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posted Friday, October 15, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 42
SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW - Speaking in Seattle: El Salvadorean Gay activist William Hernandez
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SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW - Speaking in Seattle: El Salvadorean Gay activist William Hernandez

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

El Salvadorean Gay activist William Hernandez will speak in Seattle on Thursday, October 28.

Hernandez is director of the Asociacion Entre Amigos, one of the leading LGBT rights organizations in El Salvador. He is also secretary for human rights of the Coalition of Gay Organizations of Central America.

A veteran of more than 15 years of human rights activism, Hernandez has faced death threats, police raids, and other forms of intimidation, but refuses to be silenced.

He will speak at the University of Washington, Thompson Hall 317, at 6:00 p.m.

Hernandez was interviewed recently by SGN. Since he does not speak English, the interview was conducted by e-mail, with Angelina Sondgrass Godoy of the UW Center for Human Rights translating SGN's questions into Spanish and Hernandez's answers into English.

The interview follows.

For background, can you share some personal details with our readers? When and where were you born? How long have you been 'out'? Do you have the support of family members?

o I was born in San Salvador on May 13, 1971, I'm 39 years old and I live with my partner, Joaquín Cáceres, who is 49 years old. We have been in a relationship from 1994 until now, and for the last 16 years we have shared the responsibility of raising my two biological daughters, Eliana Hernández, now 22 years old, a law student; and Liliana Hernández, a communications student.

o I came out of the closet at age 24 because of the need to put a face to the activities in defense of the human rights of LGBT people in 1994.

o I have the unconditional support of my parents, Joaquín's mother, our daughters and their biological mother, from the moment I came out of the closet - as well as the support of all the rest of our family members in general.

o I dropped out of school when I was 14 years old, and started working with the Catholic Church. I experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a priest; he was taken to court for his crimes 10 years later, and we won the case.

o I went back to school when I was 30 years old, returning first to middle school (estudios básicos) and then high school (bachillerato). I graduated from the equivalent of high school (bachillerato) at age 37 in 2007.



Can you estimate the size of the LGBTQ community in El Salvador? Do LGBTQ people tend to concentrate in the cities as they do here in the U.S.?

o We don't know exactly how many people make up the LGBTI community in El Salvador, but through our educational outreach work in the last five years, we have reached 13,000 Gay men, Bisexuals, Trans women, and other men who have sex with men but do not consider themselves GBTI.

o It's true that in the main cities groups of LGBTI people are more noticeable, but through our work we have proven that the population is present throughout our national territory. There are greater indices of violence against LGBTI people in rural areas, or in cities other than the capital. There is also greater impunity for such crimes in those areas.

o In San Salvador, the capital, there is more nightlife and social life for the LGBT people, there are spaces which are specifically designed to attend to the interests and needs of this population. In the rural areas of the country, on the other hand, there are not exclusive spaces like this, which makes things less safe for LGBT people.



Can you describe how LGBTQ people are viewed in your country and culture? And how might that differ from the view in the U.S.?

o People in general often make disagreeable comments, even discriminatory comments, but there are other people who manifest their homophobia publicly and physically attack LGBT people.

o However, the main problem lies with people who are in social organizations, or unions, NGOs, among others - and even more so among public servants or government officials - who put their homophobia before their obligation to serve people without regard to their sexual orientation.

o Within the structures of the Salvadoran state, the National Civilian Police, the Judicial Organism, and the Legislative Assembly are the structures which have most violated human rights, even committing violence against LGBT community - in particular against Gay men who may appear feminine, Lesbians who may appear masculine, and Transgender women. Just like in any democracy, these institutions are fundamental pillars for access to justice, but in the case of our populations, they have participated in human rights violations on various occasions.



I've read that there are no laws protecting LGBTQ people in El Salvador from discrimination. What is the legal status of the LGBTQ community, and how do people protect themselves from discrimination and/or violence?

o That's correct. In El Salvador there are no legal tools to protect the dignity of people on the basis of their sexual orientation or their gender identity. In addition, there are no legal tools that recognize sexual orientation or gender identity. This makes it impossible to adequately guarantee access to justice with the existing tools.



We've covered the murders of LGBTQ people and activists in Puerto Rico and Honduras. Are similar events happening in El Salvador?

o In El Salvador, in 2009 alone we documented 23 homicides of this sort. Most were of Gay men who had not revealed their sexual orientation, or of Transgender women.



It seems that many of these crimes targeted Transgender or Transsexual people in particular. Is there a large Trans community in El Salvador, and are they especially at risk for violence?

o Yes, Trans women represent the most visible face of the LGBT community, and they are the ones who have been the target of generalized violence, as well as of violence aimed specifically at the community. These are violent homicides with characteristics of hate crimes.



Do you, as an activist, fear for your personal safety? What precautions do you take? Have you been the target of violence or threats?

o Yes, I fear for my safety and for that of our team, and that of my family. My family has always been with us, through the most adverse conditions that our community has faced. Our safety situation has changed since 2008; from 2001 to 2007 the National Civilian Police provided me with police protection through a program to protect important public figures and human rights defenders, thanks to pressures brought by Amnesty International in London and its Urgent Action Network, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco, and the Triangle Foundation in Spain. These organizations insisted on such measures because the authorities at the time claimed not to know anything about the attacks against me and against the offices of the Entre Amigos Association.

In addition to this security, which was only for me personally, the American Jewish World Service in New York (AJWS) helped us present our institutional security needs to the Front Line Foundation in Ireland, who are specialists in supporting human rights defenders throughout the world. As a result, Front Line has provided us with technical support as well as economic assistance for designing security strategies for our offices and for our personnel.



I've read that [El Salvador's president] Mauricio Funes issued a presidential decree against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Have the lives of LGBTQ people improved since the FMLN [Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front] came to power? Do you expect more improvement in the future?

o The decree was published in the official newspaper on May 12, 2010; it has not been shared within government institutions, but it's a decree that does not establish penalties for violations. It only urges government employees and public servants to not promote or practice discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

o Aside from the publication of Executive Decree # 56, the government created an office in the Secretary of Social Inclusion called the Directorship of Matters of Sexual Diversity. This office is directed by Dr. Vanda Pignato, President Funes' wife.



The U.S. State Department says it communicates with other governments to urge them to respect the rights of LGBTQ people in their countries. Has the U.S. State Department played that role in El Salvador?

o We do not know if, in their high-level meetings, the State Department emphasizes this point or not. However, our office has conversations with the Cultural Affairs office at the U.S. Embassy, and we share our reports of human rights violations against our community with them. Since 2008, the U.S. Embassy opened a human rights office and the reports are sent to the human rights attaché at the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador.

o From 2008 to 2010 we have twice received visitors from the Embassy at our offices. They have joined us to converse with us about our human rights, and the latest developments in our country, and to offer their assistance to us for any human rights problems we might have.

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