By Richard Ammon
Honduras is a rugged mountainous country with ancient Mayan roots stretching back almost 3000 years. Visiting the stone ruins at Copan one can only guess their attitude toward people who were ‘different’. It’s virtually impossible to get an adequate picture of homosexuality in pre-Columbian America. There is some evidence that among the indigenous natives the institution of the ‘two-spirit people’ was widespread (photo right, Mayan temple detail).
The two-spirits, originally considered hermaphrodites and called “berdache” by the Spanish conquistadors, were men who assumed feminine duties and behaviors. They were considered neither men nor women by their societies, but were considered like a third sex and often held spiritual functions in the culture.
From archeological findings in caves, it is surmised that the Maya were relatively tolerant of homosexuality. It is believed that group sex occurred among the Maya including homosexual sex although sodomy was forbidden. Mayan society considered homosexuality preferable to premarital heterosexual sex and there are suggestions that noble families had sexual servants for their unmarried children.
Social historian David Greenberg reports in his famous work ‘The Construction of Homosexuality’ (1988) about widespread male homosexuality among the Mayans in Central America: “A strong sexual component pervades close friendships of young married Mayan men as well as bachelors in southern Mexico and among Guatemalan Indians.”
But cultures change and thanks to major historical forces such as the Spanish invasion accompanied by their fervent Christian monks, nuns and priests, civil society came to scorn and persecute homosexuals. That’s the short history of homophobia in Honduras.
Tegucigalpa is the capital city in the high mountains of Honduras. The elevation is about 3000 feet so the heat is mild and you might expect the air to be cleaner.
Unfortunately homo sapiens being poor stewards of their home planet have done their usual best to pollute the water and air, even in this remote metropolis. Surrounded by rugged verdant mountains Tegucigalpa sits in a broad valley accessible only over endless winding roads, unless you fly in. Not surprising, there are no trains in the country. (photo left: overview of the city)
But there are momentary images that transcend the grit. Arriving after dark, coming down from the high surrounding mountains, by bus, and first seeing the distant city come into view, the entire urban sprawl appeared like a field of shimmering white diamonds spread out across the black sky and undulating earth. It was a sudden stunning image created by the white lighting of the streets. The city seemed to float in mid-air in the surrounding darkness.
However, the illusion faded as we descended into the gray reality of crowded gritty inelegant sprawling poor suburbs. Closer to the city center the history of the city (founded 1578 for its gold and silver mines and made the capital 1880) is apparent in the narrow one-way streets that were never designed for motorized vehicles. Single lane traffic is usually gridlocked during rush hours and slow at best other times.
There are few colonial architectural gems still standing. A handful of ornate towering churches suggest what once (or never) was to the city’s beauty. The huge yellow pastel cathedral (photo right) holds the center place downtown, impressing worshipers and the few tourists with its huge gold and silver baroque altar frieze.
A few museums and occasional newer government or bank building relieve the countless number of ugly nondescript buildings that appear to have been built with eyes closed and no thought of aesthetics.
These dull cramped places house the majority of city dwellers and their countless mom-and-pop little shops selling everything from vegetables to cell phones. Lacking much light they seem like caves but nevertheless teem with life: leather tanners, the smell of fresh-baked bread, squalling kids, coat-and-tie bankers, sidewalk tortilla vendors, deformed beggars with uplifted palms, rattling taxis, wooden donkey carts being honked out of the way by SUVs, sweet-faced school kids in their uniforms (plaid trousers!), heavily-armed police walking their beats. (photo left: tortilla child vendor)
As with all poor countries (less than $150 per month income average, at best) there is petty crime. I saw a thief run up behind a woman and try to steal her shoulder purse. She immediately began to scream very loudly and kick him which drew others’ attention. They struggled for a few seconds before he gave up and ran away. Her reaction seemed a planned one, as if she had been trained to react that way to fend off an assailant. It worked. I watched the thief, a young white man in his twenties, run off, not at great speed, as if he knew he would not be pursued. Then quickly life continued its beat and pace.
There are murders in this city, as elsewhere. Among those who lives have been lost in the past year are about 20 transgender and gay people in or around Tegucigalpa. This is of course sad and distressing to the LGBT community. Most of the people killed have disobeyed the 5PM to 5AM curfew imposed by the new government that took over in June 2009. As sex workers they are usually night workers and thus become targets for military and police aggression as well as criminals.
Gay Safe Havens
Much to my surprise, tucked into the cityscape are several LGBT locations each with their own offices and recreation rooms. I visited these with a new friend named Gabrie Mass who guided me through the city labyrinth to find out about four bubbling LGBT centers where disenfranchised gay people find ‘home’ and support and friendship in a city where homosexuality is not welcomed.
These gay enclaves are the hearts that give hope and succor to these mostly young people. (The older ones are in the closets of Honduras, many masked by marriage and family.) Each of the four organizations has a particular mission and a population it serves, but all are involved in LGBT rights, HIV work and social support: RedLesbica Cattrachas, Violetta, Kukulcan and APUVIMEH (see descriptions below).
My most lasting impressions from visiting these places are the faces of the young LGBT kids, laughing and worrying, thoughtful and silly, eating and dancing, decorating for a valentine’s party, making posters, playing cards, hugging and kissing, cruising or fooling around with friends—the usual things people do in the course of a young life. (photo right: modern LGBTs)
Except here they can shed their pretensions, their masks, their imposed family roles and standards of heterosexual behavior and attitudes. For those who find their way to these safe havens, life is made somewhat easier as they come to realize they are not deformed or sinful or shameful.
They come here to be normal and gain confidence in their sexual orientation; the only places this crucial formative process can happen in this hetero society.
The older leaders of these organizations, in their thirties and forties know well what it’s like to feel isolated, insecure and be the odd one out. There were no such places of nurture when they were young in the Honduran society, no one to accept them unconditionally and validate their being different.
The younger ones now take it for granted that being gay happens, although they know the limitations within the lifestyle. Most importantly, they are finding that their unusual feelings and attractions are valid and that they do have the right to a free life despite what religious and political and social leaders and media have to say. Young people here understand the homophobic circumstances and still can build a life of love and friendship. They also learn about self-care and safe sex.
A Tour with Gabrie Mass
Gabrie Mass (photo right) is a 32-year-old transgender man (F2M). He is a native of Tegucigalpa with his own design and construction business in the city (Licona Architectos). A cute short guy with a whisper of whiskers (thanks to his male hormones), he was generous enough to show me around to the several LGBT organizations in the city.
Born as a female, Gabrie said he felt more like a boy from the age of eight and shunned feminine clothes and interests. He preferred tools to dolls—still does. Like trans people in Honduras (and most of Central America) he cannot afford the surgery but has to be content with hormone therapy to produce masculine traits and wears an elastic vest to reduce breast contours.
He has not been allowed to change his Honduras identity card from female to male because the law does not permit it. The only harassment or discrimination he has faced was from a bank teller when he opened an account and the teller asked for his ID card and said the picture on the card did not match the person in front of him. Otherwise he has not experienced significant discrimination because he passes well as a guy.
Gabrie said his mother was at first upset at ‘losing’ a daughter and his father was essentially indifferent at gaining another son.
His take on the recent murders of LGBT people in Tegucigalpa is that these people were violating the curfew of 5PM to 5AM set by the new ‘take-over government’ (in June 09) by being out on the streets later than permitted. Not that he wasn’t upset and shocked by the deaths; he knew most of those killed and feels the losses.
Gabrie is a volunteer with the RedLesbica Cattrachas organization. (Cattrachas is a nickname for Honduran people.) It’s a social, educational and rights advocacy group for female LBT people. Gabrie works with the trans members in RedLesbica Cattrachas helping them to adjust and advising about medical, physical and psychological issues. He also deals with trans people who have experienced aggressive prejudice or physical abuse.
RedLesbica Cattrachas is led by Indyra Mendoza, a designated Human Rights Defender. In her group there are only lesbian and trans women. Discrimination against female trans people is high in Honduras and as a result their need for social and emotional support is high. RedLesbica Cattrachas has a list of gay-friendly doctors. (photo above: ‘Passion’ sketch by a member)
Virtually no transgender person in Honduras is a full transsexual because of the high cost of the surgery (usually done in Mexico or Spain). The farthest they can afford to go is hormone therapy that brings about some body changes such as enlarged breasts (for M2Fs, who are most trans) and facial hair and a deeper voice (for F2Ms, who are fewer in number). The term ‘transsexual’ usually refers to people who have had gender reassignment surgery. Also see this commentary.
Searching for LGBT groups in Honduras is not as easy as a Google search. Some of the groups are barely visible to the outside world even though they are beehives of activity inside.
In addition to RedLesbica there is APUVIMEH which stands for ‘Association for a Better Quality of Life for those Infected with HIV/AIDS in Honduras’. (photo left: “my body, my rights”)
It’s headed by Jose Zambrano, a full time employee (funding is from HIVOS in Holland). APUVIMEH gives public health education workshops to schools and universities, hospitals and any interested organization where HIV awareness needs to be heard among sexually active people. See the translated interview with Jose.
APU also sponsors a home for HIV infected people with no place to live, called Casa Renacer (‘House of the Reborn’).
Socially there are parties on Saturday nights for members and guests or safe-sex workshops.
Walter Trochez Murdered
Walter Trochez was one of the recent assassinations victims. He was the secretary of APUVIMEH. His death was broadcast worldwide. Apparently he deliberately resisted the new government’s curfew and openly supported the Human Rights Watch report, “‘Not Worth a Penny’: Human Rights Abuses against Transgender People in Honduras” that detailed abuses based on gender identity and expression, including rape, beatings, extortion, and arbitrary detentions by law enforcement officials.
He was gunned down December 13, 2009. Many people guess it was the government because of his highly visible resistance to the new regime, which he saw as illegal. Government ‘disappearances’ usually are very brutal and show sign of horrific torture with decapitation and genital amputation. Walter (photo right) was ‘lucky’ and died immediately on the street.
Gabrie had said Tegucigalpa is socially aggressive and hostile place especially homophobic aggression making it hard for grass roots organizations to form and there is usually insufficient money to organize. That comes from large donor organizations such as HIVOS, Ford Foundation, and Global Fund.
This busy venue is another LGBT organization. Its major function is a safe social venue for young people too young to drink legally in bars. It also advocates for human rights. Erick Martinez Avila is the monitoring and evaluation officer for Kukulcan. (Kukulcan was a supreme Mayan God.)
Here I met Darwin Fuentes (photo below right) who spoke fluent English and showed me around their two-story offices. He knew three of the transsexuals who had been murdered in recent years.
In the education offices at Kukulcan I took photos of staff members Antaory and Randy as they sat at their desks. Both offices were splashed with a wide assortment of magazine photos of sensual barely-clad men pasted on the walls. They looked like the inside of a gay photographer’s dream house. The staff work involves disseminating information about homosexuality, human rights and HIV prevention and counseling.
It’s not easy work despite the legal status of homosexuality in Honduras. It helped a little that in 2005 the (previous, slightly gay-friendly) government formally recognized several gay civil rights groups, including Kukulcan. Needless to say it was a move that outraged church leaders in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country. But since the coup in 2009 the government attitude has not been gay-friendly. Also see background story on Kukulcan.
Kukulcan is supported by the Global Fund mostly and with some funds from the Ford Foundation. Remarkably, it has 11 paid staff members and about 60 volunteers. It is the second oldest LGBT organization in Honduras, operating since 1985.
This is a remarkable, 25 years, that a homosexual organization has survived given the conflict and oppression from authorities and society. The group started secretly and small; hardly anyone knew. But as the AIDS pandemic spread to Honduras Kukulcan expanded its mission to include health education that gave it a legitimate cover to be more public.
As we walked around Darwin (photo right), guessed that as many as 60% of the LGBT people he knew had partners, some for over ten years. It’s an impressive number from inside this realm of machismo culture in Central and South America where for centuries the humiliation and stigma associated with homosexuality has emotionally paralyzed men and made lesbians invisible.
The new generation of LGBT people, some of them, have a new mindset about sexuality. Society is shifting slightly in its paradigm of understanding the varieties of sexual behavior despite the closeted fact that perhaps as many as 60-70% of Latino men have had sexual experiences with other men. Recently, none of the organizations I visited has been harassed or raided by the police. “As long as we don’t get political,” said Darwin, “they are very suspicious. Walter’s murder was a reminder that we are not on safe ground.”
The next group was the Colectivo Violeta, (no website) a gay and trans (mostly M2F) social and rights group for gay men and boys. It is run by Jose Bonilla who coordinates the many social and educational activities.
It’s the oldest LGBT organization, started before 1985. They focus on human rights and sexual health. I saw dozens and dozens of boxes of condoms (each with hundreds of condoms) in one of their cabinets. The condoms are made in South Korea. Gerardo Ortega assists Jose in monitoring the many activities and people who come and go daily.
Both Violeta and Kukulcan were certified by the government in 2004 “to enable them to work against AIDS and in recognition of rights protected under the American Convention on Human Rights (including the right to freedom of association)”, said a government spokesman at the time. See background commentary on Colectivo Violeta
For virtually all the drop-ins, Colectivo Violeta has become an emotional home since few visitors are not out to their families due to the usual fear of rejection or hostility. Colectivo Violeta is indeed their companionate home.
Of much sadness for Violeta was the killing of transgender human rights defender, Cynthia Nicole, on 9 January 2009. She was a leader in Colectivo Violeta working in the defense of the rights of transgender people since 1995. Her work included providing information on HIV/AIDS and human rights, as well as representing her community at national conferences and in the media.
On the political front, Members of Colectivo Violeta marched in Tegucigalpa on Oct. 23, 2009 to denounce an increase in murders of and assaults on LGBT people, and particularly transgender people. Workers World reported, “José Bonilla, coordinator of the Asociación Colectivo Violeta, reported that the Honduran police have been involved in the mistreatment of LGBT peoples, including harassment and beatings. (La Tribuna, Oct. 24) Nine transgender people have been killed in Honduras in the four months since the June 28 coup d’etat.”
After the Tour
After this whirlwind tour of ‘gay Tegucigalpa’ I was exhausted and pleasantly surprised. I also found that currently there are two LGBT watering holes in Tegucigalpa. One is a bar called Atico Bar that’s open every day. It is popular with lesbians and also draws a mixed crowd. Then there’s Zunzet Disco, primarily a gay male favorite that’s open on weekends.
Given the daunting circumstances of political upheaval and high homophobia, this troubled city still offered a reasonable LGBT menu to choose from in this often overlooked country in the verdant mountains of Central America.
The LGBT Rainbow Association of Comayaguela group is based in a town outside Tecucigalpa. It too is essentially a social organization. Arcoiris Rainbow association, with nearly 300 lesbian members, is also located in the suburbs of Tegucigalpa. Feministas en Resistencia is a political advocacy group. Beyond Tegucigalpa in the town of San Pedro Sula there is a LGBT community center headed by Oscar Carrion called the Communidad Gay San Pedrana.
For another overview of LGBT activism in Honduras see this commentary by Gustavo McCarthy who teaches at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras. In that report he observes, “Regarding political involvement, I see very little action from all the existing gay organizations in Honduras. Apparently the plans of these groups are more concerned with their individual work rather than creating a national task force, losing the opportunity to turn the movement into a self sustainable and influential political force for Honduras.” (photo left, street rally against homophobia, Tegulcigalpa)