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Intro: The small country of El Salvador has seen it share of politcal, economic and social troubles, like other Central American nations. But for the past fifteen years, undaunted by threats, hackers and preachers, the single LGBT organization in El Salvador, Entre Amigos (Among Friends), has endured with determination and compassion thanks to help from benefactors such as Elton John. Today Entre Amigos is a beacon of light for many gay souls in this homophobic culture.
Part 1: The City
The capital of El Salvador is the city of San Salvador. The central square, Plaza Barrios, hustles with commerce, cash and consumers edging along narrow sidewalks lined with makeshift street stalls that spill out onto the streets leaving barely enough room for single line of honking grinding fuming traffic (mostly old Bluebird school buses from the USA).
The press of humanity is both daunting and thrilling with every face, age, and voice telling a separate story of struggle to make a few dollars a day.
By far the most extensive trade is in video DVDs, pirated of course, and sold for about a dollar. (photo below) Thousands of them, including the latest current films such as ‘Avatar’. Needless to say there is more than one stall specializing in porno with a modest selection of gay flicks.
San Salvador city is not an architect’s dream. Along the narrow streets are structural variations on a theme of ugliness. A once-admired church is bland and peeling.
But there are some exceptions downtown, the National Palace Museum, a grand marble neo-classic beauty with graceful lines on Liberty Plaza.
Across the same plaza is one of the most unusual churches in all of Central America, Santa Rosarita. It looks like an enormous brick and cement airplane hangar that arches up over the city in a half circle to about a hundred feet at its apex. At first glance it looks a bizarre misplaced warehouse.
But a surprise is in store from the inside. Embedded in the vertical walls and the arching stepped ceiling are thousands of irregular pieces of stained glass in the four primary colors that rise rainbow-like to full height and render an awesome majesty over the black and white checkered floor and wrought iron altar ‘cage’. Seeming to float against the amber colored blocks above the cement altar is a large wood-beam crucifix with a sinewy body of Jesus. Lettered below is the message: “echen sus redes para pescar” (throw your nets in order to fish).
Central city closes up tight after six PM with metal doors and window bars securely in place on all the shops. Every piece of merchandise, from dolls to donuts, is removed as the night people gradually emerge from the shadows: homeless indigents, petty thieves, druggies and prostitutes. Even the beggars disappear from the crime ridden streets. A San Salvadorian person stands a 50% chance of getting robbed at knife-point; a tourist 90%. (So I was told; I didn’t verify this.)
Part 2: The Caring Gay World
But this is a story about gay El Salvador not an city tour. For that we move away from the center to the nearby suburbs where the modern upscale malls are located and where the country’s only LGBT organization has its office near the technical university.
I arrived at the offices of Entre Amigos (Among Friends) just outside city center on Poniente 17 and was pleasantly surprised (almost taken aback) by its street appearance. In this homophobic country I expected a hidden back office but instead the entry was emblazoned with bright rainbow colors and the large bold lettering of Entre Amigos. (photo left)
Greeting us with a warm smile and a big hug was the director of Entre Amigos, William Hernandez, a big bear of a man who has been with the organization since its start in 1996 and is still there in 2017. Entre Amigos is an openly gay organization actively engaged in AIDS prevention, health education, human rights and social support.
“Our purpose is first to promote human rights as well as the promotion of good health and self esteem,” said William, who speaks no English; my partner had to translate since I speak very little Spanish, making the interview somewhat fragmented and missing subtle meanings.
Risks and Dangers
But it’s not easy work in this city of 1.6 million mostly straight people who are generally have no appreciation for alternative sexuality. William said there were 23 people killed in El Salvador last year because of their alleged or actual sexual orientation. Virtually all of these deaths were not fully investigated by the police.
With the general increase of gay visibility in the news, on TV and on the Internet around the world over volatile issues such as gay marriage, gay adoptions, gay pride festivals and parades, as well as notorious gay arrests and gay scandals and church abuse of children, it can be expected that an increase in homophobia would happen. This is especially so in countries where religion holds a strong influence (despite minimal weekly attendance at church) over people and governments.
Human sexuality arouses mixed emotions in a world of secrets, repressed desire, erotic confusion and closeted bisexuality. El Salvador is no exception. The death of a couple dozen people (mostly trans sex workers) is tragic but not unexpected, especially by those closest to the ‘front line’ of the conflict.
But strangely not all homophobic action succeeds. Last year the right wing Christian Democrats here tried to get gay marriage banned in the constitution but failed; it is not legal according to case law and almost no support for it among the public. As well, homosexuality is not expressly prohibited by the constitution and there are many liberal thinking leaders who openly oppose homophobia such as the former mayor of San Salvador. Her official position toward pro-gay tolerance was influenced by Entre Amigo’s lobbying efforts, said William. Currently they are working on the new mayor to continue the anti-homophobia influence in city policy.
In their HIV outreach education work, Entre Amigos has made presentations to more than seven thousand people since they started. Volunteers go to gay venues and pick-up places to offer short introductory chats (charlas) about health information. Before they finish talking, they issue an invitation to attend a free eight-hour educational seminar in a hotel or at the Entre Amigos office. (photo right: offering HIV information to lifeguards)
About 10% accept the offer and take the instructional course that includes personal hygiene, disease transmission and prevention, safe sex practices, condom usage (and free condoms), an offer to get HIV tested as well as a human rights presentation. Many closeted bisexuals and hidden gay people have no idea about their rights as citizens to be protected against harm, rights that are often ignored but are still demanded by Entre Amigos.
Volunteers also go to the three gay/mixed discos in San Salvador as well as the four gay bars, two strip clubs and the one sauna. They ‘cruise’ certain parks and streets at night—risky as that is in the city–where anonymous contacts are made, often by closeted married men, as well as male prostitutes—and their johns–looking for hookups.
As usual, closeted married bisexual men are the most difficult to reach. They don’t want conversation, just sexual release, and the idea of a class is far from their minds. But at least they find out that Entre Amigos exists and is there for them if they choose.
Ironically, William said with a laugh, one of the most popular street ‘scenes’ in on John Paul II Avenida, the very same route the pope took on his 1996 visit to El Salvador. The two populations, church and gays, seem never far apart, for better or worse.
Entre Amigos’ Social Agenda
E. A. has become an important outlet for numerous gay and trans ‘guanacos’, as El Salvadorians are called. But no lesbians.
Appealing mostly to a working class socio-economic sector, including trans folks, E. A. offers social activities such as movies, parties or hang-out times at the Entre Amigos offices. But because there is no alcohol or smoking allowed, the young ones (20 to 50 on any one night) come for the food, soda and then leave for the discos—that is, if they can afford the entry cover charge. This is a poor country where incomes average as little as US$150 a month and the vast majority of young people live with their families—for survival as well as duty.
Sex and Class
Some middle class gays consider Entre Amigos to be for poorer gays and trans people so they prefer not to mix with them. Money divides human society like nothing else; money is apparently stronger than sexual commonality so the same divisions in society continue in Entre Amigos. About the only mix is a furtive pickup of a male prostitute by an upper class guy but it’s only for brief sex not friendship.
Among the less affluent, William observed, there is less homophobia since they have less status to lose. “People without power don’t mind so much. People in power are up tight and fearful of being exposed. It’s all a status thing that ruins their lives. A lawyer or judge or congressman has more to lose than a street vendor.”
Of the more affluent gays there are circles of friends who gather for private parties in homes or beach houses along the sunny Pacific coast half an hour drive south of San Salvador. Some go to the discos where there’s often a mixed class crowd, although few lower class people can afford to go.
There was a notorious scandal last year when the well-known president of an airline in El Salvador was found dead in his country home, having been killed apparently by a male hustler he had picked up The man’s homosexuality was a known secret but kept hushed by his status and wealth, but money was not enough this time.
Gay Pride March
Searching for Entre Amigos on the Internet won’t reveal their website; it has been hacked three times so it was removed. But this doesn’t stop their work. As the country’s only gay lobbying organization they continue to push for improved rights and legal protections for gays.
Since 1997 Entre Amigos’ increasing numbers of volunteers and supporters have boldly taken to the streets to protest anti-gay discrimination, which have occurred surprisingly without incident. (photo right: kiss-in at Pride march)
In June 2009, in its 12th year, about 3000 marchers total participated in the parade. Entre Amigos does not directly organize the parade now. That event is spearheaded by Arco Iris (rainbow in Spanish) a transsexual organization. Parades also occur in the cities of Santa Ana (Decima group) and La Paz (Angels of La Paz). La Fraternidad sin Fronteres also participates in the San Salvador march.
They don’t usually show up at Entre Amigos events. William said they prefer to organize among themselves privately and don’t mix much with the guys. However, the yearly Pride parade draws a lot of women who come out in legions whom he has not seen all year.
William said Entre Amigos does have three lesbians who collaborate on some projects but who are not members. “Lesbians have it much harder than men. They threaten the strong macho expectation of subservient women.”
There is one organization here called Women Out of the Closet but they tend to act in radical ways such as spraying graffiti to advertise the gay parade. This creates a problem for Entre Amigos who tries to work closely with the mayor for an event.
Being gay in one’s family can evoke a variety of reactions that sometimes includes traumatic ejection from the family. Entre Amigos tries to help such homeless people with counseling, friendship, temporary housing and employment resources. Gay friends become each other’s family and the only safe place to be gay is in the bars or at Entre Amigos.
Gay relationships don’t seem to last long, observed William. “They date for a couple of months and then look for some new. My partner Joaquin and I have been together for 25 years and the young ones say it must be boring. So they cruise and change partner like clothes.”
William and Joaquin (photo right) have had no problems from their immediate or large extended families, after their initial adjustment, or from their neighbors who all know they live as a couple. “The secret is to be friendly and helpful,” Joaquin said. As a family they are close but it was a surprise even to William and Joaquin when one of William’s twin daughters came out as a lesbian four years ago. “I had no idea although her mother had thought so for several years, “ he laughed.
Caution is always the key word for any LGBT person who ventures to the gay venues at night. William described how thieves enter a bar or disco, observe certain people (who dress well and buy drinks) and ‘mark’ them for robbery when they leave, even if they hail a taxi. It all happens so fast, usually at knife point sometimes at gun point, the thieves strike and are gone quickly. If a victim resists he may wind up injured or dead on the street. Often the thieves work in small groups or in gangs.
The advice is first not to carry much money and no valuables and second not to resist and hand over whatever cash they have. Street sex workers, male and female, are also easy targets but they learn fast how to minimize their value to thieves by carrying no money, being playful or campy, or offering a quickie behind a bush. It’s hard to rob someone with nothing to lose and who can offer a bit of pleasure.
Needless to say, disease transmission is risky under such circumstance so Entre Amigos’ work becomes all the more important to these high-risk groups, including the night sharks.
Also see this excellent video of Entre Amigo in action at night.
Surprisingly, William has noticed that muggings and attacks have reduced in recent months. He thought it might be a result of decreased anti-gay provocation by the church and the media. ‘Gay’ is not the outrage it once was although it’s always good for political distraction or police show of machismo.
Part 3: Nicolas and El Salvadorg.com
Closely aligned with but not part of Entre Amigos is the website ElSalvadorg.com (with a ‘g’), an independent LGBT effort put together by Nicholas Rodriquez, a gay businessman in his thirties and a life-long resident of San Salvador. We first met at a restaurant in the upscale modern MetroCenter mall on the outskirts of San Salvador where the more affluent people live.
MetroCenter is one of Central America’s largest chains of attractive malls with hundreds of small and large glossy stores, game shops, phone sales centers, clothing stores and trendy restaurants (some from America such as KFC and Pizza Hut) on different colorful levels and arranged at different angles. The shopping and entertainment mall in the 20th century has replaced the town common of centuries past.
And where most people gather to meet, shop, eat or browse, a few use the location to cruise other people for intimate matters. San Salvador is no different. MetroCenter is one of the most popular and safest places for gays to cruise. Sitting at a window table in Tony Roma’s we watched the occasional stroll of singles and doubles making moves to interest other guys.
Nicolas decided two years ago that El Salvador needed a wider option to the ‘hardscape’ of Entre Amigos’ social work. With his own money and the help of a technician they built an active new website with current events and information on important LGBT issues: ElSalvadorg.com.
He noted that Entre Amigos appeals to commercial sex workers, transgenders and working class MSM gay people. Appreciating that, Nicholas wanted to offer a service, a virtual place, for middle class gays (i.e., people with computers). “The poor have little status to risk in being gay but the middle class are forced to lead double lives to hide their truth, especially the married ones.” It’s these covert gays that Nicholas wants to reach out toward, among others, to make them feel not alone if they choose to come out and stop hiding.
As for the upper class, “they keep to their own group and don’t go to the gay places much. They’re afraid to be seen. They have private parties and friends. The only mixing of the classes is if someone hires a hustler for sex, but after they get what they want the boy gets paid and the mixing ends. It’s sad but that’s how it often is in a machismo society. A friend of mine says about the rich ones who hide, ‘I will fuck you but I won’t kiss you because I’m not gay!’ So their money protects them.”
But not always. Among upper class gays there is sometimes an ‘open secret’ that’s known but kept hushed. A scandal erupted several years ago when an airline president who had an open secret was found murdered by a hustler he picked up at MetroCenter. The police and press spun the story as a robbery to maintain the reputation of people in high places. They played up the fact that he was a devoted family man.
So the age-old shell game of sex and money is played out here as well. What has priority in one’s life, erotic desire or financial protection? Sometimes the mix can be deadly.
A New Venue for Gays
Articulate and enthusiastic about this current project, Nicolas described his intentions. “I felt a need for a virtual connection among gays people here as a social focus group especially for young people and as a way to expand the HIV prevention message. Issues such as coming out and finding resources are important and except for Entre Amigos there’s no other social place to go.
“So I have posted information about health, safe sex, self-esteem, human rights, currents social events and a forum as well as some poetry. I also intend to have a newsletter to send to members who sign up and advertise the site with posters in the gay places.”
(Another website, GayElSalvador.com has been up for about 10 years but is not the same as ElSalvadorg.com.)
In the relatively short time the site has been up, Nicolas has impressed others with his work including the current San Salvadorian foreign minister who has invited Nicholas to help draw up a human rights strategy that is in line with United Nations standards. (photo left: fishmonger totally uninterested in gay rights)
The country receives a substantial amount of foreign assistance that often comes with attached human rights conditions to address HIV issues as well as recognition of LGBT citizens as a valid minority deserving outreach. Since Nicolas’ mission is to reduce homophobia he welcomed the request.
Additionally, Nicolas and William from EntreAmios have met with the secretary of state to be reassured of the newly elected FMLN party’s support for equal human rights (the FMLN are formerly guerilla insurgents who laid down their arms and became a political opposition party in the nineties) FMLN is more gay friendly than the opposition party and made outreach to gay citizens during the election. This was a welcome change from the previous ruling government, the Republicans, who tried to pass anti-gay marriage legislation but failed.
Part 4: LGBT Presence in El Salvador
Aside from Entre Amigos LGBT activism does not have a strong presence in El Salvador but Nicolas intends to counteract that with his strategic plan which includes spreading awareness of ElSalvadorg.com, promoting LGBT tourism, networking with foreign LGBT organizations to build capacity and effectiveness, and to change local perception of some government officials that LGBT people are not threatening since they are a tiny fraction of the population.
The misperception of LGBTs is based on ignorance of the socio-sexual reality that only around 8% of El Salavadorian men are fully gay or are closeted bisexuals (mostly married men) who pay taxes and produce a lot of commercial value. Again, his higher mission is to reduce homophobia in this machismo Catholic society, a thankless task that will take a small army of volunteers and a shift in the cultural mindset. (photo right: androgenous shoe vendor in city center)
L’Organization Mondiale sponsored the extensive study that came up with the 8% figure; the same study showed the high rate of fathers who abandon their girlfriends and wives after they give birth and want little or nothing to do with being a responsible father, hence the high occurrence of single mothers and absent fathers in many Salvadorian family units.
In recent years gay venues have opened and closed in the capital city. Currently Nicholas reported to me (and posted on the website) several live ones as of 2010 including three discos, four bars, one sauna and a soon-to-open gay owned restaurant.
So, being gay in El Salvador today, what’s it like? “It depends on one’s age,” said Nicolas. “The young ones are more courageous and come out and come out earlier instead of crowding up the closets. They feel more encouraged by what they see and read from abroad. There are so many foreign NGOs here that the LGBTG model is not something alien to the young ones.”
El Salvador also has rugged mountains, wild forests and wide open beaches such as this one at Libertad on the Pacific.