Coming out to friends and family isn’t easy for many in the LGBT community. But, in places like El Salvador, it can be deadly.
Carlo Zepeda, who immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador 32 years ago when he was 18, knows first-hand what it’s like to be gay in in his homeland.
Thankfully, when Zepeda, 50, came out at age 28 in the United States, his family embraced and accepted him. But many others in the conservative and religiously conservative Central American country aren’t as lucky.
“It’s a very macho male patriarchal society. The LGBT community there, they pay a price for living in a country that’s very homophobic and machismo.” Gays, lesbians and transgender individuals are targeted specifically by gangs and bystanders are either slow to help or don’t help at all.
It’s a situation made all the more complicated by El Salvador’s 13-year civil war – 1979 to 1992.
“Even though the peace accords were signed, society is still trying to rehabilitate,” Zepeda said.
A 2010 study by USAID found that support for same sex marriage in El Salvador was 10 percent, the second lowest in Central and South America behind Guyana. Growing up, Zepeda said he never knew what the term “gay” meant. But he did know words like “maricon,” the Spanish word for “faggot,” and he knew it wasn’t a good word.
After three suicide attempts and countless panic attacks, Zepeda’s psychologist recommended coming out. “For many years I lived with this secret I thought was going to destroy my life. In the Latin community, family means everything to us.”
But all his worrying was for not. “My family was very welcoming and loving. I’m very grateful.”
Others in his homeland weren’t so lucky.
Zepeda will talk about some of those experiences on Thursday, Dec. 17 at the Stonewall Gallery,
2157 Wilton Drive. They’re part of a doctoral thesis he’s authored. One he hopes to have published as a book in the future.
Unlike the U.S. and much of Europe, which has a variety of social and government resources for members of the LGBT community to take advantage of, those who come out in El Salvador can’t rely on such support.
“I like research groups that have been marginalized. The gay men that I spoke too told me that one of the reasons why there’s a great number of suicides among gay men is they feel trapped. They feel abandoned by their families. They’re afraid to come out of the closet. Most of the men were kicked out. They either ended up homeless or turned to drugs or they were taken in by friends,” said Zepeda.
Faced with a hostile environment at home, “a lot of them decide to travel to the north and see if they can make a life for themselves in the United States.”
Since he’s moved from El Salvador, he said the country has made some progress in accepting LGBT individuals.
Government institutions are prohibited from discriminating against LGBT individuals. But, said Zepeda, no laws exist prohibiting private companies from doing the same. Gay rights groups are working to have the protections extended to the private sector.
Visit Stonewall-Museum.org/Gallery for more information.