On Palm Sunday, Bondings 2.0 promised a full report on the recently held first national conference on LGBT human rights in El Salvador. New Ways Ministry’s Sister Jeannine Gramick, co-founder, and Francis DeBernardo, executive director, participated as speakers on faith issues.
This week, The National Catholic Reporter printed an essay by DeBernardo, reporting on his impressions of this historic meeting. He begins by describing the mood at the event:
“On the day after the first Jesuit and the first Latin American was elected pope, I was fortunate to be on the University of Central America campus, a Jesuit school in El Salvador. The excitement on campus that day was electric and the student body was abuzz with energy.
“But the excitement was not about the new pope. That news seemed like an afterthought compared to the event beginning that day on campus.
Gathered in the school’s Segundo Montes, SJ, Auditorium (named for one of the six Salvadoran Jesuit martyrs assassinated at the school in 1989), some 350 people took part in El Salvador’s first national conference on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights. The March 14-15 conference, “Felicidad y Diversidad Sexual como Derechos Humanos” (“Happiness and Sexual Diversity as Human Rights”), was sponsored by ALDES El Salvador (Asistencia Legal para la Diversidad Sexual de El Salvador). It brought together lawyers, legal scholars, politicians, faith leaders and LGBT advocates to move forward El Salvador’s burgeoning LGBT human rights movement. By the end of the second day, more than 1,000 people had participated in this meeting in San Salvador, the nation’s capital. My colleague, longtime Catholic LGBT advocate Loretto Sr. Jeannine Gramick, and I were part of the program, presenting the topic of “Faith Communities as Promoters of Human Rights.”
“That first morning, the atrium echoed with voices filled with enthusiasm to begin the two days of meetings. The registration line snaked around the reception area and the aisles in the auditorium were filled with people sitting on the steps. Strangers welcomed one another, eager to meet the people with whom they would be sharing this event. In Spanish and English, people greeted each other, not letting even language become a barrier to the camaraderie.”
The conference organization was a joint effort between U.S. and El Salvador personnel, and it was significant that it was being hosted by a Catholic campus:
“The conference was a joint effort between activists and legal specialists in the United States and El Salvador. Ana Montano, a Salvadoran woman who is an immigration and LGBT rights lawyer in San Francisco, was aided in conference preparation by John Marrin and Danielle Mackey, two organizers from the United States who live in El Salvador. Lawyers and legal scholars from both nations presented at the meeting, discussing ways that professionals in both countries could help one another.
“Though faith was only a small segment of the conference’s program, the participants were keenly aware that the nation’s leading Catholic university was hosting the event. Omar Serrano, the campus’ vice rector for social outreach, welcomed the conference, saying that it was “an honor” to host the program, and acknowledged that church institutions could do more for LGBT rights, including “asking forgiveness” for previous inaction. All attendees were keenly aware of how faith groups have helped to spread homophobia; being welcomed to a Catholic campus was an important positive sign that was not lost on the participants.”
DeBernardo describes the human rights situation for LGBT people in El Salvador:
“The human rights situation for LGBT people in El Salvador is as bleak as it was in the United States 40 years ago. Violence, murder, ostracism and economic deprivation are all too common for those who choose to be public about their sexuality and gender identity. The ‘machismo’ factor in Latin culture augments the repression sexual minorities experience.
Because people are fearful of coming forward after a violation of their rights, cases do not get prosecuted, and statistics reflect this underreporting. That the atmosphere is still so repressive made the fact that the conference was happening all the more remarkable. And the courage of the presenters to discuss their work and personal stories publicly was all the more inspiring. An American participant told me, ‘People in El Salvador ‘come out’ at the risk of their own lives. In the U.S., we ‘come out’ at the risk of temporary hurt feelings.’ “
“Though the social atmosphere may seem to someone from the United States as if El Salvador were ‘behind the times,’ in some ways it is way ahead of its large and liberal Northern neighbor. For example, transgender issues were front and center at this conference, definitely a main part of the agenda. When I attend conferences in the U.S. on LGBT topics, transgender issues often feel like an afterthought. Similarly, intersex people (those born with genitalia and secondary characteristics of both genders) were also well-represented — something that I have seen only once at meetings in the U.S.”
And the conference ended on a joyful and optimistic note:
“By the end of the conference, Montano, the emcee, joyously announced that during the two days, the first Salvadoran lawyer agreeing to work on LGBT rights cases on a pro bono basis came forward — a necessity given the economic challenges of the populace. Montano was optimistic that this lawyer would be the first of many more. She was also optimistic about the future of the conference. Her words of farewell to participants: ‘Hasta el año próximo’ — ‘Until next year.’ “
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry