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Pandora's Box has survived as a gay establishment in Guatemala for over 20 years

Related Gully Coverage

Portrait of An Activist
Against HIV/AIDS, and for lgbt human rights in Guatemala.

Making An Oasis in Guatemala
Homophobia in a culture of violence.

How To Be A Lesbian In Guatemala
An interview with lesbian activist Claudia Acevedo.

Gay Mundo
Our ultra-queer coverage.

guatemalan queer
photo: Jorge Lopez Sologaistoa

Gay Life Emerges In Guatemala

by Richard Stern

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica, OCTOBER 16, 2000. Gay life has begun to emerge from its closet in Guatemala in the last few years. The evolution is due in part to persistent, activist bar owners and gay HIV/AIDS prevention pioneers. But thousands of gay and lesbian Guatemalans still have to hide their sexual identity to survive in this Roman Catholic, macho, and very violent society.

Guatemala City
Virtually all organized gay life takes place in Guatemala City, the capital, a sprawling, polluted metropolis of over 3 million. On a two-week visit there last February, my guide was Douglas Lara, a 31-year-old AIDS educator who works for OASIS, Guatemala's only openly gay and lesbian organization.

For Douglas, things are not so bad. He shares a two-bedroom apartment with his lover Byron, has a job where he doesn't fear discrimination, and also has a comfortable support group of gay, lesbian, and even a few straight friends who accept him. He can go to the discos at night, visit a gay-friendly restaurant for lunch, and shop at commercial centers offering the latest designer products, although he can't do much buying on his $250-a-month salary.

Pandora's Box, a recently remodeled discotheque, has survived as a gay establishment in Guatemala for over 20 years, although it was understandably less popular in the days of the civil war that ended in 1996. It was filled to capacity on a Saturday night. There were two dance floors, as well as a rooftop patio, and even a "dark room." A fashion show sponsored by a local boutique was programmed for 1 a.m. Outside, parked cars lined the streets for blocks. Almost everyone inside was under-30, and relaxed. You would have thought you were in New York.

But leaving the bar, the bone-chilling wind of the Guatemalan night reminds you of the culture of violence in Guatemala and its hostility toward men and women who do not live up to the cultural stereotypes of how they are supposed to be. Several transvestites and gay men have been killed in recent years.

ruben mayorga"In Guatemala as in the other Central American nations, there are still serious problems for gays and lesbians," says OASIS director, Ruben Mayorga. "Physical violence against our community is common. Only about five percent of the gay population here even goes to the bars. Most gay Guatemalans are completely in the closet, afraid of anyone knowing about their sexual preference."

Public cruising is a popular, if dangerous, way for gay men in Guatemala to link up. In the area surrounding the capital's Cathedral square it is easy to meet men, if you're willing to take a risk. Many are reportedly young, "gay for pay" immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador, desperately in need of cash. El Encuentro, Ephebus, and Eclipse, Guatemala's three other major gay bars, are also in this area.

El Encuentro Bar: Hotbed of AIDS Activism
El Encuentro is a surprisingly quiet bar, given its location in the back of the Capitol Center, a popular shopping mall. Early on a Friday evening, half a dozen gay couples were seated at tables. Mario Andrade, the owner, came in and personally greeted each of the guests. Andrade has been a pioneering figure in gay life in Guatemala for the past thirty years. Over 'bocas' (snacks) he told me that he has run El Encuentro for 17 years, surviving numerous raids. "But things are much better now," he said, noting that last year he opened the Ephebus, a discotheque, just a few blocks away.

"Gays here are learning to accept themselves. That is the first step. We have created some spaces. Now we need to continue to receive respect from the heterosexual community," Andrade said.

Besides running two businesses, Andrade heads APAES, an AIDS prevention and support organization that helps people living with AIDS in Guatemala, both straight and gay. For years, he has traveled to Miami to seek the donated medications that APAES distributes. Only about 15% of Guatemalans living with AIDS have access to anti-retroviral medications. The rest rely on infrequent donations.

There are 4,000 registered AIDS cases in Guatemala. Half of them are probably gay or bisexual men, although the official figures are much lower. Says Ruben Mayorga, of OASIS: "The 'machista' culture in Central America forces most gay men to remain underground. They are too afraid and too repressed to report their actual sexual preference to anyone, much less government health care authorities."

Douglas Lara told me that more than twenty of his gay friends here have died of AIDS. "It is a shame," he says, "because in the U.S. these medications are readily available, but who in Guatemala can afford to pay $800 per month? Corporate greed and international indifference are killing my country's gay men."

Richard Stern is Director of the Agua Buena Human Rights Association in San Jose, Costa Rica. He works to improve access to treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS in Central America.

Mayorga photo: Jorge Lopez Sologaistoa

Related links:

For basic, accurate facts on Guatemala, peruse the CIA Factbook.

For a look at Guatemala's rulers, see John Ward Anderson's Guatemala Swears In New President—Admitted Killer Makes Pledge To Fight Crime in The Washington Post.

For the Human Rights Watch report on Guatemala.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

En español

Retrato de un activista

Cómo ser lesbiana en Guatemala

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