A Latin American Perspective

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SAGE CEO Michael Adams talks with ESMULES Executive Director Andrea Ayala

ANDREA AYALA is Executive Director of ESMULES, Espacio de Mujeres Lesbianas por la Diversidad (Space for Lesbian Women for Diversity), an organization working for LGBTQ+ equality in El Salvador.

MICHAEL ADAMS is Chief Executive Officer of SAGE and has led the organization for 12 years.

Michael Adams: ESMULES recently released an important report on LGBTQ+ elders in El Salvador. What challenges do LGBTQ+ elders face there?

Andrea Ayala: We found that LGBTQ+ elders are invisible. It’s as though they don’t exist in El Salvador. The other thing that we discovered is that LGBTQ+ elders don’t want to be in the spotlight in my country. They are so used to being in the closet as a result of the tremendous discrimination and hostility that they face that they don’t feel they can be part of the movement. So that’s very hard for us because we totally understand why. El Salvador is a country that is full of homophobia. But we need our LGBTQ+ elders to be empowered so that they can use their own voices.

Michael: In the U.S., religious conservatism is on the rise and having a significant and negative impact on our government’s policies toward LGBTQ+ people and issues. What impact does religious conservatism have in your country? Does it shape the willingness of LGBTQ+ elders to come out and be part of a movement for progress?

Andrea: I think this conservative movement is advancing globally and El Salvador isn’t an exception. Just last week a group of trans women presented a proposal for a gender identity law in El Salvador’s National Assembly. All of the religious conservatives are putting a tremendous amount of money and publicity in opposing that proposed gender identity law. The LGBTQ+ movement in El Salvador doesn’t have the resources that other movements do so we struggle to fight back. But it’s hard, including because of financial issues. The religious right and evangelicals can have a 30-second spot on TV 24 hours a day if they want. We are not able to do that.

Michael: Given that this work is hard—with many tragic circumstances and ferocious opposition—what keeps you going day to day as an activist?

Andrea: If I’m honest I’d have to say my wife. She always keeps me inspired. I admire her very much. Also, I am here because of other very brave women, trans people, lesbian women and gay men who decided to have a voice before me. So it’s my time to pay them back. And remembering that many people are in worse conditions than me. The needs in my community are a big part of keeping me inspired to do this work.

Michael: ESMULES, SAGE, CIPAC* (Costa Rica), and Mano Diversa (Bolivia) are working collaboratively to advocate for LGBTQ+ elders in the Americas. Why is collaboration across organizations and countries valuable and important?

Andrea: We may be in different parts of the world but we always find ways in which our communities are fighting the same fight. Invisibility happens everywhere—in the U.S., in El Salvador, in Costa Rica and in Bolivia. So I think it is very important because these problems are worldwide and we have to face them as a global community.

Michael: Mano Diversa submitted several requests to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for an official hearing on LGBTQ+ elders, all were denied. However, when our organizations and countries came together to submit a request, the Commission said yes. That’s a really powerful statement about the strength that comes with locking arms and working together. How can this type of advocacy help LGBTQ+ elders in the Americas?

Andrea: Having an Inter-American human rights system that tells the states the ways they are failing in human rights when it comes to LGBTQ+ elders is very important. It’s not the same as Michael and Andrea telling them they are doing this wrong, but it’s the Inter-American Commission! So it is very important to have this official voice from an official body on human rights issues in the Americas. Looking beyond that, I also aspire to use the UN system, which is a broader stage where we can have a louder voice.

Michael: Yes, absolutely. Regarding the UN, it’s exciting that their new independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) is from Costa Rica. I think there’s every indication he’ll be interested in LGBTQ+ elder issues.

Andrea: Of course he will be! I was in Geneva last week to deliver a report on lesbian/bisexual violence in El Salvador for the Human Rights Committee, and I had the opportunity to meet with the office of Victor Madrigal, the UN independent expert on SOGI issues. They were amazed when I talked about the network our organizations have built, and they said, “Are you talking about LGBTQ+ elder issues as human rights issues? Could you please send us information? Can we schedule a follow up meeting with the UN Independent Expert to discuss LGBTQ+ elder issues with you?” So they are really interested in our work. From what I know, our four organizations—ESMULES, SAGE, CIPAC and Mano Diversa—are the only organizations talking about the very important issues facing LGBTQ+ elders across the Americas.

Michael: This summer at the International Federation on Aging in Toronto, you and I and other LGBTQ+ aging advocates will present various programs and have the ability to talk to policymakers, service providers, academics and advocates from across the globe. What is our big opportunity at a world conference like this?

Andrea: I think that there are two big opportunities. The first one is to highlight the intersections of these very important issues—aging and LGBTQ+ people. And the other thing is, because this is an aging conference and not an LGBTQ+ conference, it gives us the opportunity to change minds so that people who work on a daily basis with elder people and elder issues in countries across the globe can bring a new perspective on LGBTQ+ issues. They have to start thinking, “how do I take into account LGBTQ+ people in this new policy that I’m writing or this new medical protocol that I’m introducing?”

Michael: I completely agree. It is a really extraordinary opportunity to advance an agenda of inclusion and respect for LGBTQ+ elders.

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