Gays & Lesbians in Chile Fight Back

— Emily Bono

THE OFFICE OF the Movement for Gay and Lesbian Liberation, near downtown Santiago, is inviting. Although always busy, staff take time out to chat with whoever comes in. Meeting rooms, where mainly young people come to hang out, are in the back of the building.

The atmosphere is supportive and comfortable. The violet walls are covered with information on upcoming workshops and events, AIDS prevention, art work and posters about being homosexual: “Be what you want to be, but be yourself,” says one.

The Movement for Gay and Lesbian Liberation (MOVILH), founded after the end of Pinochet’s dictatorship, is the largest and most visible organization of gays and lesbians in Chile. Its growth and programs are impressive.

“Today homosexuals know MOVILH exists and will stand up for them,” says Victor Hugo Robles, one of seven coordinators. “But we are also known outside of the gay and lesbian community. For example, the governmental commission on AIDS prevention asked us to make a brochure for homosexuals. We are known as a group that does valuable work.”

Although MOVILH founders conceived their organization as one of both gays and lesbians, women didn’t start coming to MOVILH until almost two years later. “For women, it is very difficult to think of themselves as lesbians, the term hurts them a lot,” says Marlore Moran, a spokeswoman for MOVILH, and codirector of MOVILH’s radio program “Open Triangle,” aired on the feminist station Radio Tierra.

“For example, since I am on the radio, many women call me, married women and even nuns. I also have gone through the experience of marrying and having a child thinking I could change.”

Beginning in June 1993, lesbians shared their experiences at weekly meetings in the MOVILH office. “The attitude of MOVILH was liberating,” says Marlore Moran. “They provided the space for us to do what ever we wanted. We talked and organized until we were ready to work for both gay rights and lesbian rights, realizing that these rights should be equal. Then we started joining MOVILH.”

Nevertheless, lesbians remain a small minority within MOVILH. Only two of the seven coordinators are women. Marlore’s response to this situation is to raise the consciousness of the women. “Women need to use the right they have to speak up. For example, I entered MOVILH in June and in August I was already a coordinator, but that’s because I decided I wanted to be.”

Services and Activism

MOVILH offers a variety of workshops, peer counseling, legal and psychological services, and AIDS testing in cooperation with a wide network of organizations.

Fathers can work on accepting their gay sons in a special father-son workshop which has been very successful. About 280 members participate in events on a regular basis, and 2000 to 3000 people can be mobilized for a special event.

Leaders’ backgrounds and experiences shape MOVILH’s style and tone. Marco Ruiz spent four years in exile in Argentina where he was exposed to a more open attitude towards homosexuality. “This experience led to personal growth, which in turn flowed into the movement when we got back to Chile,” he says.

Many of MOVILH’s activists opposed military rule, although they did not organize as homosexuals. They were leaders of student organizations, political parties, unions and other groups. MOVILH retains this unmistakably political tone today.

Leaders link the issue of being gay to the fundamental nature of society. “We assumed gay rights would come with democracy. Now we realize that democracy won’t really be achieved until we have organized, fought for and won the rights that we need, that are ours,” says Victor Hugo Robles.

“We are a radically anti-system movement. For us, being homosexual means questioning the social order and the political system. We are not interested in, for example, joining the armed forces that tortured and killed people.”

In April 1994, MOVILH brought together a coalition of youth organizations to resist the obligatory military service. This coalition supports several young MOVILH members who plan to refuse going to military service. Currently, Chile has no mechanism for conscientious objection and completion of military service is routinely required for employment.

The political tone may be an explanation for the type of people MOVILH draws in: mainly young, lower middle class and poor people who identify with the type of social criticism made. Victor Hugo admitted that most likely some gays and lesbians don’t come to MOVILH because of the political philosophy underlying the organization.

Outreach for Rights

MOVILH also reaches out beyond the homosexual community. With the support of the Institute for Sexual Studies, an academic center, it rents the comfortable brick building. Together both organizations held a conference on “Sexuality and Homosexuality – For the Right to Be Different,” the first time in Chile that homosexuality was publicly discussed in a professional forum.

MOVILH links the issues of gay rights and human rights by participating in commemorating human rights violations under military rule. In three years, the MOVILH section of Santiago’s annual human rights rally has grown from 12 to 350 participants.

MOVILH is organizing a campaign to abolish the anti-sodomy law. The campaign will involve pointing out famous Chileans who were believed to have been gay or lesbian, among them former president Alessandri and other politicians.

MOVILH will also run the first openly gay candidate in local elections. But the most important thing MOVILH achieved is to create a family for those who are often rejected by their own.

ATC 53, November-December 1994