by Martin Garat
New charter prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.
It's not easy being gay in Bolivia. Violence, harassment, and workplace discrimination are daily occurrences. But homophobia is slowly being worn down, say Alberto Raña and Alberto Moscoso, of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual rights group, the "Freedom" Civil Association for Social Development and Promotion of Culture.
"My father confronted me one day: ‘A lot of your friends are homosexuals. Are you gay too? Tell me the truth!’" recalled Raña, who works in the organization’s press department.
"’Yes, I'm gay!’ I yelled back. It was a shock to my parents," he said of them, his mother a religious Catholic and his very conservative father.
Despite the political shift to the left when President Evo Morales took office more than three years ago, Bolivian society remains deeply conservative. Both the Catholic Church and Evangelical churches are "heavy weights" in Bolivian ideology, and consider that homosexuality is an illness that must be cured.
When Raña came out of the closet in the early 1990s, there were no gay rights organizations in Bolivia. There were groups of homosexual friends who met discreetly to organize parties, but not to get involved in politics. When he lived in Argentina he met friends who encouraged him to stop hiding his sexual orientation.
"Buenos Aires is another world," he said. "There's a different mentality there and a lot of openness. I met a lot of people who I was able to identify with and they helped me make the decision to live openly as a homosexual."
Raña has worked for the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals, known collectively at GLBT, for eight years. He doesn't make much money, but he is relieved that he doesn't work in an office where he would have to hide his identity.
"I would have to have a low profile and even 'go back into the closet' so I wouldn't lose my job," he said. "If you're gay, you're thrown out or they discriminate against you. For teachers, it is essential to hide your homosexuality in schools. When a school principal refuses to fire a homosexual teacher, the parents of the students pressure him to," he remembered.
Moscoso, the organization's president, said the group is constantly counting cases of unjust firings. These cases can be denounced publicly in the courts, but often, the victim prefers to keep the case private.
Moscoso has officiated the symbolic marriages of many homosexual couples. He laments the constitutional article on marriage but says for him, "the important thing is that the same rights are recognized. It doesn't matter if you call it "marriage," "union," or "concubinage." A legal tie between people of the same sex could be created with a law without it being established by the Magna Carta."
Still, Moscoso notes significant advances in GLBT rights.
The new constitution, for example, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and establishes sexual and reproductive rights for all citizens.
"Now, the state is secular, before it was expressly Catholic, and this will help the creation of new laws that are more in favor of the GLBT community," he said.
Only 10 years ago, homosexuality was still a taboo topic in Bolivia. During his adolescence he was convinced he was the only homosexual in the whole country.
"I had a dictionary that had an article on the term 'homosexual,' illustrated with photos," he remembered. "Since the dictionary was published in Spain, I came to think that I would have to live in Spain to get to know other homosexuals."
But today, homophobic attitudes have started to let up, agreed Raña and Moscoso. It's a slow process but they are optimistic.
"The young people, particularly, have fewer prejudices. They are not as pigeonholed by religion and they live more freely," Raña said.
Moscoso met with other organizations and government representatives to try to work together to protect GLBT rights. Moscoso's organization was able to include a chapter on the rights regardless of sexual orientation in a national plan against discrimination.
Despite these advances, it's still dangerous to be homosexual in Bolivia. In 2007, three homosexuals were killed, apparently for their sexual orientation. This year, an individual threw a bomb at participants in a gay march in La Paz, wounding three people. Moscoso was one of the victims.
"The bomb fell a meter from my body and left me with scars on my stomach and chest," Moscoso said. "There are religious groups that are trying to impede our parades. But now, other members of the public are trying to silence these groups and disrupt them." —Latinamerica Press.