Lesbian Scare as Feminists Gather

Lesbian Scare as Latin Feminists Gather: Women Defy Anti-Gay Atmosphere to Hold Encuentro in El Salvador

tatiana de la tierra

A group of foreigners, aided by CISPES, is planning their 6th Feminist Convention under the disguise of defending the rights of Central American women. But this is, in reality, a convention of lesbians, homosexuals, bisexuals, and deviants (queers), like the ones they have in other countries. They will serve to crush our religion, civic and moral values. Furthermore, this will endanger our health. For this reason, we warn our fellow citizens about the true aim of the 6th feminist convention. –Association of Salvadorean Women, San Salvador, Oct. 23, 1993

A politically tinged homophobic backdrop greeted the 1,500 women who attended the sixth Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encuentro in El Salvador (Oct. 30-Nov. 5 1993). A barrage of communiqués and confusion preempted the gathering. The scenario included death threats to organizers, the reneging of a contract with an army-owned beachfront hotel in Costa del Sol, overnight delays at immigration upon entering the country (and the denial of entry to Cuban women) and accusations that the participants were there to promote abortion, homosexuality, equal rights, and communism.

The harsh reaction was rooted in Salvadorean politics. A full-page ad, purchased by Salvadorean immigrants living in San Francisco, was published Oct. 2 in San Salvador’s conservative El Diario de Hoy newspaper. The ad denounced the “convention of homosexuals” and reprinted a pamphlet distributed in the United States promoting a “lesbian, gay, bisexual/queer” delegation to the convention. The pamphlet was published by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a U.S.-based leftist advocacy group that supports the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the onetime guerrilla army that is now a political party.

The homophobic and anti-communist focus was most likely a response to CISPES’ name being associated with the gathering. In reality, CISPES was just one of hundreds of groups that arranged for a delegation to attend the conference. Still, headlines shouted warnings, letters circulated to President Alfredo Cristiani’s office, and U.N. protection was planned.

Conference organizer Morena Herrera responded with the facts, saying “Sexual preference is not asked as part of the enrollment. We do not deny that lesbian women will come.”

So how was the feminist gathering affected by weeks of alarms about lesbians in the press? “It seemed to me that the threats and continues harassment before the conference produced the opposite of what they wanted,” said Juanita Ramos, Puerto Rican lesbian-feminist activist from New York who has attended four of the six encuentros. “The fact that the organizers, which included lesbians and heterosexual women, decided to hold the conference despite the threats would seem to indicate that the bonds between the women were strengthened rather than weakened.”

Lesbians from more than a dozen countries attended the encuentro. Lesbians have participated in the feminist gatherings since the first one was held in Bogotá, Colombia in 1981. Subsequent encuentros were held in Perú (1983), Brasil (1985), México (1987), and Argentina (1990).

Whether programmed by organizers or by on-site lesbians, there have always been workshops with a lesbian focus. But lesbians had never been officially recognized by the organizers until now, and during the fifth encuentro in Argentina, they protested and demanded visibility. Latina lesbians, who have organized a separate lesbian-feminist encuentro since 1987, continue to attend the feminist ones.

Not surprisingly, feminism was dissected at the encuentro. There were workshops on the definition of a feminist and problems specific to feminism in America Latina. Reflecting the Salvadorean site, a particular focus was the building of Central American feminism in a context where countries are at different points in their own society amidst political instability. Busloads of Salvadoreñas and Nicaraguensas joined in the discussions.

Few black, indigenous and working-class women went to the encuentro. Latin feminists, who are stereotypically well-educated, white and upper middle class, attended a forum on racism. Issues of race and class are slowly making inroads into the feminist conference.

For first-time participant Maria Limón, a Chicana lesbian, the experience was “pretty mind-boggling. There were no one, two, or three points of view. And that’s what was exciting about it, that it was not a monolithic group.”

Limón, who lives in San Antonio, went to the conference to represent the Foundation for a Compassionate Society. She experienced first-hand the political and cultural relationships between the Latinas who live in Latin America and the Caribbean and those who don’t. “I had stuff coming at me like, ‘Una me dijo, Ay eres gringa. . .Hay que recordarle esos defecticos.’I just said, ‘Si, 100 percent gringa.’ What am I going to deny? I was born and raised in the U.S. and Spanish was my first language but I think in English now. And that was a challenge, to stay connected and feel like I belonged.”

Lesbians at the encuentro stayed connected via daily workshops and meetings. Some of the key topics cited as those that need to be expanded on include international visibility, lesbian mothers, race, class, and “la brecha”, the gap between Latinas who live in different lands.

The fourth lesbian-feminist Encuentro, to be held in Brazil, was talked about for days. Brazilians dialogued with lesbian from countries that will assist in planning the event, such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Ecuador. There were also lesbians present from Argentina, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, Guatemala, Chile, Bolivia, Spain, Canada and the United States.

The third lesbian-feminist Encuentro was held in Puerto Rico in the summer of 1992. It then took more than a year to find a country in Latin America—Brazil—with lesbians willing to host hundreds of their own. And for that one, searing headlines warning the masses about the advent of a lesbian convention will be merely factual.

Originally published:

de la tierra, tatiana. “Lesbian Scare as Feminists Gather: Women Defy Anti-Gay Atmosphere to Hold Encuentro in El Salvador.” Lesbian News Jan. 1994: 67-68