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I think that Uruguayan society at large has changed more regarding the lgtb issue than the lgtb community itself.

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A Very Out Lesbian

MARCH 5, 2001. Diana Mines, one of the pioneers of lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual (lgtb) activism in Uruguay, talks about herself and the state of her community and her country. The Gully caught up with her last Fall, shortly after she helped organize Montevideo's eighth annual Pride March.

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 frontanFernando 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
I think that Uruguayan society at large, specifically here in Montevideo, has changed more regarding the lgtb issue than the lgtb community itself. Lately, the issue has appeared more frequently in the media and in conversations among people. Although we're still greeted with scorn and lack of understanding, I nevertheless perceive a greater willingness to listen and to accept.

However, very few of us—lesbians, gay men, and transgender and bisexual people—join 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.

Public Indecency
While there are no laws that punish us in Uruguay, there are also no laws that specifically protect our rights. There are some discriminatory regulations, however, like a ban on blood donations by anyone who acknowledges being gay or lesbian and the fact that anyone who has been arrested as a gay person can be denied the Certificate of Good Conduct that you need to get a passport here. And, as a gay person, you can be arrested for acts that the police consider to be "public indecency."

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
There are currently several lgtb organizations in Montevideo. (We're not aware of any in the interior of the country, although we're in touch with some individuals there.) The membership in all these groups is small, and some of it overlaps. For example, some members of the Diversity Group are also members of the Amnesty International-Uruguay LGTB Group, or have helped found the Inter-sexual Research and Study Center.

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
In June 1992, some 15 gay men and lesbians gathered in public for the first time, in Montevideo's Plaza Libertad. Between 20 and 30 people watched us from a safe distance. The annual marches started in 1993. Since 1997, we have called them Pride Marches, to link them to our struggle for the right to our own identity and to non-discrimination.

alternative familyThe 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
We marched some 12 blocks in the very center of Montevideo, from the university to Plaza Libertad. It was our longest march to date. We've always chosen to march in the evening because it's after working hours and because people who are afraid, because of their jobs or their family situation, are less exposed.

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
The newspaper that gave most coverage to the March, both before and after it took place, was La República. The very conservative daily El País, the biggest in the country, only ran a small box announcing the March, but did not cover the event itself. The Catholic, ultraconservative El Observador, didn't even mention us.

jeanne sosaFive 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
Traditionally, we used to hold our Pride March every year around June 28 (the 27th is the anniversary of the 1973 coup, so no one wants to celebrate anything on that day). Partly because June is the dead of winter in Uruguay, and because, coincidentally, the main lgtb groups here were founded in September (the Scorpio Foundation, at the height of the dictatorship, and then Gays United, Woman and Woman, and the current Diversity Group), we decided in 2000 to begin holding the Pride March at the end of September. On June 28 we will continue to honor the memory of Stonewall with panels, conferences, and the like.

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.

Related links:

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.

For Complete Coverage Gay Mundo

Gay Mundo
gay pride The Gully's ultragay coverage. Includes musings on activism, info on queers from Taiwan to Puerto Rico and more.

New World
new world Our Americas. Politics, democracies, failed utopias, and the sullen heirs of colonialism: from Canada to Argentina.

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