LIMA, Peru — Anita Araujo Rodríguez of the Civil Union Now Collective, a group that supports a bill that would allow same-sex couples in Peru to enter into a civil union, was among those who sought to march to the Peruvian Congress on June 6 to urge lawmakers in the conservative South American country to vote on the measure.
Araujo and other protesters were near Lima’s Plaza San Martín as they were marching towards the Peruvian Congress when police officers lobbed tear gas canisters at them. She was subsequently treated at the hospital for injuries she suffered during the clashes.
“Peru now finds itself in a very difficult situation,” Araujo told the Washington Blade during a Sept. 6 interview at a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean LGBT rights advocates that took place at Cayetano Heredia University in Lima’s Miraflores neighborhood. “We are in a fight against conservatism, against stereotypes, against manifestations.”
Araujo and other Peruvian LGBT rights advocates with whom the Blade spoke during the two-day meeting the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute co-organized lamented the fact LGBT rights in their country lag far behind those found in neighboring Brazil and other Latin American nations.
‘No means of protection’ for LGBT Peruvians
Congressman Carlos Bruce, who came out as gay in May, last year introduced a civil unions bill amid criticism from Lima Archbishop Juan Luís Cipriani and other leading Peruvian religious figures and politicians. Congresswoman Martha Chávez, a supporter of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori who came to power in 1990, and Congressman Julio Rosas, who is a pastor from the city of Huánuco, proposed their own measures as a way to block any potential vote on the out legislator’s measure.
Public Defender Eduardo Vega Luna and Mario Vargas Llosa, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2010, are among those who have backed Bruce’s proposal. In spite of this support, a poll last year found 65 percent of Peruvians oppose any efforts to allow same-sex couples to enter into a civil union.
President Ollanta Humana during his 2011 election campaign promised Cipriani on Peruvian television that he would not approve abortion and what Giovanny Romero Infante, executive director of the Homosexual Movement of Lima, described to the Blade as “any type of right for homosexual couples.”
Bruce and others conceded the civil unions bill is unlikely to pass in the Peruvian Congress.
“It is very worrying that members of Congress that have spoken to us feel the need to present a level of discourse that leaves much to be desired,” Gabriela Zavaleta Vera of the Civil Union Now Collective told the Blade during the Lima meeting. “There have been many homophobic statements, many statements that denote a lot of discrimination and these are based on ignorance. This does not reflect how much we want to move forward as a society.”
Other advocates with whom the Blade spoke in Lima stressed anti-LGBT discrimination and violence remain serious problems throughout the country.
Peruvian law does not ban anti-LGBT discrimination. Lawmakers last year voted overwhelmingly to remove sexual orientation and gender identity and expression from a proposed hate crimes law.
Marxy Condori Marín, a lesbian activist from the city of Arequipa, told the Blade she would not come out at work because her boss would fire her because of her sexual orientation.
“There are not any means of protection for our community,” she said.
The issue is even more acute for trans Peruvians.
Luisa Revilla, a trans advocate from the city of Trujillo, told the Blade many trans people work in hair salons or become prostitutes because they do not have access to any other employment opportunities. Miluska Luzquiños, another trans advocate from the city of Lambayeque, added those who are kicked out of their homes as teenagers because of their gender identity and expression see prostitution as “the only option” available to them.
“Unfortunately trans girls and trans women don’t have the opportunity to be other things,” said Revilla.
Bruce acknowledged to the Blade during a Sept. 4 interview that insecurity and homophobia “exist throughout the country.” He also said police, prosecutors and other officials can do more to respond to anti-LGBT crimes.
“They do not pursue these crimes with the same energy they pursue crimes against heterosexual people,” said Bruce.
Romero noted anti-LGBT police violence remains commonplace throughout the country.
“There are daily situations of systematic violence on the part of the police,” he said.
Churches ‘ignore’ fact Peru is a secular country
Advocates point out the Roman Catholic Church’s close ties to the Peruvian government is one of the reasons LGBT rights have not advanced as far as in neighboring countries.
The Catholic Church receives an annual subsidy of nearly $700,000 from the Peruvian government under a 1980 agreement.
The Peruvian Ministry of Justice each month pays the salaries and pensions of Catholic priests. The country also supports clinics and other church-run groups and institutions.
“The state pays the salaries of the bishops and the cardinal,” Bruce told the Blade. “However Peru is a secular state with freedom of religion. Why do we not pay the salaries of evangelical pastors or Hare Krishna or other religions? Because we are a Catholic state.”
Evangelicals have grown more influential in Peruvian society and politics in recent years.
Romero pointed out to the Blade that 13 percent of Peruvians now identify themselves as evangelicals. This sector is also gaining traction in the country’s Congress.
“We have some declarations from members of Congress that are openly homophobic,” said Araujo. “What is worse is religious members of Congress that have moved a lot of money back so they can organize social mobilizations against (us) in a way that has completely divided the country.”
“Peru is a secular state, but the churches ignore this,” added Condori.
Rosas in March invited Michael Brown, an anti-gay minister from North Carolina, to speak to the Peruvian Congress. The same congressman last year honored Mathew Staver, chair of the Liberty Counsel, in Lima.
Romero told the Blade that anti-LGBT American evangelicals have announced an initiative to help bolster their Peruvian counterparts’ efforts.
“It’s terrible,” Romero told the Blade. “Peru is a center of operations for anti-rights sectors in the region and this program of capacitation that is going to happen throughout the region began in Peru.”
Romero also noted the lack of democratic institutions in Peru has also contributed to the lack of progress on LGBT-specific issues.
Fujimori took office in 1990 amid an ongoing conflict between the Peruvian government and the Shining Star and Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement guerrilla groups.
Romero told the Blade these two organizations had a “social cleansing” policy that targeted gay men, drug addicts, prostitutes and other so-called undesirables.
He said Shining Star and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement carried out mass killings and threatened his organization during the 1990s. Romero further categorized Fujimori’s presidency that ended in 2000 as a “process of dictatorship.”
“It is not that Peru is a democratic space where there human rights and this is a problem for the gays,” he said. “The bigger problem that we confront is Peru is like the idea of the U.S. State Department, a weak democracy where there is no consciousness of rights.”
LGBT advocates divided by political affiliation
Founded in 1982, the Homosexual Movement of Lima is among the oldest LGBT advocacy organizations in Latin America.
The group, which allies itself with Peru’s political left, sought to “normalize” homosexuality. It also launched the country’s first campaigns to curb the AIDS epidemic through the distribution of condoms and other initiatives.
Romero told the Blade his group has backed efforts to promote democracy and the rights of women since its inception. He stressed the Homosexual Movement of Lima is also in “permanent solidarity with the indigenous communities” of Peru.
“MHOL (the Spanish acronym for the Homosexual Movement of Lima) has permanently been close to not only LGBT fights,” said Romero.
The country’s LGBT rights movement began to gain some traction after Fujimori left the country and went into exile in Japan in 2000, but challenges remain.
Peruvian advocacy groups tend to align themselves with a particular political ideology, and activists who join them share these beliefs.
“All the gays that are not on the left are unable to participate in MHOL,” Bruce told the Blade. “If you have a federation of LGBT organizations that includes everyone, they would be much more effective.”
The Homosexual Movement of Lima’s decision to initially oppose Bruce’s civil unions measure sparked criticism among some Peruvian advocates.
Verónica Ferrari, the former president of the Homosexual Movement of Lima, in April resigned.
“The movement is not 16 people that decide everything without being elected, without asking anyone’s permission, without any consultation,” she said in her resignation letter. “The movement is neither a director or a president, the movement is neither a bill nor a public policy that makes no movement. The movement is of everyone and each one of the LGTB people who want a better country.”
Other advocates — particularly those who are trans — have questioned whether the focus on Bruce’s civil unions bill has deflected attention away from other issues.
“We don’t identify with it,” Maricielo Peña, a trans advocate from Lima, told the Blade during the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute-sponsored meeting.
Romero appeared to acknowledge this argument, noting the majority of the 20 Peruvians he said die from AIDS each week are either gay or trans.
“And these trans people or gays, they are generally found living below the poverty line,” he said. “We clearly want marriage equality because people have the right to do what they want with their lives, but in the context of 20 deaths each weeks of trans and gay people from AIDS and that each week there is an anti-gay crime, there are pluralities.”
‘We are forced to fight for our community’s interests’
In spite of the challenges, Peruvian LGBT advocates continue to make progress.
More than 10,000 people in April marched through downtown Lima in support of Bruce’s civil unions bill.
Condori told the Blade that an Arequipa judge last month issued what she described as a “favorable” ruling in a case that involved a lesbian who had been raped to change her sexual orientation.
Both Luzquiños and Redilla are candidates in local and regional elections that will take place across Peru on Oct. 5. They are also among the nearly 300 people who attended the Lima meeting the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund co-organized as part of the LGBT Global Development Partnership the U.S. Agency for International Development launched last year to support advocacy efforts in developing countries.
“We are forced to fight for our community’s interests,” said Redilla. “We are human beings that have ideals. We are professionals, we are capable people and we have to change the image of the people.”
Peruvian LGBT advocates with whom the Blade spoke said they continue to watch efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in the U.S. and other Latin American countries very closely.
“As a Peruvian, as a lesbian and as an activist, it makes me envious,” said Araujo. “Envious that they have had a privilege to have the opportunity to get married, to enjoy the same rights as any other person. We don’t have that here in Peru.”
Romero questioned those activists who feel efforts to secure marriage rights for same-sex couples in Argentina and other Latin American countries will work in Peru. He said this assumption on the part of the organizers of the Lima meeting is among the reasons the Homosexual Movement of Lima did not take part in it.
“In the United States, the experiences of Northern states are not comparable to the Southern states,” said Romero. “We are closer to Central America where homosexuality was criminalized and where there are more experiences with civil wars in recent years.”
Romero nevertheless said the Peruvian LGBT rights movement is more advanced than those found in other countries.
“Clearly there are advances,” he said. “Peru is not Uganda, even though sometimes it appears to be.”