Representing the faculty, Professor John Adler introduced Mr. Hernandez - whose NGO, Entre Amigos, represents the rights of gay, lesbian and trans-gender people in El Salvador - likening his efforts to promote human rights to the American Civil Rights Movement and HUELGA.
Following the translator's lead, Professor Adler frankly noted U.S. complicity in the Salvadoran civil war of the 1980's, the divisiveness of which infects the country still. Current U.S. efforts to deal with Salvadoran gang violence in Los Angeles (MS 13 and the 18th Street Gang) has resulted in the gang members simply being deported to San Salvador. Adler noted how the ultra-violent gang initiations are often practiced against LGBT people. Finally, the Church's vociferous anti-gay stance and homophobic instructions to the populace result in law enforcement's apathy in protecting LGBT people from violence and bigotry - indeed, law enforcement is sometimes complicit in the attacks themselves.
The legacy of the civil war, the influence of the L.A.-based gangs and the opinion of the Church have created a "perfect storm" of hatred and homophobia. It is in this nexus that Mr. Hernandez, called a "hero", tries to defend the rights of LGBT people through his organization.
Entre Amigos is the result of joint efforts of activists in San Salvador and San Francisco. For the last 16 years it has operated under the threat and exercise of violence against their efforts. The organization has been raided seven times in the last five years and Mr. Hernandez' life has been threatened.
Entre Amigos focuses on the defense and promotion of human rights related to sexuality, including monitoring government actions and sponsoring legislation. They also focus on voluntary sex and sexual health education initiatives within the gay community.
The main objective is to contribute to the development of and improve the quality of life for LGBT people in El Salvador who suffer the constant abrogation of human rights. Last year 24 people were murdered because of sexual identity.
In El Salvador, said Hernandez, the concept of "hate crimes" does not really exist. He likened the murder/dissappearing of LGBT people to the "dissappearings" of the civil war period - rejecting and purging the unwanted. Law enforcement is also apathetic to LGBT needs and participates in the brutalization of the population.
Compounding the problem is the rampant self-hate of the population. LGBT people suffer ridicule when they turn to authorities for help. There is no record of violence against lesbians (while there is against men/trans women) but this is due to the fact that lesbians file no complaints because: 1) Men are the front-persons and 2) many lesbians suffer sexual abuse and denial of services so therefore 3) women are loath to turn to men for help.
However, as bleak as the situation may seem, it is not entirely hopeless.
Entre Amigos has developed expertise in two points: 1) public policy, 2) non-clinical attention to HIV/AIDS. They work with gay men, sexual workers, people whose freedoms have been revoked, university students, people living with HIV/AIDS/TB, the "mobile community" of the displaced, the police force and the general population.
There are still lack of resources to train officials and create sexual diversity ideals and the lack of interest of the police to investigate hate crimes is a big road block. The NGO has, thanks to their limited funding, trained a group of policemen in pertinent issues. However, the disinterest of police chiefs deters those officers who are trained to help, even if they want to. Still, it is a neccessary and important progressive step.
Additionally, though LGBT issues are challenged politically by, for example, the Christian Democracy Party, legislation has been sponsored by the NGO resulting in May 17 being declared as the day against homophobia in El Salvador. Additionally, they've coordinated a "ministry agreement" against discrimination of LGBT in hospital services, and as of May 13th of 2010, sexual orientation or gender discrimination is a crime by Presidential mandate.
While Empre Amigos has had marked success, there is still much work to be done. Following the promulgation of the above Presidential mandate against gender discrimination, an upward surge of violence against transexual women in which the police were culpable, combined with a rash of anti-gay sermons, death threats and physical intimidation of NGO workers indicates a backlash against the progress of the human rights work in which Entre Amigos and others are engaged.
Still, Mr. Hernandez remains dedicated to his work, explaining, "LGBT issues are not about marriage or adoption, it's about lives."