[Episcopal News Service – San Salvador, El Salvador] When Bessy Rios’s brother Cruz Torres – then a college student – told her he was gay, she cried for three days.
At the time Rios, a lawyer, was a volunteer with a human rights organization looking for missing children displaced by El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, and a colleague said to her: “Your brother is still your brother. The only thing that is different is that you know something today that you didn’t know yesterday.”
In hindsight, Rios, who leads “Holding your Hand,” a support group for families of LGBT people that accompanies the Anglican-Episcopal Church of El Salvador’s sexual diversity ministry, grew up defending her brother, first from her father who recognized his son’s femininity and threatened to “shoot him between the eyes” if he was gay; later from bullies on the playground.
Still, her brother’s declaration floored her. For 15 years, she said, her brother hid his identity.
In El Salvador and the other countries belonging to the Anglican Church in Central America, or IARCA, its Spanish acronym, hiding one’s homosexual identity remains still somewhat common; the LGBT community suffers violence, threats and discrimination, the latter rooted in deeply held Roman Catholic and evangelical Christian teachings.
Homophobia, heterosexism and machismo, the cultural attitudes driving the deeply held societal beliefs that fuel hatred and discrimination in El Salvador, are what Rios, human rights organizations, the church’s sexual diversity ministry and other activists are working to change.
“I fell in love with the cause,” said Rios, a mother of four, who in addition to working full time advocates for LGBT rights and coordinates “Holding your Hand.”
Forming a family support ministry, regardless of Rios’s resolve, however, has been slow-going, she said, because family members still prefer to meet with her one-on-one rather than in groups, since they, too, want to protect their privacy and in some cases family reputations.
In early July, Rios shared her story with a group of 12 North Americans studying LGBT rights in El Salvador as part of an LGBT pilgrimage organized by Washington National Cathedral and Foundation Cristosal’s Global School.
“This is the first time that Cristosal has gotten involved in LGBT issues,” said Ernesto Zelayandia, coordinator of the Global School, whose curriculum fosters global citizenship. “Our main goal is to foster spaces for dialogue to solve today’s problems.”
Formed in 2009, the Anglican-Episcopal Church in El Salvador’s sexual diversity ministry offers a place for LGBT people to be themselves, find community and re-establish a relationship with a loving, rather than a condemning, God.
Bishop of El Salvador Martin Barahona was IARCA’s primate in 2003 when the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire elected Gene Robinson, now retired, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, an election that sent shockwaves throughout the Anglican Communion.
“I was the one bishop in Latin America who attended Gene Robinson’s consecration,” said Barahona, in an interview with ENS in San Salvador.
Following Robinson’s consecration, Barahona established pastorally inclusive ministries in three areas: people with physical disabilities, sexual diversity and at-risk youth. (The Anglican-Episcopal Church played a major role in negotiating the truce between El Salvador’s two most notorious gangs and the bishop has been known to minister to gang members.)
The sexual diversity ministry became a part of the Rev. Luis Serrano’s congregation at St. John the Evangelist in an area of San Salvador called “Savior of the World,” where a statue of Jesus Christ stands upon planet earth.
“We began to open the hearts, the doors of the church, and then the community began to have confidence in the church, and then they began to come,” said Barahona.
Since the ministry’s beginning, the bishop emphasized integration into the life of the parish, not the creation of a second, gay congregation.
“I explained to them that if you come from a discriminatory environment that you not create another discrimination group of the church,” he said. “You are just members of the church, and at this time I received more than 70 people asking to be Episcopalians.”
Whereas U.S. culture favors full inclusion and equal civil rights for gay and lesbian people, generally staying one step ahead of the church, in El Salvador the church is ahead of the culture, said Robinson, during an interview with ENS in San Salvador.
“[In the United States] the church in many ways is playing a game of catch up; we’re sort of the last to come along,” said Robinson. “Whereas here in El Salvador the culture is overwhelmingly judgmental and condemnatory toward LGBT people. And it’s the church here who is leading what I believe will become a nationwide effort to expand and include LGBT people in the life of society, but means they are up against much greater odds.
“They are literally the mustard seed that promises to flourish and grow into something much bigger and infect the culture with inclusivity … a much more intimidating task in a culture that is still so resistant to including LGBT people in the life of the culture.”
Pride parades and celebrations commemorating the Stonewall riots of June 1969, largely seen as the event that sparked the gay and lesbian rights’ movement in the United States, take place worldwide annually on June 28. Four people were murdered following this year’s pride parade in San Salvador, where more than 4,000 people marched in defense of LGBT rights.
El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world and gang violence largely claims the lives of poor, marginalized people. Meanwhile, crimes against members of the LGBT community, particularly those committed against transgender women, the most visible and most vulnerable, typically are committed with impunity. Hate crimes and workplace discrimination force many members of the LGBT community to live in fear and isolation; for some it means not knowing what it truly means to be homosexual.
The majority of Christian ministries serving the LGBT community in El Salvador, if even they exist, focus on conversion therapy, trying to change the sexual orientation of gays and lesbians.
The conversion movement in El Salvador resonated with Mike Airhart, who spent close to a decade fact-checking and critiquing the U.S. ex-gay movement for two watchdog websites.
“In hindsight, I think that – like many people – I spent too much time criticizing the obvious missteps of movement leaders,” said Airhart, who attended the pilgrimage as part of group from Washington National Cathedral. “I think I overlooked, or just didn’t have time to pursue, the more pervasive and less visible work of large churches. So while we were among the first to protest antigay activists’ activities in Uganda in early 2009, some of us missed the day-to-day church teachings that affect 300 million people in Latin America.”
Still, despite advances in the United States, same-sex marriage is legal in just 19 states and only on July 21 did President Barack Obama amend an executive order signed in 1967 extending federal workplace protections to gay and transgender persons.
“In too many states and in too many workplaces, simply being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can still be a fire-able offense,” said Obama. “I firmly believe it’s time to address this injustice for every American.”
In El Salvador and other Central American countries, gay men and lesbian women, often even if they are out with their friends and family, maintain a straight identity in the workplace, rather than risk discrimination or dismissal.
“As a gay man and a Christian born in the United States into tremendous privilege, I would say that I’m elated at the progress we are seeing domestically in our own country, particularly in regard to marriage equality,” said Richard Weinberg, who recently left his position as communications director at Washington National Cathedral to enroll in seminary.
Weinberg helped create the cathedral’s LGBT ministry group in 2012. As the LGBT movement has made progress in the U.S., the group has begun to look for ways to support international movements. However, Weinberg said, progress in the United States doesn’t compare with the everyday suffering, indignity and human rights violations experienced by LGBT persons worldwide.
“We’re talking about life and death, indignities that as Christians we are all called to respond to and help as well as we can,” said Weinberg.
Earlier this year, Weinberg took a sabbatical and volunteered as a missionary in the Episcopal Church of Costa Rica, where he organized a screening of “Before God, We Are All Family.” It was the first time Costa Rica Bishop Héctor Monterrosos and the church began to take steps toward welcoming the LGBT community into the church. (Read a reflection from Weinberg here.)
During the pilgrimage, Foundation Cristosal and the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, organized a screening of the film at the National Museum of Anthropology in San Salvador attended by more than 60 people.
The documentary explores the lives of five religious Latino families who learned to look beyond the church’s teachings to accept their LGBT family members.
The film seeks to address injustice and foster dialogue, said Lisbeth M. Meléndez Rivera, director of Latino/a and Catholic initiatives at the Washington, D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign.
“By collaborating with local faith communities we are able to show a different perspective, one that speaks to an inclusive church, expanding their reach and opening their doors to all versus the exclusive narrative currently in place which pushes marginalized communities further into the wilderness and away from our spiritual/religious homes,” said Meléndez Rivera.
“Before God is also a magnificent way in which to show that our families can indeed achieve acceptance both in family and faith around our complexities including our sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” she added.
For Rios, accepting her brother’s sexual identity has led to her own activism. In addition to doing pro bono legal work, she writes a blog about feminism and sexual diversity for El Faro, an online investigative news service.
In the end, as was Robinson’s experience with his own parents, “love trumps rules”; however, sometimes families need time. During a Q & A discussion following the documentary screening, Robinson urged those present to give their families time to come around. (Read Robinson’s reflection on the visit here.)
Time seems to have played a positive role in the other churches of Central America, as well. During the most recent IARCA synod meeting in El Salvador the church’s sexual diversity ministry made a presentation to the bishops from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica, the other Central American Anglican and Episcopal churches. The meeting indicated a departure from the prevailing attitudes of 2003, according to those in attendance.
The ministry welcomes LGBT Salvadorans from all religious backgrounds, and encourages those who belong to other denominations to share its teachings. During a Saturday meeting, the more than 30 people gathered shared their experience of being gay and lesbian in El Salvador. One man, a longtime member of the group who’d been away for a couple of years, shared his experience as a Roman Catholic deacon, preaching against his own identity. Another talked about his diplomatic career, how he almost married a woman to maintain his cover and advance his career.
Over the five years since the ministry began, its members say it hasn’t always been easy, and that at times it’s been hard to draw lesbian women, some of whom feel welcome in their own faith communities and others who identify strongly with feminism and reject the patriarchal nature of the church. Still, for those who have found a home in the ministry, it provides a safe place not only where their spiritual needs can be addressed but also a place where emotional and other health issues can be explored, and where people can come together in search of ways to minimize discrimination and other societal stigmas.
“I came here because of a friend, he asked me to come … and I decided to come because I thought this was a place where I could find God and truly be myself. This has been a great opportunity for me to grow up as a person, as a professional and also as a member of a gay community,” said Eduardo Mazariego, a member of the group that meets weekly at St. John the Evangelist Church in San Salvador.
The church’s ministry, he said, is important to El Salvador because there are a lot of people in the LGBT community who feel rejected by society and God, and that their sexual orientation is in opposition to the church’s teachings.
“This ministry is really important to my country because as I didn’t know a lot of things about being gay, there are a lot of people who don’t know that we are right, we were actually born this way because God wanted, so I think that this ministry is actually a great opportunity for El Salvador to open to the gay people,” said Mazariego. “I was born into a Catholic family and they think that being gay is a sin.”
Before becoming part of the group, Mazariego said he thought the concept of sexual orientation was, for him, a choice.
“When I was a little boy I used to say that I was wrong because my sexual orientation was against what God wanted,” he said. “I came here looking for hope, for a place where I can talk with people like me and actually when I came here I actually understood who I am and what it means to be gay.”
— Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.