Paraguay's LGBT community feels outcast amid conservative shift: 'We are forgotten'

ASUNCIÓN (Reuters) - Paraguay’s LGBT communities are feeling increasingly isolated amid a conservative shift in the Latin American country, even after they celebrated the global success of local lesbian drama film “Las Herederas” last year.

Marie Garcia and Mariana Sepulveda from trans organization Panambi, talk to Reuters, in Asuncion, Paraguay March 22, 2019. Picture taken March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Adorno

Led by right-wing President Mario Abdo, the government recently banned sex education guides for teachers, while the Senate declared itself “pro-life and pro-family” after opening an annual session with a prayer in the usually secular state.

The chill comes amid what local LGBT organizations told Reuters was a wider shift in the region, exemplified by conservative leaders such as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has openly made offensive comments about sexual minorities.

“The rights of LGBTI people are facing a kind of setback right now,” Carolina Robledo, president of Paraguayan lesbian rights group Aireana, told Reuters, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex communities.

She added that these groups were suffering “many attacks from people, because with a right-wing, conservative government, people feel comfortable and protected to say whatever they want and to mistreat you however they want.”

One of the most vulnerable groups is the transgender community, with trans organization Panambí documenting hundreds of cases of violence and 61 murders in the last three decades.

“We are forgotten by the State in life since they have denied us the rights completely. And once again after people die, because murder cases remain unpunished,” said Mariana Sepulveda, Panambí general secretary.

‘Party of Lesbians’

The Paraguayan Congress did pay tribute to Las Herederas, the most awarded film in the history of local cinema. But in doing so, one senator accused its protagonists of being a “party of lesbians” that violates the rights of the family.

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The film, which follows a couple of women going through a crisis, won awards at international festivals - including the Silver Bear for best actress in Berlin.

Paraguay, unlike some of its neighboring counties, does not have a law against many kinds of gender-based discrimination and does not recognize unions between people of the same sex.

“The context and the logic of the State toward the LGBT population is the same they had during the dictatorship,” said Simón Cazal, executive director of the SomosGay organization, referring to the 35-year rule of Alfredo Stroessner until 1989.

“Gays don’t exist in Paraguay: that is the phrase that summarizes the vision that the Paraguayan State has about the population that is not heterosexual,” added Cazal, using the derogatory Spanish term “putos.”

SomosGay says it has evidence of the existence of two secret “rehabilitation centers” to “cure” homosexuality, one in the arid Chaco region and the other near the capital, Asunción.

Reuters could not independently verify the existence of the centers but opposition senator Maria Eugenia Bajac said she would be “delighted” to have such establishments in the country.

“These are human beings damaged in their identity,” she told Reuters. “We must treat that deviation, or that inclination or that tendency, or that style, sexual choice, so that people could... be cured.”

In 1959 under Stroessner, authorities arrested 108 people “of dubious moral conduct” who were subjected to public derision. Since then the number 108 has been seen as pejorative and removed from vehicle plates, telephone numbers and houses.

Abdo’s Colorado Party, the dominant political force in the country, also ruled during Stroessner’s administration and the president is the son of the private secretary of the general.

The human rights directorate of Paraguay’s justice ministry admitted issues remain regarding LGBT communities, but said there had been advances, with projects to protect minorities and make them more visible.

“There are not only documents, but specific protection initiatives,” its director, María José Méndez, told Reuters. “There’s an idea of integration that didn’t exist 10 years ago, so really for me there have been significant advances.”

Reporting by Daniela Desantis; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Dan Grebler