I think that Uruguayan society at large has changed more regarding the lgtb issue than the lgtb community itself.
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I'm a 51-year-old photographer. I've exhibited my work, and taught, and written art criticism for newspapers. I came into contact with the lesbian and gay movement while I was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute between 1977 and 1980, before I came out in the mid-eighties.
In the early 90's, I began publishing articles in Uruguay in support of lgtb rights. I was a co-founder, in 1991, of the first Uruguayan lesbian group, The Same Ones. Both that group, and the next one I was involved in, Woman and Woman, 1996, fell apart six months after they started, when we tried to go from the stage of emotional unburdening and reflection to activism.
In 1997, I appeared with gay activist Fernando Frontán in a live, two-hour-long, TV news program on the eve of Montevideo's fifth Pride March. That program was rerun twice that year by popular demand. Many of the people who are active today in our organizations came together as a result of that program.
At that time I was teaching photography at the Catholic University here in Montevideo, a job I had held since 1981. I kept the job another three years after I appeared on TV. I wasn't overtly harassed, but the university administration began to cut down my class hours and to pressure me in subtle ways, until they fired me for allegedly neglecting some administrative duty.
Fernando Frontán still works for the Consumer's Credit Union, but after the program he was transferred to a department where he has no direct contact with the customers. However, for the past two years, he has been a panelist in Open Debate on channel 10, a private TV station.
The two of us, and a handful other lgtb activists, have been interviewed in other television programs and news broadcasts. We also took part in a sexology conference, and several public forums, including an open forum on human rights, and a forum held recently at the Uruguayan Congress.
Personally, I tend to become an activist in whatever I do, whatever I'm passionate about. As a photographer, I worked for many years trying to put an end to the discrimination against photography that exists in Uruguay's arts world. The fact that I accepted my lesbianism late in life (at age 36) has made me work so that other young people, particularly women, do not have to spend the best years of their lives mired in uncertainty, fear, and guilt.
A Tiny Thaw
However, very few of uslesbians, gay men, and transgender and bisexual peoplejoin organizations. And, while Montevideo bars like Avanti, Espejismo, and Psicótico may be reasonably well attended, the fact is that only a minority of the capital's presumed lgtb population ever goes to bars.
Overall, Uruguay is going through a period where there's little political mobilization, in spite of big economic problems and unemployment. People have locked themselves in an individualistic stance, only caring about themselves and maybe their closest friends. The only thing that attracts many people to lgtb groups is the possibility of finding friends or lovers. Most are afraid to stand up for their rights; they don't want to take risks. We have to remember that the most intense period of popular struggle in Uruguay ended with a twelve-year-long dictatorship (1973-1985), with thousands of people dead, tortured, exiled, and disappeared.
Recently, the majority whip in Congress, Dr. Washington Abdala (a member of the governing, neo-liberal, Colorado party), has sent lgtb organizations two bills that he is planning to introduce in the House, regarding discrimination, civil unions, and sexual reassignment surgery. This kind of surgery is already been performed, free of charge, at the Hospital de Clínicas in Montevideo, but afterwards, gender reassignment is not recognized by the civil registry offices.
In contrast, and this is a contradiction worth emphasizing, a bill recognizing the rights of common law couples, already introduced in the House by Left Coalition congressman Daniel Díaz Maynard, excludes same-gender couples.
Activists: Few, but Dedicated
The Uruguayan Transgender Association has been riddled with internal tensions triggered by its relationship with the Public Health Ministry, as well as by the prolonged jailing of one of the group's leaders.
Consideration in Parliament of a bill to regulate prostitution and set aside certain areas of the city for it has been postponed. Transgender people have some, very minimal, government protection (they get condoms and, occasionally, food parcels) and some freedom to work on the street, but many are forced to bribe the police to avoid harassment, and HIV infection and drug use is quite widespread among them.
Plaza Libertad Liberated
The theme of the last Pride March, on September 28, 2000, was "Awareness of Sexual Diversity." We also carried posters with other slogans, like "Discrimination Is Torture", "URU-GAY" and "Yes To Alternative Families: Civil Unions, Adoption, Insemination."
And we carried banners, including a 33 foot-long rainbow banner. The Montevideo Municipal Government, controlled for the past ten years by a left-wing coalition where very progressive leaders coexist with very homophobic ones, lent us a float, which we decorated with the colors of the rainbow.
In The Heart of Montevideo
Our marches have generally attracted up to 200-250 people. That's been our record number. This last year some 150 people marched, and at least another 100 walked along the sidewalks, but were afraid to join the march.
Masks and costumes were very common in the earliest marches, but this year there were few of them. Two male Diversity Group activists dressed as nuns and a picture of them kissing on the lips appeared the next day on the cover of the daily La República, with the caption "Harsh criticism of the Catholic Church...." When we arrived in Plaza Libertad, we made a huge circle, holding hands, and danced.
A Catholic Silence
Five of the March organizers openly appeared in a number of TV programs and newscasts: Fernando Frontán, Alejandro Chiesa, Jeanne Sosa, William Mallek, Sebastián Delgado, and myself. A fellow activist, Lilián F., told her story on TV, but her face was altered electronically.
The Pride 2000 Coordinating Committee, which organized the March, included Amnesty International Uruguay/GLTB Group, the Uruguayan Transgender Association (which this year, due to their internal problems, were practically absent), the GLTTB Library and Data Bank, the Inter-sexual Research and Study Center, the Ecumenical Congress for the Liberation of Sexual Minorities, the Diversity Group, and Men Who Have Sex With Men.
We're Not "Dangerous," Yet
We are never openly censored, and we have never experienced violence or opposition during our marches, perhaps because we're not yet big enough to be considered "dangerous." However, we have been the butt of jokes and ironic remarks by some radio broadcasters. We also know of individual cases of verbal and physical violence against gay and lesbian people.
For the Uruguayan queer activist group Diversidad. (Mostly Spanish).
For a profile of Uruguay, by the estimable CIA World Factbook 2000. More or less accurate, except that it delicately skirts the Agency's role in propping up the military dictatorship in the 1970's.
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