Growing up, Ronald Digalo knew he could never indulge what was in his heart. “The church taught me that I came into the world to have a family,” he says, and so he did, raising two children and becoming a Mormon religious leader. But something was missing, and his family and faith fell apart after a painful divorce. In the aftermath, Digalo began to explore his homosexuality. It was scary, in a predominantly Catholic country where old stigmas remain. “It’s difficult to be gay in Paraguay,” the 35-year-old says. In fact, it’s getting tougher, and a glimmer of hope that had emerged for the LGBT community in recent years is fading all too soon.
Much of South America, from Brazil to Uruguay to Chile, has embraced LGBT rights in recent years. Not too long ago, Paraguay seemed committed to softening the stigma as well. Under former President Fernando Lugo, in power from 2008 to 2012, the country reversed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies in the police force, talked openly about lesbians and transgender women and banned discrimination based on sexual identity.
But ever since a wave election in 2013 restored power to the conservative Colorado Party that has ruled the country for most of the past century, Paraguay has reversed its direction. Those rights gained under Lugo remain intact, but barely, holding on by a thread. Last year, the religious right began a “Mom and Dad” social media campaign, with “No Con Mis Hijos” (“Not With My Children”) banners decrying homosexual influence. The well-funded campaign and its message were mimicked in Mexico City and Madrid, suggesting global forces at play as well as Paraguayan ones.
It’s an issue that’s kept under the rug; you don’t talk about it, you don’t ask about it.
Alli Nunes, human rights worker based in Paraguay
At the same time, conservatives accused schools of teaching about homosexuality, so much so that the education minister responded last October by promising to burn the “gender ideology” textbooks in the streets. “They used it as a social panic device,” says Simón Cazal, founder of the Asunción-based advocacy group Somos Gay. Now the legislature is crafting laws to directly tie procreation to the definition of families, making action on gay marriage and civil rights even less likely. There is little hope on the horizon: The newly elected president, Mario Abdo Benítez — also of the Colorado Party — is expected to double down when he takes office in August. “Let me put it this way: Mike Pence is very sweet compared to him,” Cazal remarks. The effects have been felt in smaller ways too. In Ciudad del Este, a town bordering Argentina that is known by Americans as “little Tijuana,” authorities finally decided to clamp down — not on the city’s sales of counterfeit clothing and goods but on a tiny shop that sold transgender dolls, which was closed down.
“It’s an issue that’s kept under the rug; you don’t talk about it, you don’t ask about it,” says Alli Nunes, a Miami-born Brazilian-American working on human rights issues in Paraguay for the past decade. “Men have been literally stoned and beaten up, without any punishment [for the perpetrators] whatsoever.”
Ironically, it was a Catholic bishop, Lugo, who was paving the path to a better way. After defying the Vatican by pursuing the presidency, Lugo was elected in 2008 and “was the first to give us a seat at the table,” says Cazal. After Argentina legalized gay marriage in 2010, Somos Gay led efforts to propose a similar bill in Paraguay. The future was looking brighter. “It was the first time we didn’t have to fight to access our rights. We could actually move the conversation forward,” Cazal says.
Now, the dark clouds are returning for the LGBT community, at a time when rights activists worry about Paraguay’s simultaneously dismal record on women’s rights.
It’s bad enough that, within the LGBT community, trans women and lesbians are at greatest risk. But the country also has the fourth-highest maternal mortality rate in South America, according to the World Health Organization, and the fifth-highest percentage of adolescent mothers, themselves still children. Stories are still told of women tied up during childbirth, and of the verbal and physical abuse they suffered. “Procedures that are already completely banned by the WHO are still being used because of the lack of investment in the personnel,” says Nunes, founder of Humanizing Labor, an organization that trains nurses in Paraguay. There are “everyday heroes,” she says, who try to do the right thing, even using their own money to get patients essential items like blood transfusion kits. But four-fifths of all pregnant teenagers remain at risk for their lives. The challenge can seem daunting, Cazal says, so much so that he uses a Paraguayan phrase to describe the progress needed: “Fuimos de carreta a un cohete,” he says. “From cart to a rocket.”
Small measures of progress are happening. Somos Gay and other projects like It Gets Better Paraguay are pushing social change with international help. Sure, these groups are often at war with themselves, even holding two separate annual Pride events. “We have our differences; we already acknowledge that, so we try to stay outside of anyone else’s work,” Cazal says. But regardless, those organizations provide safe spaces for LGBT teens and young adults to find community, and refuge. “I want to transform medicine in Paraguay,” says Emilio Sosa, a gay university student studying to be a doctor. For two years, the 22-year-old has visited the Paraguayan LGBT Community Center on Independencia Nacional, which is run by Somos Gay and offers HIV/AIDs treatment. There, he studies and watches movies with friends. “I like to stay here because here, Emilio is Emilio. No critics,” he says.
That type of community is crucial for young gay men. It would have been useful for Digalo, who didn’t know where to start during his coming-out journey, and as a result had his first sexual experiences with male prostitutes. With time, he’s had relationships with other gay men, and today he is one of just a few couples counselors in Asunción treating straight and queer clients alike. “Now my purpose is to help people accept themselves,” he says. “To help them realize that you don’t have to have the perfect family unit as we are taught.”
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