“Now is the Time!”: Struggle for Sexual Diversity in Venezuela
Under Hugo Chávez, there have been many gains in the struggle for liberation, including for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people (LGBT). Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was outlawed in the 1999 Labour Organic Law but anti-discrimination proposals were dropped from the 1999 Constitution due to pressure from the Catholic Church; same-sex couples cannot marry or adopt children and several proposals that would have advanced such struggles were defeated in the Constitutional referendum of 2007. There have always been diverse political currents within the LGBT community, but three years ago, the first revolutionary LGBT collective was formed. We caught up with one of its founding members, activist María Gabriela Blanco, at a meeting of the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Popular Alliance, APR) in Caracas.
— Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber.
Susan Spronk and Jeffery R. Webber (SS and JRW): Can you tell me about how you became involved in the collective?
Maria Gabriela Blanco (MGB): The collective was founded on August 13, 2009. I became involved as an activist years ago when I was working for the government-run publishing house, Fundación Editorial El perro y la rana [Editorial Foundation The Dog and the Frog]. There were six of us who worked at the Editorial [who identified as queer] who were also militants in the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela [United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV] and formed an electoral battle unit (patrulla). We also participated in the organization of workers’ council initiatives. Many of us studied together at university and some of us met our partners there.
One of the first struggles that we were involved in that more explicitly focused on gender identity and sexual orientation was the gender equality law that was debated in the National Assembly. The members of the Assembly called for participation by lesbians, gays and transsexuals; one of the deputies called for our participation because she wanted to include an article in the law which forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We saw this as a great opportunity because we have generally been invisible in the Revolution. But there are still many members of the National Assembly, even those who identify as Chavistas, such as Marelis Peres Marcano, the president of the commission, who say things like, “This is not the right time to discuss such matters because we are talking about the family, men and women.” But Deputies Flor Ríos and Romelia Matute spoke out in favour of our struggle, arguing that sexual identity is fluid and changes over time.
The whole process of debating this law was very annoying because it took so long, six months sitting at the table with no results. The members of the National Assembly had to deal with pressure from all sides, from collectives representing lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals and gays from the right and from the left; at that point there were very few queer collectives on the left. There was only one that was serious, the Divas de Venezuela, which has since joined us. We did not win in our battle for the gender law. We interviewed one of the deputies who supported us, and she told us that we needed to organize and fight.
We were tired of the fact that after 7-8 years of revolution no one was talking about sexual diversity; the revolution is still too conservative. We decided that we needed to do something about it. We contacted one collective but it was clearly a right-wing organization and then we found Divas de Venezuela, which is not an organization that works in a ‘ghetto,’ [she means wealthy neighbourhoods] but one that works right in the heart of the struggle in the barrio ‘23 de enero’ [a poor neighbourhood in Caracas with a long history of revolutionary struggle]. There we found a transsexual dance teacher (called Rummie Quintero) who works with children; she is very well respected in the community. We started to meet with her and to organize.
Amongst us there are many artists, such as a graphic designer and writers. The six of us worked with Rummie, and two or three other queers came along who joined us. We started to paint graffiti in public places in the shape of a clock, which instead of hands had symbols of women with women or men with men to indicate that “Now is the time!” We have created different images that express our diversity and our commitment to revolution, especially to vindicate the struggle of transsexuals because within the patriarchal system that we live in (even more than the capitalist system because patriarchy came first), this struggle is one of the most oppressed amongst us.
Now many others have also joined us from other struggles, such as the Movimiento de Pobladores, or Poor People's Movement (MP) and the campesino movement. We are also part of the APR, which brings together a variety of different movements. Our struggle is not just about diversity; everyone talks about ‘diversity’ since the NGO boom. Transsexuals such as Rummie argued that she does not feel included in this language about ‘diversity’ since it is fundamentally about gender identity. So we decided on the name Alianza sexo-género diversa revolucionaria; we added the ‘revolutionary’ part because we are Chavistas.
We are also clear that we are not defined solely by our sexual orientation and gender identities. This aspect of our identity is the last thing that defines us, because we are also women [and men], afro-descendants, indigenous, poor, and Chavista, but we see our struggle as part of the struggle against the capitalist system that oppresses us. This makes us different from other right-wing queer collectives that only focus on orientation and identity. For example, there is a famous activist called Tamara Adrián, a transsexual who argues for the right to change our names, but she is wealthy. Our struggle is also a class struggle. Our priority is the most oppressed people – the lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans and heterosexuals who are also working-class.
Sometimes other Chavistas criticize us for being ‘anarchists’ because we criticize the government, but we are drawing attention to the discrimination that exists within our movements and the institutions of the state. It is the whole system that needs to change; this change will require more than a law. But we have had some successes in legal battles. We had good experiences working with the renters’ movement to discuss a law related to housing. They invited us to the debate because we had been working with them already. This was a really great experience because there are now two articles in this law prohibiting landlords from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The popular participation law also makes reference to the principle of non-discrimination. The right wing cannot say that there have been no advances for queers. There have been many victories and advances in our struggle under Chávez.
We are currently based in Caracas, and most of our members are from the city. We have a listserv of about 24 people, but there are about 15 of us who are active in person on a regular basis. It is a strength that most of us work, but it is difficult to find a time when everyone can meet. Every Monday evening we meet at the Plaza Bolívar – almost religiously – at the same time. Everyone is welcome to join: lesbians, gays, bisexuals, poly-amorous people, transsexuals, and heterosexuals, too. Now we publish our own political bulletin. We also have a column in Todosadentro, which is a weekly magazine published by the Ministry of Culture, and in Epale, another publication in Caracas. We are writing about sexual sovereignty and sovereignty over our bodies in these columns. We also participate in a radio show called “In Check” [En Jaque] that takes place at 2PM on Tuesdays, every second Tuesday, which we help to co-produce. We have also made appearances on feminist TV shows such as, “Fallopian Tube” [El Entrompe de Falopio], which runs in Caracas and on national television, and a radio program, “Diverse but not Perverse” [Diversos No Perversos], which airs on National Venezuelan Radio.
SS and JRW: Chávez has been talking about ‘socialism’ in Venezuela since 2005. What does ‘socialism’ mean to the collective?
MGB: This is a difficult issue for the collective, not because of the process itself but because Latin America remains very sexist (machista). Not to be too pessimistic, but Venezuela remains very patriarchal. Speaking of the election campaign, for example, there was a bad joke insulting an opposition candidate [a male] as being ‘feminine.’ But it is not correct to make fun of the ‘feminine.’ In the same revolutionary process with a President [Chávez] who identifies as a feminist, who identifies this process as a socialist and feminist process, or as a feminist and socialist process, this is a contradiction. So we have to encourage critical reflection amongst our compañeros, in our neighbourhoods and in our workplaces, to identify this contradiction that they are making fun of the ‘feminine.’ After all, at the base of homophobia is a kind of sexism, to suppose that anything that is feminine about a man is a kind of weakness. This is how we started to approach the problem.
In 2010 Chávez called forth the homosexuals, the youth, to join the process (‘el proceso’). While he was saying this we were recording it, sending it to each other as text messages, and we put it on Facebook. Obviously the right made fun of this. But this kind of discrimination crosses political lines, whether you are revolutionary of not. It affects the left and the right. Once you are in the kitchen, a left-wing sexist is the same as a right-wing sexist, even though there shouldn't be sexism (machismo) on the left. After that moment we had even greater resolution in giving our support to Chávez. He called for us to struggle the same way that he called for the participation of the afro-descendants, the campesinos, the fishermen and the fisherwomen. The fact that he named us meant that our struggles are recognized, although before we would march without anyone seeing us.
Once we formed the ASGDRe, we decided that our first march would be with the Poor People's Movement (MP). We made our own 3-metre sign that had our name and called for the right to housing for same-sex couples and the right to live in dignity. We also carried a flag with rainbow colors. We wanted other people to see us for who we are, and since we have articulations with militants in all different movements, they gave us their support. For the first half hour we were really tense but we managed to get over it and just march. The rainbow flag did not have anything written on it. But the signs did say something and we marched with them. Now people make rainbow flags of 100 metres and everyone marches behind them. You will see the flag in barrios such as Antímano, in Petare [poor neighbourhoods in Caracas].
We support Chávez because even in his Plan 2013-2019, he talks about how we queers have lived in a situation of repression and that the only way out of this state is to overcome the capitalist system [she refers us to article 126.96.36.199 of the electoral platform]. This consumerist system that we live in has caused a lot of divisions, even amongst us queers. We discriminate even amongst ourselves. The gay and lesbian bars in Caracas, for example, do not let in transsexuals. They suffer total discrimination unless they have money. So, rich transsexuals such as Tamara Adrián (who I mentioned earlier) can get in but other compañeras, no. So she makes a denouncement about human rights but it does not advance beyond that. Of course, this is not to say that she has not done good things.
But before, these gay ‘ghettos’ were the only places that I could go because I had to hide. I had to adopt another personality when I was with my family or at the university; spaces for us would open at 4 or 5 in the afternoon – these spaces with shaded doorways, with no light inside, and music so loud that no one could talk. Most people would go there to meet someone like them. But now that I am Chavista, I am out to part of my family and I go to conventional places.
Once I was with my partner in a shopping centre – again, this will not happen to you if you have money – and they told us that, “This is a family establishment.” We paid the bill but they had the police escort us until we had left the shopping centre. So what is the Venezuelan state doing so that everybody can enjoy public spaces? In the PDVSA Estancia [a recreation centre owned by the state oil company] they will not let same-sex couples hold hands because they say that it is a “place for families” and that “there are children present.” Che talked about how revolution is about love. We are not having sexual relations when we are simply holding hands!
These problems are not the fault of the revolution but the legacy of the bourgeois state – at least now we have the advantage of having a collective, to be able to understand what is happening. We are fighting so that this ‘socialist’ system recognizes diversity. We are fighting so that within our popular movement there is diversity of thought but unity in action – this is the idea behind the revolution. But we still have structures of the state – this state which is not socialist – that are going to repress us. We have to know who we are with and who we are against. There are still a few things about which we need critical reflection. PDVSA is the economic arm of this rent-dependent, petroleum-producing country. But we have to join the debate because there is no way that we can beat this capitalist system if we cannot debate others from the popular movement. And our strength is that we have spaces in which popular education (formación popular) is taking place. These are not academic workshops, but popular spaces in which we learn from the people, like the communal councils.
SS and JRW: What is the importance of the elections on October 7, 2012?
MGB: In this movement there is broad agreement that we are not playing around, that we are finally declaring our independence, as argued by José Martí. If we win these elections it is going to deepen the process. This process has many problems since we are in a transition. There are still many vices of capitalism. I am twenty-eight years old; I was born in capitalism and I have the same vices. I have never known anything else. But now we are talking about other forms of property, other ideas.
Right now I work in a social production enterprise, trying to work with the communities to socialize property and production. I am not only a homosexual [she says laughing]. And although we have control over the political because we have the government, we do not have control over the economic. Chávez has told us this same thing many times. It is no secret. But we are advancing with this new model of production and management, and advancing in how we see ourselves as workers and as producers; we are not going to have these discussions if Chávez leaves.
We have to work to guarantee the vote. The reason that the President is there is that he is the figurehead who moves us emotionally, who unites those of us from the base, who inspires the popular movements. He is carrying the process but we are responsible for it. Without a doubt, there have been so many gains and a million demands; our movement is not yet as advanced as others such as the campesino movement, or the movement of renters. I do not know anyone who has been unaffected by this process: a friend who received a new house because theirs was destroyed in a flood, another who has participated in one of the missions. Here we have free education. There is free health care, even if it is not the best (although Michael Moore shows how the U.S. claim to the best health care is a lie). The media outside of Venezuela misrepresents this process; Chávez is the most democratic president this country has ever had. •
Susan Spronk teaches international development at the University of Ottawa. She is a research associate with the Municipal Services Project and has published various articles on working-class formation and water politics in Latin America.
Jeffery R. Webber teaches politics and international relations at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of Red October: Left Indigenous Struggles in Modern Bolivia (Haymarket, 2012).