Violence and Sexual Diversity in the Northern Triangle of Central America

Written by Eduardo Madrid, Researcher for our Peace and Diversity project.

The events in this article are based on cases from our research project. Some details have been changed to protect the identity of our research participants.

The Palacio Nacional in El Salvador lit up for Pride Week.

The Palacio Nacional in El Salvador lit up for Pride Week.

I live in El Salvador, and, as do people in many countries worldwide, I experience violence everyday because I am part of the LGBTIQ+ community.

I live with my partner in a small house in Soyapango, where we’ve been living together for 5 years. The people at our local store say we’re related, perhaps they think that then they can erase our love. In the tortillería I’ve overheard people say that we shouldn’t live like that, because “What will children think? That’s it’s normal?”

Today is Friday; I have to go to class and to work. I wake up anxious that the day is starting. My partner and I eat breakfast together, and make plans to meet up later that night. My partner does not leave until later in the day, so I head out to take the bus. Everyone outside begins policing gender if the way you dress, walk, express yourself, or style your hair is different. People stare, with looks that are a mix of bewilderment and disgust. I pretend to ignore them in order to get through the day, but, even so, their looks hurt.

Today is not the first time I experience violence. They call me faggot/dyke/tranny among other insults, occasionally pushing me while they insult me. I hear a women whisper to her child, “Have you ever seen someone like that before? Look, over there.” The feeling of humiliation grows as I hop on an overcrowded bus. Next, a man rubs his genitals on me. I’m filled with disgust and fear. I want to cry, I want someone to help me, but I know that there’s nothing I can do. He persists, and I push him away. In anger, he hits me on the head and I see a mix of black and red when I open my eyes. I fall to the floor of the bus and, even though it’s full, everyone moves aside as I fall. I feel myself being kicked in the stomach, and the bus continues on its way. The man goes away. No one says anything. They never say anything. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad; I won’t require medical attention this time.

I get up breathless, this direct violence morphs into something cultural. I see some faces that say I deserve what I got for being who I am, their eyes tell me it’s my fault. If there are people who feel concerned, they still uphold gender norms. I take a seat in the middle of the last row, and wait for my stop.

I see a group of police, and recall the first time that something like this happened to me. Their response to my complaint was “Look, to be honest, we have more important things to do. Besides, how do we know that you weren’t harassing him? You should leave before we arrest you.”

I get to my university and go to the bathroom. I lift up my shirt and only see a few bruises, but my headache is killing me. What can I do? I wipe the dirt off my pants, and head to class. Even though there aren’t that many people around, I’m greeted with more judgements and loud whispers that say “there goes the pervert.”

I sit at the back of the class like I do everyday to try and avoid people’s stares, including that of the professor who always looks at me with disgust.

After class, I rush to work. I get on the bus again, scared of encountering the same situation as before. Luckily, I get to the office okay and start my shift. My boss gives me the same look as everyone else. On previous occasions she’s pulled me aside to tell me that the way I’m acting makes people uncomfortable, and could I please save that behavior for when I’m home. She says that this is a workplace and I shouldn’t act that way here. On that day, I tried to explain that I can’t change who I am, but I ended up in human resources with a one-day suspension for insubordination.

Since then, I’ve tried to hide. I don’t know why or how I bother them, but I try to blend in to a society that is very heteronormative.

Aside from my boss, my colleagues make fun of me. They crack jokes that stem from their hatred: exemplifying a world where diversity and anything “gay” is negative. I’ve tried to defend myself and tell them that it’s hurtful. However, they said I was exaggerating and being dramatic, and that going to human resources wouldn’t accomplish anything because they were just joking around.

At 8:15 I meet up with my partner in a restaurant. I’ve felt scared all day and, like always, people’s judgements rob me of the chance to give them a kiss or hold their hand. But today I need that, and I furtively kiss them. My partner doesn’t draw back, but they are surprised. Nothing happens before the waitress approaches, but I see that everyone around me notices me take their hand. I’m still scared, but I keep holding their hand. The waitress approaches and asks us to please leave. I ask how come, and she tells me that this isn’t a place for indecent acts.

My partner is about to argue, but, without letting go of their hand, I tell them we should leave. I don’t have anymore energy to fight their idea of normalcy.

Upon leaving, I let go of their hand. I tell them we should go to a bar, that I just want to feel safe and walk a bit. I need to breath. We start walking, because the bar is close, and I start to tell them about my day. My partner is angered, which is understandable.

What do you do when the person you love feels bad? When they tell you they had a bad day? When they say they were attacked? Do you hug them?

I know that their tears are of anger and impotence. My partner has experienced the same thing as me, in different magnitudes, but they understand. They hug me in the street, a big hug. They make me feel as if they were there to help me get up off the floor of the bus.

Time is our enemy. Perhaps people can let a few furtive things go, but something so open disrupts their fantasy of what is normal. A man in the passenger seat of a car yells at us, followed by people in other cars, bringing an end to our hug.

My spirits are low. We continue walking in silence, and my partner takes my hand. I feel the passing of time, their hand, our love, our fear.

A motorcycle slowly passes by us, yelling insults related to who we are. They yell at me for being who I am, at us for being who we are. We walk faster, still holding hands, in a futile attempt to escape the inevitable.

The motorcycle speeds up and passes us. For a moment I think that everything is okay. Of the two men, one of them gets down from the motorcycle. I don’t understand what happens next — I can’t see the person clearly. From less than 20 meters away, he shoots. The sound of the gunshot makes a cold feeling I’ve never felt before creep up my spine, then through my whole body. The gunshot makes my vision flash and I hear a whistling noise go by. In three seconds, my partner is on the floor. I’m unable to scream, I kneel down to help them and hear pained sounds coming from their mouth.

I feel a familiar burning and pained feeling. I’ve been kicked in the face. I pass out. The pain and weight bring me to. A man is raping me. My face is inflamed and I can’t open my left eye. They must have hit me all over. I feel his movements, but my scream gets trapped in my throat. I feel a sharp pain in my throat, perhaps they hit me there too.

The men take turns raping me. My dizziness prevents me from defend myself. From far away I hear cars driving past, and I slowly realize I’m in a park. I know I can’t do anything, and just hope they finish soon so I can leave.

What feels like a thousand hours pass and, finally, the men stop. I hear one of them say, “If they didn’t even make a sound, it means they liked it, the whore.” I’m filled with anger at the thought that I couldn’t do anything. My only possible response to this violence is silence.

If I could feel anything, now that my body has been pummeled, it’s the feeling I get when one of the men says, “just kill them and let’s go.” A cold terror washes over me. “Wait, it’s still early, we can fuck around a little more.”

The man takes out a knife, and, without hesitating, stabs my genitals. A futile attempt to scream gets stuck in my throat. I’m in pain again, but I pass out as they punch me again.

That’s how I died.

In a Pew Research study, 70% of the Salvadoran population said that they thought that sexual diversity was immoral. This is just a small insight into what the day-to-day life of the LGBTIQ+ population in El Salvador is like. A day-to-day life that is filled with violence, assault, rights violations; a day-to-day in which they can be killed for being themselves or loving who they love.

These types of cases play out like this: the police and forensic experts arrive at the scene of the crime and, without any forensic evidence or following a protocol, produce prejudiced theories based on the victim’s appearance or other factors. The theories range from linking the victims to sex work or to gangs. Studies on this issue have revealed that, in some cases, the Attorney General’s office has built arguments based on Article 129 of the Penal Code, which says that, “It is considered aggravated homicide if it was committed under the following circumstances (…) When it was motivated by a hatred of someone’s race, ethnicity, religion, politics, gender expression or identity, or sexual orientation.” Nevertheless, the same study highlights a failure in the administration of justice, as 100% of hate crimes have remained in impunity in El Salvador.

Eduardo leads a workshop on Participatory Action Research for the  Global School.

Eduardo leads a workshop on Participatory Action Research for the Global School.

The looks, rumors, comments, and jokes are part of an invisible violence, one that is structural and cultural, which condones direct attacks and negative and hateful attitudes towards anyone who is not heterosexual.

It is because of these serious violations of the human rights of the LGBTIQ+ population and the lack of action on the part of the authorities that Cristosal has prioritized research that makes visible, develops, and implements actions that guarantee the rights of the LGBTIQ+ community, and studies how dynamics of violence affect economic opportunities and public policies for the LGBTIQ+ population in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

This research is part of the initiative “Peace and Diversity: Transforming Realities,” undertaken by Cristosal’s Research and Learning Program (PEA). PEA uses Participatory Action Research (PAR), which uplifts the voice of the victims as they themselves design and participate in the research process. Through this process, they empower themselves to create change in their lives and society. PAR helps victims tell their own stories, and present a more nuanced insight into the violence and discrimination that the LGBTIQ+ community experiences.

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