rights organization Fundación Causana.

The "clinics", as reported, actually don't discriminate based on gender when it comes to their zeal to convert the gay away and, to their credit, the government took some action last September when they shut down 30 clinics back in September.

Yesterday, claimed victory in pressuring the Ecuadorean government to take action on these clinics.

They quoted a statement from Fundación Causana:
After ten years of outcry, the nation of Ecuador - through the Ministry of Public Health - has entered into a commitment with civic organizations and society in general to deconstruct the belief that homosexuality is an illness and root our the use of torture in these clinics. We extend our thanks to all the men and women who signed our petition. It has been invaluable to have this support in starting to change this reality.
That is amazing news but this is what is just as amazing:

The online petitions that and posted were addressed to Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa and the former Health Minister David Chiriboga Allnutt.  That Health Ministry seat, of course, is now held by Carina Vance.

Well, it turns out that at the time Vance gave that interview to Cosas on coming to terms with her sexuality, she just happened to be the Executive Director of Fundación Causana.

In other words, the agreement that Fundación Causana announced with the government probably has a lot to do with tremendous international pressure. But in an amazing turnaround of events, it's probably also due to the fact that the woman who previously led the agency leading the drive against the clinics is now the country's Health Minister.

Just amazing.




Saturday, January 21, 2012

Leading Costa Rican LGBT-rights activist Abelardo Araya dies at 42

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 [2006] 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.


Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nelson Rodriguez and Juan Rodriguez get married...

Photo: Juan Rodriguez, former president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (Screen capture).

One of the least reported stories about the success of the marriage equality push in New York in 2011 was the role of Spanish language media and its positive impact on passage of the law. In particular, the decade long support expressed editorial pages of the most widely read Spanish-language newspaper in the city, El Diario La Prensa.

Last year, as the legislative battle heated up, El Diario's pro-marriage equality stand drew the wrath of homophobic Pentecostal preacher and Democratic New York State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., a leading opponent of the bill.

In April announced a boycott of the paper and said that the paper would be forced to drop its daily circulation by 20,000 copies.  He repeated the threat at several of the rallies he organized against marriage equality (video from one of the rallies here).

Editors stayed mum on the boycott most of the summer but a month after the law was signed into law, El Diario's Chief Editor and CEO Rossana Rosado appeared on NY1's "Pura Política" and spoke about the boycott's utter failure as well as the paper's longtime stand in support of marriage equality ("Was Reverend Ruben Diaz, Sr.'s homophobic boycott against NY's 'El Diario La Prensa' effective?").

Interviewed by Juan Manuel Benitez, Rosado also revealed why the marriage equality issue hit so close to home and become such a personal issue for her (video of full interview here):
One of the first gay weddings will take place at my home. It will be between our friends Nelson and Juan who have spent 36 years together and who will get married and - at last! - they'll have the right to do it in this State.
This was also the year in which my daughter revealed to us that she is gay. She is 17 years old and her friends, her cousins, our family, everyone has given her their full support. There has not been a single negative reaction. I think that's the world we should pass on to our children.
The gay couple who planned to marry at Rosado's home were Nelson Rodriguez - who works for El Diario La Prensa - and Juan Rodriguez - who served as the former president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party of New York.

Rodriguez and Rodriguez were among the hundreds of couples who lined up outside City Hall in Manhattan on July 24th - the first day gay couples could register for a marriage license. Bryan Llenas, who was covering the story for Fox News Latino, happened to take this great picture of the happy couple. They would get married a month later on August 20th (photo used by permission from Bryan Llenas and Fox News Latino).

A month later, in October, Juan Rodriguez (on the right) would die from cancer.

On a special 'Top Stories of 2011' episode of "Pura Politica", host Juan Manuel Benitez took a look back at El Diario La Prensa's stand on marriage equality. He ended the segment by honoring Juan Rodriguez' life (turn on annotations for an English-language translation):

This, ladies and gentlemen, was one of the many reasons why El Diario's editors supported marriage equality - and one of the reasons why Senator Diaz wanted to boycott El Diario.


In a lighter vein, in the same show, political pundit Gersón Borrero was invited to discuss the stories of the year.  It might be a tad politically incorrect, but here was his take on Senator Diaz' opposition to marriage equality.


Borrero, a former editor at El Diario, has been calling Diaz "Lucifer" for years. Diaz, to this date and to the Senator's credit, Diaz still takes his calls.