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LGBTQ youth find refuge at church-run shelter in El Salvador

Hogar Santa Marta opened in August

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Hogar Santa Marta (Washington Blade photo by Ernesto Valle)

The Washington Blade published a Spanish version of this article on Oct. 25.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — LGBTQ youth in El Salvador frequently face violence in their families and communities, and this abuse often happens with impunity. Many of these community members have either fled their homes or have been kicked out of them because they are not accepted for who they are.

A shelter that supports this vulnerable population has opened.

The Anglican Episcopal Church of El Salvador in 2009 created its Sexual Diversity Ministry, a pastoral mission that brings together LGBTQ people and their communities. The ministry has become a space in which everyone can live their faith free of discrimination.

Hogar Santa Marta opened in August, and is one of the ministry’s initiatives.

Bishop Juan David Alvarado of the Anglican Episcopal Church of El Salvador told the Washington Blade this project responds to human needs, especially when there is so much injustice. He said the shelter is a temporary home for young people as they work to solve their problems or find a way to better themselves.

“We as a church wanted to give an answer to LGBTQ people who have suffered human rights violations,” said Alvarado.

Hogar Santa Marta has already helped a number of LGBTQ young people. Three of them moved into the shelter and others have been able to receive assistance at their time of need.

“Our first option is that people do not necessarily have to experience family abandonment, so it is about achieving a conciliation with families,” explained Cruz Torres, coordinator of the Anglican Episcopal Church of El Salvador’s Sexual Diversity Ministry. He added the goal is to allow these young people to remain with their families.

Young people as of now primarily contact the shelter through its social media networks. A technical team evaluates the cases and then determines the way to proceed with each of them based on whether they are victims of violence or forced displacement or have been kicked out of their homes.

“This method of using networks has been deliberate in order to control our growth and not to have an immediate saturation,” said Hogar Santa Marta Director Eduardo Madrid, who explained the shelter’s opening was delayed because it was not ready to support young people who need support.

Helen Jacobo, the shelter’s psychologist, and Madrid created a protocol to determine the process to use with a person who is seeking help.

The technical team creates a profile of the person when it establishes contact with them and notes the situation in which they are living. It then passes this information along to the psychologist who will then schedule an interview.

“We can find out about their support networks, if they have a shelter or a safe place (to live) through a small interview,” said Jacobo.

‘I feel more complete and more secure’

Carlos, 25, sought the shelter’s support because of a series of the problems the pandemic made worse.

“I had to leave my house because of mistreatment, insults and beatings,” he recalled.

Carlos said he was relieved to arrive at a safe place, and even more so when he knew that he would have a lot of support.

“They have provided me with a lot of services, such as psychosocial support and I will get a job very soon,” he said with joy.

The shelter first offers its residents a place to live with access to regular meals and psychological therapy to address the traumas they have experienced. The shelter also accepts donations to provide residents with their basic needs.

“For my part I am very grateful, we have worked on ourselves as a person,” said Carlos with an assured look that conveys happiness from behind a face mask with a smile drawn onto it. He also expressed that he is grateful the shelter allowed him to live there with his pet that he took with him when he left his house.

Religion is not imposed upon the shelter’s residents, even though a church group created it.

“If you want to believe, you believe,” said Carlos. “They don’t impose religion on you.”

“I feel more complete and more secure,” he added, while saying that he has learned to put himself first. “That has been the most noticeable change that I have been able to have.”

With this self-empowerment in mind, the second stage for the shelter’s residents is to learn how to fight for their rights and know how to maintain them. Sustainable relocation, family awareness and creating a life plan are also part of this effort.

Alejandro, 23, has already been able to leave the shelter with the technical team’s support. He was able to get a job and find a new place to live.

He learned about the shelter from a friend who is a member of the Anglican Episcopal Church of El Salvador. The friend helped him present his case and he became the first young person to live in the shelter.

“Even though I was only there for a month, I felt the necessary support from the whole team,” says Alejandro.

He said he feels very involved with the shelter because he is its first successful case.

Alejandro said he had the opportunity during his first meetings to propose ideas about how the shelter can approach future cases. Alejandro added it was very rewarding to him that both the director and the psychologist took his thoughts into account.

Now that he has been able to find a job, Alejandro said he will do everything he can to remain stable. He will particularly rely on the psychological support the shelter still provides him, which is the third stage of its work. This support lasts for up to a year after admission and is supported through an alliance with NGO’s, the government and private companies.

Hogar Santa Marta clients (Washington Blade photo by Ernesto Valle)

Strategic alliances

Hogar Santa Marta has made a variety of strategic alliances that allow it to carry out its work. One of them is with the U.N.’s International Organization for Migrants and specifically with its Integrated Responses on Migration from Central America project.

The shelter hopes to use this partnership to further develop a psychosocial program that will be able to help more vulnerable LGBTQ youth. Hogar Santa Maria hopes it can use some of these same strategies that IOM uses.

“Some of the instruments that they have specifically respond to psychological issues,” Jacobo explained.

Hogar Santa Marta’s programs have been made available to IOM in order to improve the way it views sexual diversity-related issues. They also hope to receive support for when they implement a group management program once more LGBTQ youth live in the shelter.

Rosalinda Solano, the national coordinator of the IOM project, said she is very interested in following up on the in-home work and hopes to enter into a collaboration with the shelter, such as the one that provides psychosocial support to LGBTQ people who have been returned to the country.

“We have also managed to identify other possible links, through profiles that can be linked to job opportunities,” she said.

Solano said the project seemed to be something very innovative and needed in the country, which does not have anything else. She hopes it will do something that has not been done before in El Salvador.

“It takes a fairly comprehensive approach, not it is just providing shelter,” she said.

There are two other shelters in El Salvador that specifically serve the LGBTQ community—ASPIDH ARCOIRIS TRANS’ Casa Trans and COMCAVIS TRANS’ Casa Refugio Karla Avelar—but they primarily serve displaced transgender women. Hogar Santa Marta is the first LGBTQ shelter in El Salvador that a church created.

“Young people see home with great hope for a new life,” said Alvarado.

The shelter can be found at Facebook as Santa Marta LGBT and on Instagram as @santamartalgbt. There is a link to a GoFundMe account there where donations can be made.

“We as a church recognize LGBTIQ+ people’s prophetic voice and we accept God’s call to care, direct and guide all people who face social injustice,” said Alvarado.

Hogar Santa Marta staff (Washington Blade photo by Ernesto Valle)
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Africa

Uganda lawmaker: International agreement has ‘hidden clauses’ to promote homosexuality

Deputy Parliament Speaker Thomas Tayebwa made comment at Mozambique conference

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Deputy Uganda Parliament Speaker Thomas Tayebwa (Screen capture via Next Media Uganda YouTube)

Several LGBTQ and intersex rights groups in Uganda have sharply criticized Deputy Parliament Speaker Thomas Tayebwa’s assertion that an agreement between the European Union and the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States has “hidden clauses” designed to promote homosexuality.

Tayebwa made the remarks during the 42nd session of the Organization of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) — EU Joint Parliamentary Assembly that took place in Maputo, Mozambique, from Oct. 29-Nov. 2.

“We have discovered that with the Cotonou Agreement — an agreement between the EU and OACPS based on three complementary pillars: Development cooperation, economic and trade cooperation and the political dimension — there are hidden clauses concerning human rights,” said Tayebwa. “Clauses to do with sexuality, promotion of LGBT or homosexuality and clauses to do with abortion. We are a society that is not ready for homosexuality and we are a society that is not ready for abortion. It can never be accepted in Uganda.”

“It’s not a surprise to me and most of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community at large in Uganda that the deputy speaker of Parliament made such homophobic comments because the government he represents is homophobic too,” said Happy Family Uganda Executive Director Iga Isma. “According to me, he has no right to think about our own lifestyle. Everyone lives a life that they naturally want. If someone doesn’t eat meat, it does not mean that everyone doesn’t. I am in full support of donor countries to stop funding African countries that fail to legalize same sex relationships however, we might be affected too.” 

Pastor Ram Gava Kaggwa from Adonai Inclusive Christian Ministries, who is the executive director of Wave of Legacy Alliance Initiative Uganda, said sexual orientation does not have anything to do with whether one is African or not.

“Sexual orientation totally differs based on personal desires and wishes, it’s time to change the biased perspective on our sexual differences, just because you are practicing a different sexual narrative does not necessarily mean the other is wrong otherwise we are bound to see the spread of gender-based violence due to differences in sexual identity which may and can arise from hate speech spread through the heteronormative narrative which is taught in a manner that does not create room for respect of sexual differences,” said Kaggwa. “It is important to acknowledge the differences, variations and diversities of the community and modern-day society and respect each other regardless of such differences for we are all human and this is what exactly bonds us regardless of the different beliefs and values embodied in us.”

Kaggwa further encouraged lawmakers in Uganda and across Africa “to let and affirmatively acknowledge the rights and existence of 2SLGBTQIA+ persons and their rights at a common law level.” 

Buwande Anthony, executive director of the Uganda Youth Society for Human Rights, said Tayebwa does not speak for Africa since African countries are sovereign states with different legal systems.

“The remarks by the deputy speaker of the Parliament of Uganda can only be attributed to hypocrisy that is normally exhibited by government officials during overseas tours, if not, it was an act of ignorance of the provisions of the Constitution of Uganda,” noted Anthony. “Article 24 of the Ugandan Constitution and the Article of the African Charter on Human and Peoples rights provides against inhuman and degrading treatment. The above provisions have laid a foundation against any enactment by the state or individual initiatives against violation of individual human rights of citizens and non-citizens in Uganda.”

“Furthermore, Hon. Thomas Tayebwa cannot purport to speak for Africa since African countries are sovereign States which are governed by different legal dispensations, and whereas some African countries have moved a notch higher to respect their citizens’ human rights, others are still slow and struggling,” he added. “Therefore, it can only be fair that he speaks for Uganda where he is deputy speaker of Parliament.”

Uganda is among the African countries in which consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized.

President Yoweri Museveni in February 2014 signed into law a bill that sought to impose a life sentence upon anyone found guilty of repeated same-sex sexual acts. The Obama administration subsequently cut or redirected aid to Uganda and announced a travel ban against Ugandan officials responsible for human rights abuses. The World Bank also postponed a $90 million loan to the Ugandan government after Museveni signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act.

The Ugandan Constitutional Court subsequently struck down the law. 

Daniel Itai is the Washington Blade’s Africa Correspondent.

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Russia

Report: Brittney Griner transferred to Russian penal colony

Reuters noted WNBA star is in country’s Mordovia region

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Reuters on Thursday reported WNBA star Brittney Griner is now in a penal colony in Russia’s Mordovia region.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department has determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

A Russian court on Aug. 4 convicted Brittney Griner of smuggling drugs into the country and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony. An appellate court on Oct. 25 denied Brittney Griner’s appeal.

American officials have publicly acknowledged their willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence in Russia after his conviction for spying.

Brittney Griner’s lawyers earlier this month said authorities were transferring her to a penal colony. 

Her whereabouts had not been known for nearly two weeks. 

Reuters reported Brittney Griner is now at a female penal colony in Yavas, a city in Russia’s Mordovia region that is roughly 300 miles southeast of Moscow. Reuters noted Whelan is at a penal colony in the same area.

“We are aware of reports of her location, and in frequent contact with Ms. Griner’s legal team,” a State Department spokesperson told the Washington Blade on Thursday. “However, the Russian Federation has still failed to provide any official notification for such a move of a U.S. citizen, which we strongly protest. The embassy has continued to press for more information about her transfer and current location.”

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European Union

Gay Lithuania filmmaker uses work to advance LGBTQ, intersex rights

Romas Zabarauskas came out in 2011 at Vilnius Film Festival

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Romas Zabarauskas (Photo by Arcana Femina)

A gay filmmaker from Lithuania who describes himself as the “Baltic enfant terrible” uses his work to promote LGBTQ and intersex rights.

Romas Zabarauskas, 32, grew up in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital.

He told the Washington Blade during an interview in D.C. in August that he initially wanted to be an actor, but soon realized he wanted to direct films. 

Zabarauskas said the classic films — including John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos” and Douglas Sirk’s “All that Heaven Allows” —he watched in a local library exposed him to “the diversity of the world.” He also said Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, Gregg Araki and other LGBTQ and intersex filmmakers “inspired” him.

“I enjoyed the diversity of the world,” he said. “It wasn’t just in terms of sexuality and gender identity, but also in terms of diversity of styles and ways of expression. It was amazing because it made me feel accepted.”

“It all sounds kind of trivial, but it’s true,” added Zabarauskas. “Cinema captures stories from all across the world in such different ways. That’s kind of amazing. I was definitely inspired by that.”

Zabarauskas studied at Paris 8 Vincennes Saint-Denis University from 2009-2011 and at City College of New York: Hunter College from 2011-2012.

Romas Zabarauskas (Photo by Arcana Femina)

Zabarauskas’ first film, “Porno Melodrama,” which details a gay man’s decision to make a pornographic movie with his ex-girlfriend in order to make enough money for him and his boyfriend to leave Lithuania, premiered at Berlin Film Festival in 2011.

“There are many other films that have this kind of paranoia about gay villains, queer villains. I almost wanted to do something opposite,” Zabarauskas told the Blade while discussing the film. “It’s as though heterosexuality becomes this villain through the character of this villain, this ex-girlfriend. I wanted to play with that, allow myself that freedom to go very far. The title really hints more so, not to the erotic aspect of the film, because it’s not as explicit reality, but it’s more about the style of the film because it’s so out there.”

“Porno Melodrama” (Poster courtesy of Romas Zabarauskas)

Zabarauskas came out as gay during “Porno Melodrama”‘s premiere at the Vilnius Film Festival.

“Very few people were out (in Lithuania) then in 2011,” he noted. “I got a lot of media attention … I talked about what it means to be gay on TV, print and all kinds of media.”

“It was a double-edged sword,” added Zabarauskas. “I was happy to contribute with my openness and I continue to do so today. On the other hand, I got so much pressure … the direct homophobia is understandable and easy to dissect. You know what it is, but then there was a lot of gray zone. I feel like I was trapped. I went under this huge scrutiny.”

The Berlin Film Festival then screened “Porno Melodrama.” 

“I traveled the world, but then because I got so much media attention in Lithuania I was scrutinized by the critics and by film lovers and a lot of people (said) that I’m more of an activist,” said Zabarauskas. “I’m more of a public speaker than a filmmaker. The way I see it: Artists should be engaged or can be engaged, and it doesn’t contradict the art.”

The Lithuanian Film Center funded Zabarauskas’ third feature film, “The Lawyer,” which debuted in 2020.

“The Lawyer” highlights Marius, a gay corporate lawyer who forms what Zabarauskas describes as “an unexpected, human relationship” with Ali, Syrian refugee who is unable to leave Belgrade, Serbia, after his estranged father dies. Zabarauskas noted to the Blade that “The Lawyer” is the first Lithuanian film that portrays a male same-sex relationships and is one of the few made in Eastern Europe that shows LGBTQ and intersex refugees.

“I’m always interested in delving into very complicated political situations, but rather than to educate or send a direct message, I’m looking to find nuance and I’m looking to find interesting human drama,” he said. “I also don’t shy away from the kind of dialogue that they [Marius and Ali] have, in which they criticize [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad. It’s so important not to forget that that was still ongoing and actually its fueled by Russia and by Putin.”

Lithuanian television showed “The Lawyer” for the first time on Nov. 11.

Lithuanian Shorts, in 2021 screened “Porno Melodrama,” which coincided with the film’s revival. Zabarauskas’ films have also been screened at the Tel Aviv International LGBT Film Festival and at New York City Pride’s human rights conference.

“The Lawyer” (Flyer courtesy of Romas Zabarauskas)

Zabarauskas spoke with the Blade nearly six months after Russia began its war against Ukraine.

Lithuania borders the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad and Belarus, whose president, Alexander Lukashenko, is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Lithuania declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, a year before it dissolved.

Zabarauskas noted then-Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė in 2014 labeled Russia a “terrorist state” after it annexed Crimea. Lithuanian MPs in May unanimously approved a resolution that described Russia’s war against Ukraine as an “act of genocide.”

“It’s the first time that I can be so proud of my country,” Zabarauskas told the Blade, referring to Lithuania’s posture towards Russia. “I’m actually very proud that Lithuania is right in terms of its foreign policy towards Russia and has been for a while.”

Zabarauskas acknowledged there is “fear” among Lithuanians about whether Russia will target their country, but he said, “that primal fear isn’t there anymore.” Zabarauskas also noted Lithuanians have welcomed Ukrainians into their homes.

“That’s been inspiring,” he said.

Gay U.S. ambassador ‘setting a personal example’

Lithuania bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and has lifted restrictions for male blood donors who have sex with men. Jessica Stern, the special U.S. envoy for LGBTQ and intersex rights, is among the more than 15,000 people who attended Baltic Pride 2022 in Vilnius in June. 

Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius, the country’s second openly gay MP, is running to become Vilnius’ next mayor in 2023. Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. Audra Plepytė met with Zabarauskas when he was in D.C. 

“Us artists, we have this opportunity to build bridges, to make pressure,” said Zabarauskas. “We sometimes have more freedom than politicians in what we can say and what we can do. I always try to use that in meeting diplomats and politicians and reminding them that the Lithuania LGBT+ is a part of Lithuanian society and we should celebrate our rights and our lives and that’s important.”

Baltic Pride 2022 took place in Vilnius, Lithuania, on June 4, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Tomas Vytautas Raskevičius)

The Harvey Milk Foundation in 2021 honored Zabarauskas for his work. Zabarauskas noted this recognition to the Blade and applauded openly gay U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania Bob Gilchrist’s “personal leadership” on LGBTQ and intersex rights.

“I appreciate his leadership and I appreciate that he’s setting a personal example,” said Zabarauskas. “He’s making some impactful speeches at different events.”

Lithuania is one of only six European Union member states that do not legally recognize same-sex couples.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky in August announced his support for a civil partnership law for same-sex couples. Zabarauskas told the Blade he hopes Lithuanian lawmakers will follow the Ukrainian president’s lead and back an identical measure that has been introduced in Parliament.

“It’s so huge and a lot of people are inspired by those words, including in Lithuania,” said Zabarauskas. “I think it will be impactful in terms of our chances to get the civil unions law passed because it’s going to be very difficult to twist those words.”

Zabarauskas also said he and his fiancé want to get married in Lithuania.

“We got engaged earlier this year and we don’t want to get married abroad because it wouldn’t change anything in Lithuania,” he said.

Romas Zabarauskas (Photo by Arcana Femina)
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