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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 Los Angeles 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 Los Angeles 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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Central America

Victory Fund honors gay Guatemalan congressman

Aldo Dávila a vocal critic of country’s government

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Guatemalan Congressman Aldo Dávila speaks at the 2021 International LGBTQ Leaders Conference after he received the Global Trailblazer Award. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

WASHINGTON — The Victory Fund on Friday honored an openly gay Guatemalan congressman who has faced death threats because of his efforts to fight corruption in his country.

Dávila — a member of the Winaq movement, a leftist party founded by Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner — in 2019 became the first openly gay man elected to Guatemala’s congress. Dávila, who also lives with HIV, had previously been the executive director of Asociación Gente Positiva, a Guatemala City-based HIV/AIDS service organization.

Supporters of President Alejandro Giammattei have lodged several formal complaints against Dávila after he publicly criticized the government over corruption, its response to the pandemic and other issues.

Three men on April 19 approached Dávila’s vehicle near Guatemala’s National Library and tried to rob him. One of Dávila’s bodyguards shot one of the men, but the two other assailants fled the scene before police officers and passersby arrived.

Dávila told the Los Angeles Blade in September during an interview at a Guatemala City hotel that he and his partner installed cameras in their apartment after someone killed their dog.

Two female police officers who arrived at the hotel with Dávila sat in the lobby while he spoke with the Blade. The government a few weeks later reduced his security detail.

“Guatemala is living through the worst democratic crisis in the last 40 years,” said Dávila after he accepted the Victory Fund’s Global Trailblazer Award at its 2021 International LGBTQ Leaders Conference that is taking place in-person at the JW Marriott in downtown D.C. “Guatemala right now is being paralyzed by corruption and impunity and my voice is uncomfortable because of this.”

Dávila became emotional at the end of his remarks.

“I will keep fighting for our rights,” he said.

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Central America

Gay man elected to Honduran congress

Víctor Grajeda will serve as Congresswoman-elect Silvia Ayala’s substitute

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Victor Grajeda (Foto cortesía de Víctor Grajeda)

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — An openly gay man in Honduras made history on Sunday when he won a seat in the country’s Congress.

Grajeda will serve alongside Congresswoman-elect Silvia Ayala of the leftist Free Party (Partido Libre), who represents Cortés department in which the city of San Pedro Sula is located, as her substitute.

Reportar sin Miedo, the Los Angeles Blade’s media partner in Honduras, and Agencia Presentes, reported Grajeda received more than 100,000 votes. Grajeda is one of five openly LGBTQ candidates who ran for Congress.

“I am looking to open spaces and eliminate discrimination based on sexual orientation or identity,” said Grajeda.

Tegucigalpa Mayor Nasry Asfura, a member of outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández’s ruling National Party (Partido Nacional), on Tuesday conceded defeat to President-elect Xiomara Castro of the Free Party.

Castro’s husband, former President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted from power in a 2009 coup.

Activists with whom the Blade has spoken say LGBTQ Hondurans continue to flee the country and migrate to the U.S. in order to escape rampant violence and discrimination and a lack of employment and educational opportunities. Castro, among other things, has publicly endorsed marriage rights for same-sex couples in Honduras.

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Central America

Gay Guatemalan congressman ‘scared’ for his life

Aldo Dávila a vocal critic of country’s president, corruption

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Guatemalan Congressman Aldo Dávila participates in a protest in Guatemala City in 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

GUATEMALA CITY — A gay Guatemalan congressman who is a vocal critic of his country’s president and corruption says he is afraid for his life.

“I am scared of what may happen with so much persecution against me,” Aldo Dávila told the Los Angeles Blade on Sept. 10 during an interview at a Guatemala City hotel. “I am scared for my life, for my partner, for my family and for my team.”

Dávila — a member of the Winaq movement, a leftist party founded by Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner — in 2019 became the first openly gay man elected to Guatemala’s congress. Dávila, who also lives with HIV, had previously been the executive director of Asociación Gente Positiva, a Guatemala City-based HIV/AIDS service organization.

Three men on April 19 approached his vehicle while it was stopped at a traffic light near Guatemala’s National Library and tried to rob him.

One of Dávila’s bodyguards who was driving shot one of the men. The other two men fled the scene before passersby and police officers arrived.

Dávila was not injured, but he later said in a Facebook post that he is “thankful for life.” Dávila told the Blade that Guatemalan authorities have not thoroughly investigated the attack.

“I requested an armored car after the attack, but I have not received it yet,” said Dávila, who arrived at the hotel with two female police officers who sat in the lobby while he spoke with the Blade. “This has not been resolved, even though it was in April. It is very complicated.”

Dávila said Culture Minister Felipe Aguilar, Congress President Allan Rodríguez and other supporters of President Alejandro Giammattei have lodged nine formal complaints against him after he publicly criticized the government over a variety of issues that include its response to the pandemic.

“It has been a systematic attack against me,” said Dávila.

Dávila told the Blade that he and his partner installed cameras in their apartment after someone killed their dog. Dávila also said he continues to receive death threats online and at his home.

“We are going to kill you, we are going to shut you up,” said Dávila, referring to the type of threats he says he receives.

“They send me little messages, I am clearly making those who are corrupt very uncomfortable,” added Dávila.

Prominent transgender activist murdered in June

Discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity remains commonplace in Guatemala.

Dávila told the Blade that 21 LGBTQ people have been reported killed in Guatemala so far in 2021, including one person who was stoned to death.

Andrea González, executive director of Organización Trans Reinas de la Noche, a trans advocacy group, was shot to death in Guatemala City on June 11, days after Vice President Kamala Harris visited the country. The U.S. Embassy in Guatemala and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power both condemned González’s murder, but Dávila told the Blade there has been “no investigation.”

“It’s one more case about which to forget, unfortunately,” said Dávila.

Dávila also noted he has met with officials who include representatives of the National Civil Police, the Public Ministry and the National Institute for Forensic Sciences “to ask what they are doing” to combat anti-LGBTQ violence in the country.

“This is serious,” he said.

Organización Trans Reinas de la Noche Executive Director Andrea González in D.C. when she participated in the State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program. She was killed in Guatemala City on June 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

‘People don’t migrate because they want to’

Menchú, Visibles Executive Director Daniel Villatoro and Ingrid Gamboa of the Association of Garifuna Women Living with HIV/AIDS are among the 18 members of Guatemalan civil society who participated in the roundtable with Harris while she was in the country. The U.S. vice president met with Giammattei before the event.

Harris has previously acknowledged that violence based on sexual orientation and gender identity is among the “root causes” of migration from Guatemala and other Central American countries. Harris and other Biden administration officials have also told migrants not to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“People migrate because states don’t have the capacity to respond to the most basic needs,” said Dávila. “People don’t migrate because they want to. People don’t migrate because (they say) today I am going to go to the United States because I have nothing to do. They don’t go on vacation. They go in search of health, work, security and economic resources to be able to sustain themselves.”

“Guatemala has not had the capacity to retain Guatemalans because it doesn’t offer them the minimum to be able to live,” he added.

Dávila described Harris’ visit to Guatemala as “important.”

He said Guatemalans are “eternally grateful for the” COVID-19 vaccines the U.S. has donated to the country. Dávila added he would like Washington to “take a look at the human rights violations that are happening in” the country and further sanction those who are responsible for them.

Giammattei earlier this year named his chief of staff to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.

The U.S. has granted asylum to former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who the Constitutional Court refused to allow to run for president in 2019 after prosecutors alleged she embezzled money from a building purchase. The Biden administration in July stopped working with current Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ office after it fired Juan Francisco Sandoval, a leading anti-corruption prosecutor who subsequently fled the country.

The U.S. has imposed travel bans on a number of Guatemalan officials, but Dávila said these sanctions are not effective.

“We want clearer, more drastic sanctions,” he said. “The U.S. has been a historical ally for Guatemala, not just since yesterday, not from five years ago … it has been economically and financially supporting this country for a long time. The United States can impose more drastic sanctions against the government so the government stops being corrupt, so the government does not fight against migration.”

A monument to migrants in Salcajá, Guatemala, on March 9, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Dávila told the Blade he has not decided whether he will run for a second term in 2023.

Dávila said he has had “some problems” with the Winaq movement over funding for hospitals during the pandemic, but he remains a member. Dávila told the Blade he has received invitations to join other political parties.

“I am thinking about it and evaluating all the scenarios,” he said.

Dávila added he remains “very proud to be part of the opposition in the history of this country.”

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