Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Transsexual Moves Under the Regime of Chavez

An Interview with Maria Gabriela Blanco, Alianza sexo-género diversa revolucionaria (Revolutionary Alliance of Sex-Gender, and Diversity, ASGDRe)

Under Hugo Chávez, there have been many gains in the struggle for liberation, including for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered people (LGBT). Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was outlawed in the 1999 Labour Organic Law but anti-discrimination proposals were dropped from the 1999 Constitution due to pressure from the Catholic Church; same-sex couples cannot marry or adopt children and several proposals that would have advanced such struggles were defeated in the Constitutional referendum of 2007. There have always been diverse political currents within the LGBT community, but three years ago, the first revolutionary LGBT collective was formed. 

We caught up with one of its founding members, activist María Gabriela Blanco, at a meeting of the Alianza Popular Revolucionaria (Revolutionary Popular Alliance, APR) in Caracas. Source: The Bullet 
Maria Gabriela Blanco (MGB): The collective was founded on August 13, 2009. I became involved as an activist years ago when I was working for the government-run publishing house, Fundación Editorial El perro y la rana [Editorial Foundation The Dog and the Frog]. There were six of us who worked at the Editorial [who identified as queer] who were also militants in the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela [United Socialist Party of Venezuela, PSUV] and formed an electoral battle unit (patrulla). We also participated in the organization of workers´ council initiatives. Many of us studied together at university and some of us met our partners there.

One of the first struggles that we were involved in that more explicitly focused on gender identity and sexual orientation was the gender equality law that was debated in the National Assembly. The members of the Assembly called for participation by lesbians, gays and transsexuals; one of the deputies called for our participation because she wanted to include an article in the law which forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. We saw this as a great opportunity because we have generally been invisible in the Revolution. But there are still many members of the National Assembly, even those who identify as Chavistas, such as Marelis Peres Marcano, the president of the commission, who say things like, “This is not the right time to discuss such matters because we are talking about the family, men and women.” But Deputies Flor Ríos and Romelia Matute spoke out in favour of our struggle, arguing that sexual identity is fluid and changes over time.

The whole process of debating this law was very annoying because it took so long, six months sitting at the table with no results. The members of the National Assembly had to deal with pressure from all sides, from collectives representing lesbians, bisexuals, transsexuals and gays from the right and from the left; at that point there were very few queer collectives on the left. There was only one that was serious, the Divas de Venezuela, which has since joined us. We did not win in our battle for the gender law. We interviewed one of the deputies who supported us, and she told us that we needed to organize and fight.

We were tired of the fact that after 7-8 years of revolution no one was talking about sexual diversity; the revolution is still too conservative. We decided that we needed to do something about it. We contacted one collective but it was clearly a right-wing organization and then we found Divas de Venezuela, which is not an organization that works in a ‘ghetto,’ [she means wealthy neighbourhoods] but one that works right in the heart of the struggle in the barrio ‘23 de enero’ [a poor neighbourhood in Caracas with a long history of revolutionary struggle]. There we found a transsexual dance teacher (called Rummie Quintero) who works with children; she is very well respected in the community. We started to meet with her and to organize.

Now many others have also joined us from other struggles, such as the
 Movimiento de Pobladores, or Poor People's Movement (MP) and the campesino movement. We are also part of the APR, which brings together a variety of different movements. Our struggle is not just about diversity; everyone talks about ‘diversity’ since the NGO boom. Transsexuals such as Rummie argued that she does not feel included in this language about ‘diversity’ since it is fundamentally about gender identity. So we decided on the name Alianza sexo-género diversa revolucionaria; we added the ‘revolutionary’ part because we are Chavistas.Amongst us there are many artists, such as a graphic designer and writers. The six of us worked with Rummie, and two or three other queers came along who joined us. We started to paint graffiti in public places in the shape of a clock, which instead of hands had symbols of women with women or men with men to indicate that “Now is the time!” We have created different images that express our diversity and our commitment to revolution, especially to vindicate the struggle of transsexuals because within the patriarchal system that we live in (even more than the capitalist system because patriarchy came first), this struggle is one of the most oppressed amongst us.

We are also clear that we are not defined solely by our sexual orientation and gender identities. This aspect of our identity is the last thing that defines us, because we are also women [and men], afro-descendants, indigenous, poor, and Chavista, but we see our struggle as part of the struggle against the capitalist system that oppresses us. This makes us different from other right-wing queer collectives that only focus on orientation and identity. For example, there is a famous activist called Tamara Adrián, a transsexual who argues for the right to change our names, but she is wealthy. Our struggle is also a class struggle. Our priority is the most oppressed people – the lesbians, gays, bisexuals, trans and heterosexuals who are also working-class.

Sometimes other Chavistas criticize us for being ‘anarchists’ because we criticize the government, but we are drawing attention to the discrimination that exists within our movements and the institutions of the state. It is the whole system that needs to change; this change will require more than a law. But we have had some successes in legal battles. We had good experiences working with the renters’ movement to discuss a law related to housing. They invited us to the debate because we had been working with them already. This was a really great experience because there are now two articles in this law prohibiting landlords from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The popular participation law also makes reference to the principle of non-discrimination. The right wing cannot say that there have been no advances for queers. There have been many victories and advances in our struggle under Chávez.

We are currently based in Caracas, and most of our members are from the city. We have a listserv of about 24 people, but there are about 15 of us who are active in person on a regular basis. It is a strength that most of us work, but it is difficult to find a time when everyone can meet. Every Monday evening we meet at the Plaza Bolívar – almost religiously – at the same time. Everyone is welcome to join: lesbians, gays, bisexuals, poly-amorous people, transsexuals, and heterosexuals, too. Now we publish our own political bulletin. We also have a column in Todosadentro, which is a weekly magazine published by the Ministry of Culture, and inEpale, another publication in Caracas. We are writing about sexual sovereignty and sovereignty over our bodies in these columns. We also participate in a radio show called “In Check” [En Jaque] that takes place at 2PM on Tuesdays, every second Tuesday, which we help to co-produce. We have also made appearances on feminist TV shows such as, “Fallopian Tube” [El Entrompe de Falopio], which runs in Caracas and on national television, and a radio program, “Diverse but not Perverse” [Diversos No Perversos], which airs on National Venezuelan Radio.

SS and JRW: Chávez has been talking about ‘socialism’ in Venezuela since 2005. What does ‘socialism’ mean to the collective?

MGB: This is a difficult issue for the collective, not because of the process itself but because Latin America remains very sexist (machista). Not to be too pessimistic, but Venezuela remains very patriarchal. Speaking of the election campaign, for example, there was a bad joke insulting an opposition candidate [a male] as being ‘feminine.’ But it is not correct to make fun of the ‘feminine.’ In the same revolutionary process with a President [Chávez] who identifies as a feminist, who identifies this process as a socialist and feminist process, or as a feminist and socialist process, this is a contradiction. So we have to encourage critical reflection amongst our compañeros, in our neighbourhoods and in our workplaces, to identify this contradiction that they are making fun of the ‘feminine.’ After all, at the base of homophobia is a kind of sexism, to suppose that anything that is feminine about a man is a kind of weakness. This is how we started to approach the problem.

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