Fabu Olmedo is so nervous about clubs and restaurants in Paraguay that before a night out she often contacts one to make sure that she’ll be let in and won’t be attacked or harassed.
Olmedo doesn’t know if she can go out in public safely because daily life is hard for transgender people in the capital, Asunción. Now, a new group of allies in Latin America is trying to make life better by changing minds in this socially conservative and often highly religious region.
Founded in 2017, the Latin American Movement of Mothers of LGTB+ Children lobbies governments to eliminate prejudical laws and better enforce existing bans on violence and discrimination.
It’s a difficult fight that will require patience and a years of effort but the mothers are working together to help others in their position, and function as a refuge for LGBTQ children whose families are not as supportive.
“It’s all about recognizing the strength and power that we have as mothers to accompany our kids and help other families,” said Alejandra Muñoz, 62, of Mexico City. Her son Manuel came out 11 years ago and suffered so much bullying at school that he spent recesses with the teachers.
“He’s constantly at risk of being yelled at or worse in the street because of his sexuality,” she said.
Olmedo, 28, said that in July she was barred from an Asunción nightclub with her friends.
“Many times they let you in but there are violent people inside,” Olmedo said.
The Latin American Movement of Mothers of LGTB+ Children held its first in-person meeting in early November in Buenos Aires, where they attended the annual massive gay pride march on Nov. 5.
“Our main battle is to make sure our children enjoy the same rights in all of Latin America,” said Patricia Gambetta, 49, the head of the Latin American Movement of Mothers of LGTB+ Children, which has members in 14 countries and the goal of expanding to all the countries in the region.
The work of the mothers is often made more complicated by the enduring power of the Catholic Church, which teaches that gay acts are “intrinsically disordered.” The increasingly popular evangelical faith also often preaches against same-sex relationships.
There are stark differences in the acceptance of sexual minorities across Latin America. Argentina and Uruguay have been regional pioneers in marriage equality and transgender rights. Other countries in the region have yet to institute protections for the LGBTQ population.
Marriage equality became law in all of Mexico’s states last month. Honduras and Paraguay both ban same-sex marriage. In Guatemala, a conservative congress has repeatedly tried to pass legislation that would censor information about LGBTQ people. In Brazil, at the federal and state level there are bills and laws that either ban, or would ban, information about sexual orientation and gender identity, said Cristian González Cabrera, LGBT-rights researcher for Latin America and the Caribbean at Human Rights Watch.
And laws often fail to tell the full story.
“Irrespective of what legal regime a youth finds themselves in, prejudice and discrimination in the region continue to be commonplace,” González Cabrera said.
Vitinia Varela Mora said that her daughter, Ana María, decided to hide her lesbian identity after seeing other gay students bullied at her school in Tilarán, Costa Rica, which is about 124 miles (200km) from the capital, San José. She came out to her mother at 21.
In some countries, mothers who try to help their children deal with discrimination suddenly find themselves the subject of scrutiny.
Claudia Delfín tried to seek help in government offices for her transgender twins, who were facing bullying and discrimination in their school in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, when they were 16.
“They told me to go to church and look for a better path. They practically sent me to pray,” Delfín said.
Varela Mora of Costa Rica says it took her around two years to accept her daughter after the girl came out as a lesbian in what hit her mother like “a bucket of cold water.”
“There’s a lack of education, no one prepares you for this,” Varela Mora said. Now she tries to make up for that by supporting other mothers whose children have come out of the closet.
“It’s important for young people to feel they have a mom who understands them when they aren’t supported in their homes,” the 59-year-old woman said.
Groups of LGBTQ parents are “vitally important to show that regressive political projects do not respond to the needs of the region’s diverse communities,” González Cabrera of Human Rights Watch said.
Delfín said that she is one of two mothers in Santa Cruz who are activists fighting for their LGBTQ children. Elena Ramírez, Olmedo’s mom, also says that many trans children who are having trouble at home come to her for refuge.
“I’m a mom to all of them,” Ramírez, 66, said. “I know there are mothers that I will not be able to convince, but there are other children who really are in need.”
Gambetta says that all the mothers in the organization effectively end up training each other in their monthly virtual meetings.
“As mothers we have greater reach, we can raise more awareness,” Gambetta said. “When your family supports you, you’ve already won 99% of the battle.”