Honduran human rights defender Gaspar Sánchez dropped out of the fifth grade in 2003 and became a member of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Since 2014 he has served on COPINH’s leadership team as the Coordinator of Sexual Diversity & Rights Equality, which, for the first time in any Latin American Indigenous organization, established a space dealing specifically with LGBTI-related issues.
Sánchez also hosts a radio program, Los Colores de Wiphala, that discusses human rights with an emphasis on the LGBTI community. He conducts community workshops around the rights of Indigenous peoples, territorial defense, protecting Mother Nature’s common goods threatened by extractivist projects, and legal accompaniment. In addition to supporting COPINH’s Tomás García Political Formation School building leadership among the youth, Sánchez also serves as a spiritual guide for the Lenca people in their efforts to recuperate Indigenous historical memory through processes of life, land defense, and ancestral spirituality.
Bryan Rogers from Witness for Peace’s Honduras Program sat down with Gaspar Sánchez to discuss his work as he toured around the United States giving workshops and presentations at universities, community centers, and organizing spaces.
BR: Could you talk about what guides your sexual diversity work? Are their organizational frameworks or examples from other Indigenous struggles in Latin America that have motivated or informed the ways in which you carry out your work?
GS: Yeah, there are some examples of Indigenous peoples that have made advancements regarding this issue of respect. I always mention the Quechua, the Aymara — Indigenous Peoples of Bolivia — where there has been a level of acceptance of gays and lesbians within their communities. I think COPINH is the first Indigenous space in Central America to openly engage these issues. It’s about how to reclaim our right to freedom, the right to be free which is an ongoing process given that our communities are still living the effects of colonization, of having suffered that invasion more than 525 years ago. It’s had deep impacts. It’s unfortunate to say so, but even to this day women are still subjugated to men, and subjugated further by religion. In that sense, just talking about sexual diversity becomes yet more complicated because one has to face rejection, discrimination beginning with their own family, and then one’s community.
There’s a complete lack of education in Honduras. The State has no interest in these issues, and our schools certainly don’t talk about what it means to be gay or lesbian. And that’s where my work comes in: to educate people about these topics because we believe it’s important to at least begin talking about it. To educate ourselves through training processes that COPINH has been doing via community radio which allow us to speak openly about human rights in general, then moving towards respect for people of diverse sexualities.
BR: So a day in the life of Gaspar: you go to an Indigenous community to put on a workshop with a group of young people. What’s that like? Who shows up and how do they respond?
GS: One has to confront the things as they take place. The patriarchy and machismo are constructed and reinforced from within the home, and it takes a lot to be able to stop people from saying things. It’s especially hard with men because machismo culture teaches them to give orders, to dominate others. Sometimes you have to confront people, stop them and make them understand that there’s no need to discriminate, that the world is so large and there’s enough room for everyone. We’re all human beings and the mere fact of being gay or lesbian shouldn’t be synonymous with rejection.
Of course what we experience is a product of a religious mentality that simply doesn’t accept us. In fact, they hate us. And that mentality wields great influence because the Lencan people are extremely religious. So when you go to these communities you don’t focus solely on the issue of sexual diversity, at least not right away or directly. The problems they face are wide-ranging, many which stem from the installation of extractive-industry projects and the threats they carry.
In addition to that, we also provide information around ILO-169, the only international legal instrument available to Honduras’ Indigenous populations. And of course, we frame our discussions around the issue of respect, both for international law and toward the community of sexual diversity. Even though we may not have gained their full acceptance, at least they respect us. It’s really hard for a people from our communities to live openly, to come out and say it publicly. There are still compañeros and compañeras that don’t agree with going public about their identities. People have told me stories about how repressed their lives have been, how they would’ve been ignored had they come out when they were young. Now they’re married, have their own children, and all because the pressure and discrimination was so severe.
The subject of gays and lesbians has always been present though. The past generation talked about it, but in a very discriminatory fashion. So even to this day those same men are still attracted to other men, and especially to women’s clothing, but they do it under the radar, because behind all the rejection there’s that fear of what people may say, of what the church will say, to the point where we repress ourselves and feel guilty. Far from blaming other for that rejection, the discrimination is such that we end up incriminating ourselves. Often times you start thinking, “damn, how will I be punished for the sin of being born like this?” We feel terrible and begin hating ourselves for who we are, which then becomes hatred towards everyone else because, shit, they’re free and can proclaim it openly, but not me. That happens, ya know, those are the stories people tell me when we talk about these issues.
— UpsideDownWorld (@UpsideDownTweet) September 29, 2017
BR: Could you touch on some of the connections between the struggle in defense of Indigenous territories and the struggle for sexual diversity rights? In what ways are LGBT rights and awareness critical in challenging and dismantling militaristic and patriarchal systems?
GS: It all goes together, including when we talk about our struggles against capitalism. Machista and patriarchal systems have been built within and alongside the system of capitalism. We continue saying what Berta [Cáceres] used to say all the time, “that we can’t wage isolated struggles.” Which is to say we’re not fighting merely capitalism, but all that derives from it.
So one thing for certain that unites these struggles is the fact that Indigenous communities are defending their lands for the future generations, right? We want those who come after us to be able to enjoy the river, to be able to live on the land and grow their crops. And it’s the same desire we have for gay and lesbian people. I don’t want those coming after me to suffer the same things I have. You get tired of living with that rejection, the discrimination, of being excluded, so I think it’s important that we deal with that, right? If Indigenous communities are struggling for their future, why not for ours as well?
It’s an ongoing debate though because people generally think of gays and lesbians as a problem that only happens in the cities, that we don’t exist in Indigenous communities. Okay, but our histories have taught us we experience the same type of invisibilization that many of our leaders face. Today Indigenous gays and lesbians suffer discrimination, but prior to colonization we were, and in fact we continue to be special individuals possessing a dual spirituality. The most beautiful aspect of Indigenous Peoples is the way they distinctly see life. There’s a deep connection with the water, the land, with the forests, all of which contain spirits. Human beings are also born with special gifts, and particularly gays and lesbians because we have an insight to understanding both men and women. It makes sense, too, because although my body is male, my thoughts and inner being are those of a female. The same holds true for lesbian women. So before colonization our status as gifted individuals was respected, not rejected. That’s what COPINH is working towards: the revival and claiming of our right to equality for we believe a better society governed by respect and equality for everyone is possible.
BR: When you mention the right to self-determination and the right to autonomy as it relates to Indigenous land defense, are there similar concepts applied to sexual diversity?
GS: Absolutely. I think that’s where we’re headed and what we as COPINH are betting on because it has everything to do with our lives and our bodies. And that’s autonomy, too, right, being able to decide for oneself? For example, we’re fighting so that women can become decision-makers in their communities, that they’re the ones to decide for themselves, for women to create their own spaces. I mean it’s the same self-determination that individuals of diverse sexualities seek: the space to be able to speak, to discuss and debate openly. But also to be able to fully involve ourselves in the struggles for our rivers and territories, and in the defense of collective spaces because in the end I think that’s one of the greatest barriers we face. We’ve simply become unaccustomed to operating in the collective. So in a sense, it’s an ongoing construction of that right to collective autonomy, a self-determination of accepting myself not only for what I am, but for what I can contribute as well.
I think it’s worth mentioning my own experience. I live in an urban neighborhood of La Esperanza and when I first decided to come out publicly, I had to face my family, then my community. I was heavily discriminated against, and faced rejected mostly from my peers, but I was also a target of the adult’s stinging criticisms. Nevertheless, I overcame it. COPINH taught me how to defend myself, how to stand tall and dig my heels in, and I pulled through. Shortly after, in a community-wide meeting, I was elected to be president of the local patronato [similar to neighborhood council body].
— UpsideDownWorld (@UpsideDownTweet) October 10, 2017
So I think there are moments when it’s clear you have to stand firm, argue your case, debate with your peers to show them that being gay is not wrong, that it’s not a problem or a disease, that I want and choose to be like this. But there’s a cost, too, because sometime I think,”fuck, I do not know whether or not I can keep going,” but I do think we’re progressing, especially when it comes to community radio. It allows us to reach communities that are already well-organized, but also communities who’ve just begun to organize. My radio program, La Wiphala, seeks to educate people around the issues of autonomy and sexual diversity because you’re certainly going to learn about it in school or in church. They’re still taboo subjects there. But as far as community radio and grassroots organizing I do think we’re slowly moving forward.
BR: Considering all this, how do you view the role of international solidarity with these struggles for liberation, respect, and equality?
GS: I think international solidarity has had and continues to play a very important role given everything that is happening in Honduras, and I think all the more so particularly now in the context of the national elections where we’ll see an increase in repression and assassinations of leaders. It’s all tied into what we’ve been saying around forced displacements and increased privatization. It’s also important to do advocacy work in other countries, above all denouncing international financing. For example, here in the United States, through the Alliance for Prosperity – a program that began two or three years ago – just recently disbursed upwards of $110 million toward generating employment to help reduce the massive wave of our brothers and sisters who flee Honduras. And not because they want to, but largely because there are no jobs, no opportunities, and of course many flee due to violence. The gangs are displacing vast numbers of people, and there’s ample evidence to suggest that high-ranking police and military officials head up these criminal gang networks that are the madness and violence in the cities. These officials hire the gangs to commit assassinations and massacres of boys and girls (cipotes and cipotas as we call them Honduras). So it’s extremely important that international solidarity networks closely monitor the situations with our community leaders and especially in high-conflict regions. The crackdown in the Bajo Aguán, for example, is going to become much worse following the elections. In the last few years there’s already been severe repression in the Aguán communities, particularly against the youth given that they’re the ones liberating and recuperating their territories, and therefore they suffer the brunt of violent attacks. I think there’s a heightened call for international solidarity during the elections, but also in the aftermath because that’s when we’ll really see a jump in violence and repression.
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