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SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Thirty-something-year-old Yanileth Mejía sports an edgy bob hairdo, large dark sunglasses and provoking graphic T-shirts with lesbian feminist taglines like it’s her uniform. She knows her taboo lifestyle could lead to kidnapping, rape, torture or murder. It is a high price to pay but not uncommon in El Salvador, which has a reputation for one of the highest female murder rates in the world. The latest report from Insight Crime uses data from 2012 and shows El Salvador tops the list in Latin American femicide with a rate of 8.9 homicides per 100,000 women. Seven of the 10 countries with the highest femicide rates are in Latin America, and include Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico.

Mejía would rather die young than spend a long life hiding her true self. She invites the attention because she knows her message advocating for women and LGBTQIA rights is resonating. (LGBTQIA is the acronym for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Queer, Intersex, Asexual.”)

“My grandmother taught me to be a feminist without her knowing what it was to be a feminist,” she explained.

Yanileth Mejía of Las Dignas feminist organization participates in the March for Sexual Diversity in El Salvador last summer. (Courtesy photo)

After her mother died, Mejía and her three sisters were taken in by her grandmother, who lived in a large house in a secluded rural country land away from the city. The girls quickly learned to earn their keep by tending to the farm animals, cultivating corn and adapting to a self-sustaining lifestyle.

Josefina Pocasangre, Mejía’s grandmother, lost her husband when she was young and never remarried. She often visited with her seven grown children but she maintained her independence. She still lives in that same house. Her own experiences forced her to be self-reliant, a trait she passed on to her granddaughters.

“She never told me I had to find a good man and marry him,” Mejía said.

Despite growing up in a country plagued by the aftermath of 1980s civil war and gang violence, Mejía said the family led a peaceful and isolated life. They left the doors open to let the breeze in. But that all changed in 1998, when a group of men broke into the home, stealing virtually everything of worth and leaving the women traumatized.

From that moment on, the women spent the night with other family but continued to stay at the house during the day. Mejía went on to study psychology at the University of El Salvador. As a young professional, she found herself questioning her sexuality.

A workshop led by Las Dignas, the largest and oldest politically feminist organization in El Salvador, propelled Mejía to study the psychology of feminism and its connection to lesbianism and leave a seven-year-long heterosexual relationship.

“My experience of coming out was very progressive,” Mejía said. “It wasn’t lesbianism from the erotic side as much as it was a political move.”

Las Dignas was formed during the peace accords of the early 1990s between the United States and El Salvador.

Members of the organization want to eradicate the subordination of women in politics, society and the economy. Through various programs and resources, members aim to bring female victims of violence to justice, equip women with financial skills to demand equal and fair employment rights and fight for women’s sexual and reproductive rights. They offer legal services and a school on feminism.

“Las Dignas is a radical concept for the people,” Mejía explained. “I loved helping stir political controversy. It’s my greatest aspiration.”

She officially joined the staff roster last summer and has been leading the way on strategies to prevent violence against adolescents and overseeing the feminism school and a program focused on lesbian political activism.

“From an institutional standpoint, there has been much progress,” Mejía said. She pointed to Lorena Peña, a congresswoman, ex-guerrilla leader and economist, who introduced a bill last October to allow abortion in certain circumstances, such as rape or dangerous pregnancy. Peña is a member of El Salvador’s ruling leftist FMLN party.

Mejía said Congress mulled over the bill, which shows progress in a country with an absolute abortion ban.

“I feel like Las Dignas has given me the tools to help destroy this heterosexual system, marked by capitalism, racism and classism,” she said. “Since I became part of the collective it has become part of my identity. It gives me the strength to move forward.”

Congresswoman Pushes for Political Reform

Sandra Morán is the first openly gay representative elected to Guatemala’s Congress. She champions the rights of the underrepresented communities, including LGBTQIA, women and girls. (Courtesy photo)

In neighboring country of Guatemala, Sandra Morán has been forcing uncomfortable dialogue with largely conservative colleagues since taking office on January 2016 as the first publicly gay lawmaker in the country’s history. Morán participated in social movements from a young age and challenged the way the LGTBQIA, women and indigenous communities were viewed and treated in Guatemala. Though she discovered her attraction for females at a young age, she hid her identity for fear of retaliation, until she was exiled to Canada and was encouraged to embrace her authentic identity.

Morán returned reinvigorated and used her sexual orientation as a political platform, resulting in her election in 2015 at the age of 55. Despite dealing with death threats on social media, Morán pushes for reform to outlaw discrimination and hate crimes, and sponsored a law protecting sexual diversity.

“I realized the way to make a profound change and make changes to the constitution was for people of the movement to be on the inside,” Morán said. “That’s part of what we’re living out today.”

She admits getting any laws passed is nearly impossible in a rightist-controlled Congress, but spurring dialogue is progress in a country with the third highest femicide rate in Latin America.

“We challenge conservative political rhetoric and ideas and the existing phobias,” Morán explained.

Her work has put the LGBTQIA community on the forefront of discussions but Morán said she has always worked for the greater good representing the wider social and feminist movements.

“Being the first of many things —a feminist and a lesbian— I became the center of attention of the conservative movement here and in other countries,” she added.

There are now more than 30 advocacy organizations in Guatemala stemming from the original collective, Mujeres Somos (We Are Women), which Morán co-founded.

“It was born after a set of workshops on sexuality led by a woman from Costa Rica who came to Guatemala,” Morán said. “She uncovered the fears and stories of horror that many of our lesbian compatriots had lived in their homes and communities. Those workshops opened wounds and tears and so we started the process with a friend.”

The now-defunct organization provided many activists in Guatemala the tools to continue their work independently or through other collectives.

“It was the seed that led to many other lesbian-centric and feminist-centric organizations, including Lesbiradas, an organization working in favor of the rights of lesbians and their visibility,” she said.

Morán believes her election is a sign of the times in Guatemala.

“Being transparent shouldn’t just refer to money but to one’s self,” she said. “In Guatemala, like in many other countries, we had a double standard, or double moral.”

Honduran’s Lesbianism Results in Activism

Indyra Mendoza realized she was a lesbian when she was 28 years old. The Honduran native’s newly-found identity clashed with her former Catholic ideals, and resulted in her contracting a bleeding ulcer that took several weeks to heal.

During a 2004 event of presidential candidates, a group of feminists expressed support for sexual diversity and were attacked by religious fundamentalists.

“I was still in the closet when a feminist colleague who was giving the lecture was attacked by journalists, supposedly for being a lesbian,” Mendoza recalled.

Witnessing that ordeal launched Mendoza’s own social activism career and she began opposing the violence and expressing support for the feminist cause.

Sixteen years ago, she, along with another lesbian colleague, funded Lésbica Cattrachas, a Honduran LGBTQIA advocacy group. Today, she works as the general coordinator for the organization.

“We have succeeded in giving more visibility to lesbians,” Mendoza said, citing political and legal documents, the creation of a network of specialists to investigate violent deaths of the LGBTQIA community, forming as a feminist collective, supporting the arts and keeping the memory alive of those who died for the cause.

“Honduras, for many years was the most violent country in the world and is the country with the greatest number of violent homicides of LGBTQIA people in Central America and the Caribbean,” she explained. “Cattrachas exists so that homicides and violence against human rights do not benefit from impunity.”

The organization has a history of partnering with other human rights groups, including in Nicaragua, El Salvador and the United States.

She said American-based feminist Suyapa Portillo has worked closely with the organization, defending Honduran migrants’ rights who have escaped political or social oppression in their home country. She also worries that the election of President Donald Trump could provide new challenges to Portillo’s work.

Ecuadorean Turned Feminist Documentarian

Jessica Agila at the Intervention of Lesbofeminist Journeys “Tejiendo Rebeldías” April 2014 event in Mexico.

Jessica Agila was sexually violated as a child and repressed her sexuality for years after. The Ecuador native dated a young man when she was 20 years old and through him, met a woman who identified as a lesbian.

“She was the first official lesbian I met,” Agila remembered.

It was through developing a relationship with this woman that Agila realized she too was a lesbian. They each broke off their heterosexual relationships to pursue a romance together that lasted seven years.

Through that relationship, she met other lesbians who frequented nightclubs and enjoyed getting drunk.

“I felt there was something else,” she said. “That couldn’t be it.”

Her mother responded to her coming-out by violently injuring her back. When Agila eventually came out to the rest of her family, they were not surprised.

She and her girlfriend found other like-minded feminists and unified to form lesbian collectives. She joined Fundación Mujer & Mujer in 2012 after meeting Lía Burbano.

“She seemed so powerful to me,” Agila said. “Her voice, her discourse, her analysis of the reality of lesbians and her charisma to bond with diverse women, including the popular ones and humble ones.”

Agila and her colleagues invited the organization to their city of Machala, where they learned about safe lesbian sex and the potential of helping lead the way in the country’s social transformation.

Today, Agila is an activist responsible for coordinating projects including communications and community activities. She considers her role as strategizing when it comes to planning, finding resources, effectively communicating and rallying and encouraging the community to participate.

Fundación Mujer & Mujer offers representation to lesbians and bisexuals detained in clinics meant to transform them into heterosexuals. The organization launched Casa de la Diversidad, or House of Diversity, last August to offer people of all social and economic backgrounds a refuge. To date, it has housed 2,100 people. The group also partners with the University of Guayaquil to offer excellence in sexual diversity and gender studies —an academic model adopted by other institutions of higher learning. More than 2,150 have taken part in the program.

Agila directed the 2016 autobiographical documentary Mi Voz Lesbiana (My Lesbian Voice).

“It allowed me to reconcile with my own history, rediscover my sexuality, recover from the hurt, come to terms with my differences and be ready to elevate my voice amid the institutional violence we lesbian and bisexual women experience regularly,” she said.

Lesbian Feminism in Trump’s America

A close-up of Las Dignas material staff uses to promote and create awareness of their feminist work. (Photo by Christine Bolaños)

Mejía and her tribe of women warriors make posters demanding equal treatment of women and underrepresented communities. They spend the entire day chanting and marching in some of El Salvador’s busiest intersections. This is a regular occurrence, and they have no plans of stopping. Not until their work is done.

She said the election of Hillary Clinton as the first woman president in the United States would have further motivated her and inspired her in her mission to spur change in El Salvador.

“It would have been a symbolic achievement,” Mejía said.

The election of Trump feels like a setback to her, but that only pushes Mejía to work harder and feel reinvigorated.

Leaders of feminist organizations in Latin America have increasingly been strategizing on ways to work together as a unified front to increase effectiveness.

Flavia Massenzio of Argentina spoke to Las Dignas in mid-March on lesbian political activism and the importance of pushing for LGBTQIA reform as part of the Defensoría LGBT Ciudad Autonoma de Buenos Aires.

“We believe that sharing our experiences can contribute to unifying our efforts,” Mejía said. “To have other perspectives and other visions and most of all, for them to help us construct a lesbofeminist model.”

Yanileth Mejía looks for archives in the library of Las Dignas’ central offices in San Salvador, El Salvador. (Photo by Christine Bolaños)

Defensoría LGBT has an 18-year history but the lesbian collectives that form in El Salvador have a typical lifespan of two years.

“We want to find our own, effective formula to retain the lesbofeminist collectives,” Mejía said.

While Latin American feminists may look to the United States for inspiration, Michelle Badillo warns there is a fine line between providing an example and “patronizingly teaching” women in other cultures and countries what they should be fighting for and how they should be fighting for it.

“I definitely hope that American Latina lesbian feminists don’t fall into that trap, while continuing to make ourselves available as helpers and supporters,” she said.

Badillo is a lesbian television writer for One Day at a Time, a Netflix remake of the 1970s show, centering on three generations of a Cuban-American family. Character Elena’s coming-out storyline is loosely based on Badillo’s own experiences.

“The arc of realizing on her own that she might be gay, making a last-ditch effort with a boy not to be gay, and then really coming to terms with the fact that she’s definitely gay and subsequently coming out to her family. That was my trajectory,” she explained.

The daughter of an Argentine and Puerto Rican, Badillo always loved writing but humor served as a coping mechanism for turmoil in her life. Through Elena she hopes to provide others someone to relate to.

“I think and I hope that Elena provides impressionable young Latinas with what most of us queer people of color did not have growing up—a positive representation of ourselves,” Badillo said. “I hope she can make at least one person feel a little less alone, or a little less crazy, or a little less ‘bad.'”

Badillo believes the women’s movement was reinvigorated by Trump’s presidency.

“The women’s movement occupies a place in the mainstream I didn’t think was possible even five years ago,” Badillo said. “I think that’s a majorly positive paradigm shift.”

She noted there are still divisions in feminism along the lines of class, race, sexual orientation and trans-identity.

“I think our focus needs to be on creating a truly intersectional feminism if we really want to shape the best America for everyone.”

 

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Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.