Salvadoran LGBT Activist William Hernandez

No ILS event should be considered complete without a certain amount of cross-cultural recognition, learning and understanding, and happily this event was no exception. Before the speaker approached the podium or issued even a single word to the 50+ assembled students and faculty, those in the front would have heard one of his translators comment that a meeting in which food is also served would be considered quite rude, indeed, in Venezuela. It wasn't meant, nor was it taken as an insult or negative criticism. Her comment, honest, non-patronizing, and fearless, and presented with an eye to educate, was to set the tone of the entire event.

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."

Accountability in Haiti

Hey ILSers!!

Thanks to everyone who came out last night to ILS's signature event "Accountability in Haiti," co-sponsored by Human Rights Advocates, Students for Law and Global Justice, Journal for Law and Global Justice, and USF Law's SBA!

The event went off without a hitch, beginning with an introduction by Julianne Cartwright Traylor from Human Rights Advocates. Next, Nicole Philips from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) introduced our keynote speaker, Brian Concannon, Jr., the executive director of IJDH. Brian spoke about the importance of accountability in haiti, and untangled the myth that "Haitians are better off now, after the earthquake, because of all the aid." He showed the comprehensive report IJDH wrote entitled "We Have Been Forgotten," which was co-written by our very own USF Law students!

After Brian's keynote address, Nicole moderated a panel with the USF Law students. Darya Larizadeh started us off with a discussion of the human rights violations in Haiti, namely the rights to food, water, shelter, and sanitation among others. She explained that not only Haiti's government but donor state governments need to be held accountable for these violations. Next, a vibrant Ben Lewis discussed the lack of accountability mechanisms for NGOs, IGOs, and CSOs. He suggested that even though their intentions are good, these organizations still need to be monitored in their distribution of aid and support.

Ryan Smith then talked about the forced evictions and land rights accountability. He explained the dire situation for the over 1.5 million Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) living in camps on private property, and the tension between the IDPs and the landowners. Last but not least, Elizabeth Leone shared her knowledge on gender based violence in the IDP camps, stressing that the lack of lighting, privacy, and security has led to multiple rapes that often go unreported, due to a lack of a justice-dealing mechanism.

After the students shared their experiences and knowledge, we opened the floor for a Q&A. Members of the audience were from all over, including private journalists, USF Masters students, other Haitian human rights activists, and USF Law students. When it was time to hand over room 100 to classes, we moved to the terrace room.

The night ended with a lovely reception in the terrace room, catered by Swankys. It was delicious! Everyone had a chance to ask any further questions, mingle, and generally enjoy the beautiful warm San Francisco Night. Overall, the event was a success!

If you missed this event, you can read the report here: Hope to see you at the next one!