On Sunday July 2, twenty-two sponsoring businesses and organizations came together to host the sixth-annual GLBT Pride march in Caracas, Venezuela. The march was the culminating celebration of a month long series of GLBT events that took place all over the city throughout the month of June, which is recognized around the world as GLBT Pride Month. Although apparently not as well attended as it has been in the past, thousands of people showed up to march six kilometers in the unforgiving Caracas sun. However, in this city known for its mass mobilizations, popular uprisings, and street reclamations, there was a notably absent presence at the march; namely, the color red. Red is the trademark of the Bolivarian Revolution and the proud color of Chavistas, which makes the absence of this symbol a very powerful statement in and of itself. So where were the faithful, easily recognizable "revolutionaries" who regularly heed the call for mobilizations in order to demonstrate their support for "revolutionary causes?" Unfortunately, I’m not going to tell you that they traded-in their prideful red to proudly adorn themselves in rainbows for the day.
Emerging from the underground metro stop of Parque del Este on Sunday, you were greeted by people dancing to blaring music, putting on makeup, taking pictures of outrageous outfits, strutting their stuff, kissing their partners, and waving their pride flags. At the congregation point for the start of the march, brave individuals were uniting themselves through a multitude of self-expressions, exhibiting the very pride that the event’s namesake calls for to the city of Caracas. The power of an event like Pride is that over the years, it has developed a "safety-in-numbers" factor that literally allows people to come-out from the margins of society, where violence towards the queer community is tangible and the idea of self-preservation keeps many of us closeted and disconnected from one another. For example, in Valencia, Venezuela this year, approximately twenty to thirty young people showed up for a scheduled Pride march only to be told by organizers that the march would not take place because the lack of numbers translated into a lack of safety for the marchers. So when a community of oppressed people courageously comes together to use the power of our numbers to reclaim the safety, the streets, and the public spaces that are not guaranteed to us on a daily basis, a feeling of liberation is surely guaranteed, if only for a Sunday afternoon.
But missing from this liberation party was the support of the consistently visible, rightfully named "masses" of self-proclaimed "revolutionaries" in Venezuela. Maybe the masses didn’t get the message that there was a liberation march on Sunday. But truthfully, the call to mobilize was never placed by the far-reaching communications outlets that are typically used by the government to distribute information and to help mobilize the masses. After all, there were twenty-two sponsors for Pride, and the lone government sponsor at the march was from the Mayor’s Office in Caracas which played a completely apolitical role. Apart from this, there were none of the characteristic signs of the "revolution" that are expected at government-supported events in Venezuela, such as a reference to the upcoming presidential elections. The lack of government visibility demonstrates where the "official" revolution stands on GLBT issues. But even if the Chavez government had called for a massive, fervent showing of support for the GLBT community, government suggested or mandated support is not what the GLBT community in Venezuela needs. The masses of Venezuela have time and again defined the "revolution" here with their ability to mobilize spontaneously and organize tirelessly against extremely powerful, oppressive forces. They are most renowned for their collective force that reclaimed power from the coup organizers in 2002 in the form of a popular uprising. But the failure of the revolutionaries/Chavistas to march in solidarity with the GLBT community at Pride demonstrated some of the limitations of the Bolivarian Revolution.
As the Pride march swept through both anti-Chavez and Chavista neighborhoods, one common sight was the sidelined spectator. We were claiming the streets as ours for the day and hundreds of people watched us in the spaces that they are typically free to move through. Beyond the occasional gesture of disapproval or an infrequent wave, most people watched the lively march in complete passivity. There certainly wasn’t a collective consciousness to leave the spectator’s position and march with us in solidarity. The truly revolutionary moment will have come when the people who are passively on the sidelines, watching the march of the oppressed pass them by, step off the curb to start walking with us because they recognize and feel the struggle of the oppressed as their own. When people realize that we have the ability to link our struggles, for example, through the shared experiences of heterosexual women and queer men under the oppressive forces of "machismo," then revolutionary possibilities exist. The "revolutionaries" who failed to march with us on Sunday do not yet realize that "no one is free when others are oppressed."
The Chavez administration has marked a notable change in the government’s attitude towards the Venezuelan GLBT community in regards to former administrations. In addition to government-funded HIV/AIDS education programs, Venezuela is only one of three countries in Latin America that provides free medicine and treatment to HIV/AIDS patients. The Mayor’s Office of Caracas has also started anti-homophobia campaigns. The Pride march itself started in 1999; a year after Chavez was first elected to office. On Sunday, many Pride marchers said that the Chavez government was the best thing to happen to the GLBT community in Venezuela thus far. But when the marchers were asked if they felt that the government supported the GLBT community, most people answered with an unconvincing, "more or less."
In a country like Venezuela, where the president has a dialectical relationship with the masses and a dialogue of oppression is already integral to the revolutionary cause, Chavez has the responsibility to take a revolutionary stand, and push forward the call to unconditionally support the struggles of the GLBT community. But this should not be confined to financial backing or a campaign for same-sex marriage rights, for example, which was proposed by Vice President Vincent Rangel on December 28, 2005. A revolutionary government will understand that assimilating the GLBT community into heterosexual, mainstream society through a proposal like marriage rights will not bring about "equality" for the community. "Making space" for the marginalized by allowing entry into existing, oppressive/exclusive institutions does not require us to look at the origin of the forces behind our oppressions and it facilitates their perpetuation. Likewise, creating protective laws does not solve the societal problems that necessitate the existence of the laws in the first place. The revolutionary government must support the everyday reclamation of public spaces by the oppressed and provide the resources that will allow us to participate in the ongoing creation of a just society. Although Chavez cannot create the necessary change in the collective consciousness of the Venezuelan masses, he has an extremely important, symbolic role in the revolutionary process of Venezuela, and his call for and show of solidarity with the GLBT community is vital. Chavez must march with us.
At the end of the Pride march, there was a closing event with music, speeches, shows, etc. One of the speakers kept proclaiming that Venezuela is a "territory free of homophobia!" His statement stopped me in my tracks because although his liberated cry was (at best) "hopeful" in the midst of the thousands of proud marchers in front of him, the circumstances surrounding the march seethed with heterosexism. Within minutes of this speech, I left the closing event thinking about what the speaker had been proclaiming. While I was walking to the metro, I saw a man in the street angrily screaming after two people who were just ahead of him. When I got closer, I realized that he was yelling: "You’re all a bunch of faggots! Fucking faggots! etc." The man followed the couple for awhile, screaming after them, until he finally stopped in the street and continued his assault from afar. I passed him and hurried my steps up to the couple, one of whom was uncomfortably comforting the other. I asked them if they were okay and they hesitatingly said "yes." I made a comment of how hard it is to leave a space "like that," as I pointed to the plaza where we could still see and hear the Pride speakers, when we have to immediately reenter our everyday struggle with reality. But what would it mean if the streets suddenly became filled with "revolutionaries," who proudly wear their red like superheroes, and who had stopped being complicit with the oppressive behavior embodied by the man verbally assaulting the two young queers in the street? These "revolutionaries" would confront the homophobia and heterosexism that oppresses the GLBT community because they envision their liberation as necessarily linked to the liberation of all. With these "revolutionaries," we could begin to reclaim the spaces that are denied to us, not only once a year with a march, but with the everyday help of the masses. Because for us, solidarity does mean safety in numbers.
Kelly Komenda is a queer activist living in Caracas, Venezuela. She and her partner are currently self-educating about social movements/organizing.