"We have to force the government to provide equal treatment, to stop discrimination, to respect the right to health care and a job for gays. In order to exercise these rights you have to demand them."
Mexico’s first openly homosexual member of Congress, Patria Jiménez Flores was elected in 1998 at the age of forty-one. The ninth of ten children in a conservative Catholic family, Jiménez overcame her own family’s prejudices to confront the bigotry of society at large. She works on issues of homophobic violence, violations of basic rights, sexual and sexuality education, cultural activism, and awareness of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In addition she is a leader on domestic violence initiatives and a supporter of peace negotiations with the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas. As a member of the national legislature, Jiménez works on behalf of sexual minorities, and for the dispossessed and voiceless throughout Mexico. Between 1991 and 1993, some twenty-five gay men were assassinated in Mexico, mostly among the Chiapas transvestite community. Jiménez has been a relentless advocate for justice, pressuring police to reopen the investigations. On the day of this interview, Jiménez was on the phone to Chiapas, hearing from local human rights organizers that authorities had used violence again that morning, and her presence would help prevent confrontation. Could she possibly come in time for the demonstration? Despite the caseload of legislation confronting her, Patria Jiménez was on the next flight. Today Jimenez is also the head of El Clóset de Sor Juana (Sister Juana's Closet), a lesbian rights group named after Juana Inés de la Cruz, a Carmelite nun and renowned Mexican poet.
Twenty-five transvestites were executed, one by one, in the state of Chiapas. The murders were carried out with high-powered weapons, those reserved for the exclusive use of the armed forces and the judicial police. There was a private party at which someone allegedly made a video, so what the governor allegedly did was to kill all the people who may have had something to do with that. And while violent discrimination is more pronounced in municipalities with a right-wing party in power, other states within Mexico have had their share of human rights violations against gay, lesbian, or transgendered people.
In Mexico City, with the election of the new government (the Party of the Democratic Revolution), we saw a change to greater visibility and freedom of expression. Proposals we made to improve the human rights situation of sexually diverse people included the creation of the first community center for them. We could have done it alone, but it was important to have government support. This is an ongoing struggle.
I have been a lesbian activist for twenty years. I think that not feeling guilty about it, not having to request permission simply to live without hiding, is liberating. I don’t know if it’s a consciousness that you learn. I certainly was strengthened by feminist discourse, by finding groups of women who reflected on everything—sexual roles, the division of labor, violence. What I learned is that you can’t discriminate on the basis of a human condition. You can’t ask a Chinese person to have round eyes, or someone to change their skin color, or a homosexual to be heterosexual. But in my culture this truth is not universally acknowledged.
It starts, of course, in the home, this phenomenon of family violence against children who are gay. It begins with silence, with marginalization within the family environment, with punishment. By brothers, fathers, uncles. In a minor, small way, I felt this while growing up, too. Family conversation was always negative when it came to the issue of homosexuals. And, of course, that’s what makes someone repress the idea that he or she is a homosexual.
Let me tell you one story. At one point, one of my brothers was threatened by my relationship with one of his girlfriends. She had written me a letter, and he opened it before I did—because he was jealous, I suppose. Of course, I wasn’t involved with his friend in any way. I was only sixteen at the time, and he was maybe nineteen. At that point I still didn’t have any idea that I was a lesbian. And this letter didn’t really say anything special, but after reading it my brother spoke to me in really offensive terms. "You fucking lesbian," he said. I responded, "But why ‘fucking’? And I don’t understand—what’s wrong with being a lesbian? Why is it an offense?" I didn’t like his attitude. Furthermore, I knew it showed a lack of respect to read my letter. It was my first experience of rebellion, of responding to the prejudices of the larger society we live in, of personal anger.
You see, I was never in the closet. I left home so they wouldn’t try to take me to a psychologist or psychiatrist. But when I did finally leave home I was out in the streets—literally—marching and proclaiming who I was. The first demonstration I went to I unfurled a poster at the Iranian Embassy, because they were killing women who took off their veils. It was a big sign saying: "Mexican Lesbians Against the Assassination of Iranian Women." People looked at it, and came back to look again. We always took the opportunity to forthrightly declare that we were lesbians protesting this or that. Because I believe it is very important to get involved within social movements as lesbians, homosexuals, and bisexuals, and to work within them, like the indigenous movement in Mexico, for example. That gave us presence, and made us, and them, realize that one is not alone.
In my life I have heard a lot of stories from women. Stories that explain what it means to live a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered life, with all its disadvantages, in such a heterosexist society. I began late in the 1970s to consider ways to solve problems or, at least, to diminish the levels of anxiety with which gay people lived.
By the time I actually had lesbian relationships, I was already very independent. I left home because I knew I would not be able to change my entire family, and it was always a given that they were going to try to change me. I tried to write them a letter saying I thought I had already learned everything that I could from my family, and everything I had left to learn was beyond the boundaries of our closed world. That was a crisis for them. My sisters told my mother I had a sexual deviation problem. But by the time they actually reacted, I was already gone. Later, I rebuilt my relationship with my mother. She imagined that my world was full of problems, that I would never have a home. But I showed her that I had a house and a job, and that I had continued studying. And when we finally sat down face to face to talk, she said to me that the only thing she wanted to know is whether I was happy. Then she said, "But why can’t you be like your sisters?" And I responded, "Would you really want their lives for me?"
Still, my whole life I always felt my mother’s support, her love. Parents always know if their children are gay. With me, my mother never spoke about gay issues, but she’d buy me a pair of pants, or a particular shirt, as though she knew. And she seemed to understand that what I was doing was right for me.
With being lesbian comes the pressure of tremendous responsibility. There’s always a pressure to show that we’re better. I don’t know if it’s positive or negative, but we strive to be the best we can at work. It’s part of our seeking acceptance and I like to think that through this effort we can support and help other lesbians. Part of my effort is to show that I’m qualified. Though I don’t actively feel discrimination, because I think I’ve done my job well, I recognize that discrimination is impregnated in daily life. It can be felt in the way people look at you.
Here’s one example. In Orizábal, in the state of Veracruz, the mayor decided to detain all transsexuals who are prostitutes. So what did they do? They picked up the prostitutes, and all the gays and lesbians, too. How did they pick them up? By their appearance alone. The prostitutes were liable to be picked up for actions, administrative violations: for selling their bodies, for lascivious conduct. But lots of young gay people were brought to jail solely because of their appearance. Similarly, if young people were caught carrying condoms, they were accused of prostitution.
There is discrimination. In Mexico City and the other big cities, gay people gain strength from being part of a group. But elsewhere in Mexico, people are alone and isolated. When someone in this situation gets our telephone number, they call us; and today, we get hundreds of calls. The movement has done a lot, providing services, creating groups, supporting sexual diversity.
But there is much more to accomplish. What I would like to do through radio and television programs is to get families to know that they should not discriminate against their children. We’re pushing for a climate in which young gay men and lesbians can have positive relations with their families and friends.
But there is an outside world, too, to contend with. It’s still a reality that someone gay could lose their job if it becomes known. A professional, a cardiologist, even someone of real eminence can be fingered as a homosexual by anyone on the street. The professional then might lose his or her job. Still. Today. That’s why we need legislation. This is a process that has been evolving, the understanding that it is important for gay people to know that they have rights. For twenty years that’s been our work—to explain that we are citizens, that we pay taxes. And now that sexually diverse communities understand that they have the same rights as everyone else, our work is to get them to exercise their rights. We’re just at the point where gay people know that we have power. We surprised ourselves when we proposed to march to the center of Mexico City during the annual demonstration. People showed up by the thousands and said, "Yes, we are citizens."
It was an important step in the process we are living now. We can’t reach all gay people in Mexico, but our organization is becoming more accessible all the time. But we have to force the government—it doesn’t matter if it is the National Action Party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or the Party of the Democratic Revolution—to provide equal treatment, to stop discrimination, to respect the right to health care and a job for gays. In order to exercise these rights you have to demand them.
But things are slowly changing—and for the better. We’ve reached agreements related to young people unable to finish their studies because of their sexual orientation, as in the case of transgendered people, who often feel that their only option is prostitution. We’re discussing this with authorities on the district level, so that when transgendered people arrive, dressed however, they are not discriminated against. They should be treated as citizens with access to this type of privileges, scholarships, and services that the government gives to other people, so they can have a trade. And we’ve had a positive response. We’ve also asked on a district level for the establishment of places to sell condoms in public, to help limit the spread of HIV, along with a person who can dispense information, but at this time even basic salaries are not sufficient to purchase condoms.
We succeeded in establishing the office of the Social Ombudsman, who receives complaints from citizens, gives support, investigates complaints, and punishes wrongdoers. They are going to open a window for people to lodge complaints, related to sexual diversity—whether you were fired or kicked out of your school or your apartment, or suffered some physical attack. They’ll work on your case and give you advice—without discrimination. These are the things we have seen on the positive side of the balance.
There have been some interesting developments in working with the men and women members of the Chamber of Deputies. We eliminated the terms "homosexualism" and "homosexual practices" from the legal vocabulary (considered under the criminal code to be aggravating factors in the crime of corrupting minors). Representatives from all political parties accepted this change as natural and normal at the negotiating table. They said it was fine, a good proposal, and moved it forward to the Senate. In Mexico City, it will also be approved. So progress has been made.
The right-wing National Action Party and the Church have led powerful attacks against gays and lesbians. We requested a meeting with Church leaders to ask them to stop discriminating against sexually diverse people. There was no response, so I made a proposal to groups of religious people (who happen to be gay) to make a pilgrimage to the Virgin of Guadalupe. It was a great initiative, because we will reclaim the right to be spiritual, to profess a religion, without having to worry about the religious hierarchy. When I look back on this, I will know I did the best that I possibly could. For my private life, I steal time. I don’t really have time, just little pieces, days, sometimes hours. My work schedule includes lesbian groups, the lesbian-gay movement, my work in Congress, the legislative initiatives on which I work, marches, meetings, protests, publishing a magazine, writing. Plus the congressional commissions on which I sit—which are important for me: equality and gender, human rights, and population and development. But I just don’t have time for everything.
And I will look back and realize the true meanings of many things, like courage. Courage is when, in Chiapas, you ask a general to remove his troops from a community because they are entering houses at night, frightening people. You have to talk to that general, to confront someone with weapons and power, to overcome your timidity and fear. Today they tell me I’m going to Chiapas, to lead the people on a march into the community of La Realidad. When we get to the roadblock, there will be armed paramilitaries. These are the most risky situations: entering communities in which my truck is surrounded by paramilitaries threatening to burn it, saying that they will kill us. It used to make me afraid, but it doesn’t any more. Because I am never alone. Even when people ask me to go in front, to confront the troops or the paramilitaries, they come with me, so we’re a group.
My fear disappears when I begin to speak in these situations, without raising my voice. I just try to explain to people what’s going on. I’m afraid inside, but calm outside. It’s only when I get home that I react. The morning after, I wake up and say, "What did I do?" That could be brave. I don’t know. I’m not someone who takes risks. Others have been beaten up, but this has not happened to me. If that happens to me some day, it will be part of the work. I just hope they don’t hurt me too badly.
But I take courage by realizing that here is an opening, and we have been able to move forward on difficult cases. I’ve gotten a reputation of being a good advocate. But it works because there is openness on the part of the other side. They are small cases, but they are very important, because they have to do with people’s lives—someone in jail, rape victims, a pregnant woman, a person kicked out of work after twenty-five years. Very small cases, but it’s their lives. And it’s so worth fighting for.