Now that President Obama has come out in support of marriage equality, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has dedicated a small budget to defend LGBT rights internationally, it’s the perfect time to remind them that the abuse and killings of gay and transgender people keep piling up in Honduras—even as Washington heralds the country’s return to “democracy.”
Following a coup d’état in June 2009 that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, Honduras held a presidential election that excluded anti-coup candidates and was boycotted by large numbers of voters and election monitors. This led to the election of Porfirio Lobo, who has governed in the interests of Honduras’s small elite, continuing the agenda of the right-wing coup regime instituted in 2009. In October 2011, Obama received Lobo in the White House with the following statement: “Two years ago, we saw a coup in Honduras that threatened to move the country away from democracy, and in part because of pressure from the international community, but also because of strong commitment to democracy and leadership by President Lobo, what we’ve been seeing is a restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation that gives us great hope.”1 No mention of the human rights abuses, the economic desperation, or the failings of a corrupt judicial system.
After the coup, the killing of transgender women and gay men skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, according to Red Lésbica CATTRACHAS, an organization in Tegucigalpa that works to end the human rights abuses against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transvestite, intersex (LGBTTI) community, as it is known in Honduras.2 Before the coup, CATTRACHAS had worked with Human Rights Watch (HRW) from 2004 to 2009, documenting 17 transgender killings in the country.3 In 2009 alone, HRW’s figure went up to 22 murders, all occurring after the coup.4 CATTRACHAS, led by Indyra Mendoza and Gabrie Mass, has tracked 80 deaths since 2009, mostly of transgender women and gay men, though they have documented some cases involving lesbians.5 There have been 10 killings of LGBTTI people documented this year, including that of Erik Ávila Martínez, a young reporter and activist for the new political party LIBRE in Tegucigalpa.6 Mendoza explains, “In Honduras there is no law that penalizes sexual orientation or gender identity, but there is also no law that penalizes discrimination.”7 The transgender, gay, and lesbian killings are not investigated or tried in court, and even if they were, they would not fare well in a broken and partial judicial system that prioritizes politicking and elite alliances with presidential agendas over fair trials and investigations.
Under the Lobo government, elected officials appoint close political allies and family members to public offices, ensuring political alliances in their favor in various sectors of government. This practice, which harkens back to the era of caudillo (strongman) leadership, has meant near total impunity for crimes against the LGBTTI community. Unaccountable and undemocratic governments like Lobo’s thus contribute to the violence against LGBTTI people and others by making murder, hate crimes, and discrimination against LGBTTI people permissible.
This homophobic violence has taken place within a larger geopolitical context in which the Obama administration has sought to contain progressive governments, like that of former president Zelaya, in Latin America. This is harmful in two important ways: First, the “democratic government” in Honduras, as endorsed by Obama, fails to address the issues that affect LGBTTI communities. These governments instead attack marginalized communities and look the other way when violence is directed at them. Second, less democratic governments do not sponsor programs that benefit people who live on the margins of society.
For example, the Lobo government has done nothing to help the more than 39,000 Hondurans living with HIV/AIDS, who make up over 60% of cases reported in all of Central America.8 Moreover, a large portion of the population is not receiving adequate health care or adequate preventative education, and the working poor who are HIV-positive cannot afford to buy medications, nor can their families afford hospice care. Add to that various hate crimes, rape in jails, discrimination at work and in school, and family violence, and it becomes clear why many LGBTTI Hondurans believe that governments like Zelaya’s—riddled with contradictions as it was—hold out the promise not only of democratization but survival. This is what the LGBTTI community was hoping for during the Zelaya administration: the possibility, the hope, that issues affecting the LGBTTI community would receive the attention they deserve.
Perhaps the most apt symbol of the confluence of the anti-coup resistance and the struggle for LGBTTI rights in Honduras was Walter Tróchez, a young health promoter for the Association for a Better Life for People Living with HIV/Aids in Honduras (APUVIMEH), an LGBTTI organization dedicated to HIV education, prevention, and advocacy, who was killed while doing his job—bringing health education to transgender women working the streets (Honduran transwomen often do not live past middle age).9 At one point, he had spent time in the Renacer hospice run by the organization. Weak and frail, he had weathered the poor health conditions in the country. After a long recovery, he dedicated his life to HIV prevention and education, and after the coup became active in the resistance movement. In December 2009, he was shot to death by two men on a motorcycle. Although human rights groups demanded an investigation, no one has been prosecuted for his killing to date.
Paul Farmer’s words in his book Pathologies of Power resonate in the Honduran context:
Human Rights violations are not accidents; they are not random in distribution and effect. Rights violations are, rather, symptoms of deeper pathologies of power and are linked intimately to the social conditions that so often determine who will suffer abuse and who will be shielded from harm. If assaults on dignity are anything but random in distribution or course, whose interests are served by the suggestion that they are haphazard?10
Farmer could easily be describing the violence found in the structural conditions facing LGBTTI people in Honduras. Structural violence, so often directly tied to U.S. geopolitical influence in the region—from conditioned humanitarian aid to economic, technical, and military aid—is deployed on the bodies of LGBTTI people, as the examples in Honduras so keenly exemplify.
What message is the U.S. government sending with its quick and unquestioning endorsement of Honduras’s post-coup government? What message is Washington sending LGBTTI Central Americans and the LGBTQ community in the United States? Who cares about sexuality in the context of U.S. geopolitics and foreign relations? The message is clear: Hondurans are expendable. LLGBTTI Hondurans are expendable.
The U.S. geopolitical agenda in Central America and the Caribbean, continued by Obama, has shown a commitment to containing progressive governments and remilitarizing the region to curtail future democratization processes. This is an extremely dangerous agenda for LGBTTI people in Honduras.
Suyapa Portillo Villeda is a history professor in the Chicana/o Latina/o Transnational Studies Field group at Pitzer College. She is also a board member of the Latino Equality Alliance in Los Angeles. Portillo Villeda has been documenting abuses against LGBTTI people in her native country of Honduras since 2006.
1. United States Office of the Press Secretary, “Remarks by President Obama and President Lobo of Honduras Before Bilateral Meeting,” October 5, 2011, available at whitehouse.gov.
2. Indyra Mendoza Aguilar, “Proceso de incidencia nacional e internacional en defensa de los derechos humanos de lesbianas, gays, bisexuales, trasngéneros e intersexuales en Tegucigalpa, Honduras,” Red Lésbica CATTRACHAS, December 18, 2011.
3. Juliana Cano Nieto, “ ‘Not Worth a Penny’: Human Rights Abuses Against Transgender People in Honduras,” Human Rights Watch, May 29, 2009, available at hrw.org.
4. “Informe resumen: situacion de las muertes violentas de la comunidad LGTTBI en Honduras,” Red Lésbica CATTRACHAS, June 6, 2012; Yerina Rock, “Romper el cerco mediático del estado de excepción: Las Cattrachas,” Opiniones en Desarollo, vol. 5, Programa Educación Y Comunicación Para El Desarrollo, November 2011, available at albasud.org.
6. Red Lésbica CATTRACHAS (Tegucigalpa), “Informe resumen: situación de las muertes violentas de la comunidad LGTTBI en Honduras,” June 6, 2012.
7. Gabrie Mass Cáceres, “ ‘Trans’ Centroamerica: impacto político/social en mujeres trans en la región más violenta de Latinoamérica y el Caribe,” Red Lésbica CATTRACHAS y Fundacion Triangulo, 2012.
8. “Honduras,” UNICEF, available at unicef.org; UNAIDS available at unaids.org and ifrc.org.
9. Sandra Zambrano, “Asociación Por Una Vida Mejor–APUVIMEH,” (Tegucigalpa), interview by author, July 2011; Indyra Mendoza (Los Angeles, California), interview by author, November 2009.
10. Paul Farmer, Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor (University of California Press, 2005), 7.