BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Fabu Olmedo is so nervous about clubs and restaurants in Paraguay that she often approaches one before a night out to make sure she will be let in and not assaulted or harassed.
Olmedo doesn’t know if she can safely go out in public because everyday life is difficult for transgender people in the capital, Asuncion. 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+ lobbies governments to eliminate laws that prejudice children and better enforce existing prohibitions on violence and discrimination.
It’s an uphill battle that requires patience and years of effort, but mothers are working together to help others in their position and act as a refuge for LGBTQ children whose families are unsupported.
“It’s about recognizing the strength and power we have as mothers to help our children and other families,” said Alejandra Munoz, 62, of Mexico City. Her son Manuel came out 11 years ago and suffered so much bullying at school that he spent recess with the teacher.
“Because of his sexuality he is constantly at risk of being yelled at in the street or worse,” she said.
Olmedo, 28, said he was barred from an Asuncion nightclub with his friends in July.
“A lot of 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 participated in the annual massive Gay Pride March on November 5.
“Our main battle is to ensure that our children enjoy the same rights in all of Latin America,” said Patricia Gambetta, 49, head of the Latin American Movement of Mothers of LGTB+ Children, which has members in 14 countries. Extends to all countries in the region.
Mothers’ work is further complicated by the Catholic Church’s continuing power to teach that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered.” The most popular evangelical faith preaches against same-sex relationships.
There are stark differences in the acceptance of sexual minorities across Latin America. Argentina and Uruguay are regional pioneers in marriage equality and transgender rights. Other countries in the region have yet to establish protections for LGBTQ populations.
Last month, marriage equality became law in all states of Mexico. Both Honduras and Paraguay prohibit same-sex marriage. In Guatemala, the conservative Congress has repeatedly tried to pass a law that censors information about LGBTQ people. In Brazil, there are bills and laws at the federal and state level that ban or 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.
“Regardless of which legal regime young people find themselves in, prejudice and discrimination are common in the region,” said González Cabrera.
Vitinia Varela Mora said her daughter Ana Maria decided to hide her gay identity after seeing other gay students being bullied at her school in Tilaron, Costa Rica, about 124 miles (200 km) from the capital San Jose. She came to her mother at 21.
In some countries, mothers who try to help their children deal with discrimination suddenly find themselves under scrutiny.
Claudia Delfin tried to get help at government offices for her transgender twins when she was 16 and faced bullying and discrimination at their school in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia.
“They told me to go to church and find a better way. They practically sent me to pray,” Delphine said.
Costa Rican Varela Mora says it took her almost two years to accept her daughter, who hit her mother like a “bucket of cold water” after the girl came out as a lesbian.
“There’s a lack of education, nobody prepares you for this,” Varela Mora said. Now she tries to make up for it by supporting other mothers whose children have come out of the closet.
“It is important for young people to feel that they have a mother who understands them when they are not supported at home,” said the 59-year-old woman.
LGBTQ parent groups are “important to show that regressive political plans are unresponsive to the needs of the region’s diverse communities,” said González Cabrera of Human Rights Watch.
Delphine said she is one of two mothers in Santa Cruz who is an activist fighting for her LGBTQ children. Olmedo’s mother, Elena Ramirez, says many trans children who are having trouble at home come to her for shelter.
“I’m a mother to them all,” Ramirez, 66, said. “I know there are mothers I can’t convince, but there are other children who really need it.”
Gambetta says all the mothers in the organization effectively end up training each other in their monthly virtual meetings.
“The more coverage we have as mothers, the more awareness we can raise,” Gambetta said. “When your family supports you, you’ve already won 99% of the battle.”
Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this story.