The seven countries that make up Central America have some of the most restrictive laws for queer and trans citizens in the Americas, denying them basic human rights, such as protection against discrimination and violence based on their identities; marriage equality; and the ability to change their legal identification to reflect their lived name or gender. Though younger generations are trending toward inclusivity, this rise in progressive thinking has been closely followed by an even sharper spike in conservatism. Still, there are queer activists in Central America who refuse to turn their backs on their countries despite their countries turning their backs on them. Here are four queer activists who have dedicated their lives to fighting for change in the countries that they call home.
Karla Avelar (El Salvador)
Karla Avelar is a Salvadoran transgender activist who has been fighting for queer and trans rights since she was a young woman. From a young age, Avelar was continuously exposed to violence that ranged from death threats to sexual abuse to assassination attempts; during one of these attempts, Avelar injured one of her attackers and was imprisoned for four years. The violence she experienced both before and during her imprisonment strengthened her commitment to fight for human rights, particularly for the rights of trans women.
In 2008, Avelar started COMCAVIS Trans, an organization initially dedicated to universal access to HIV healthcare and prevention that has expanded to advocating for queer and trans human rights in El Salvador. In 2013, Avelar became the first trans woman to appear before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; she spoke about the discrimination and hate crimes queer and trans Salvadorans face. In 2016, Avelar filed a lawsuit that challenged discriminatory Salvadoran laws that didn’t let trans people legally change their names to match their gender identity; in 2022, the constitutional chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled that the law be reformed, barring discrimination based on gender identity and allowing trans people to legally change their names.
Avelar’s fight for queer and trans rights has come with heavy costs. In 2017, Avelar was a finalist for the Martin Ennals Award, which recognizes the work of human rights defenders around the world. Avelar was threatened by gangs just three days after nomination, and she knew that the situation would only get worse as word spread. Despite El Salvador legally recognizing attacks based on gender identity or sexual orientation as hate crimes in 2015, these crimes often go unreported or unpunished as the overwhelming majority of Salvadoran police officers and lawmakers continue to hold homophobic and transphobic beliefs.
When she traveled to Switzerland for the awards ceremony, she decided to stay, and she lives there to this day as a political refugee. Despite the distance and the traumatic violence she went through in her own country, Avelar continues to fight for the queer and trans people of El Salvador to this day.
Aldo Dávila (Guatemala)
Aldo Dávila is the first openly gay man to have ever been elected to the Congress of Guatemala. Dávila prioritizes marginalized communities, including indigenous, disabled, and queer and trans people. Prior to his election, Dávila spent two decades working in human rights and HIV prevention; Dávila himself is HIV-positive. Though Dávila’s first priority is Guatemala, he believes that Latin American countries are stronger if they work together and with the rest of the world. He works to foster relationships with human rights and queer-focused organizations, so they can help Guatemala thrive.
Dávila is passionate about fighting for an inclusive, safe Guatemala; he was a vocal opponent of Law 5272, known as the “Life and Family Protection Law,” an initiative approved by Guatemalan Congress in 2022 that sought to criminalize miscarriages, imprison anyone who promoted or facilitated access to abortion, ban same-sex marriage, prohibit schools from teaching students about sexual diversity and gender equality, and shield people from prosecution if they discriminated against others based on sexual orientation. Despite 119 out of 160 members of Guatemalan Congress voting in favor of Law 5272, it was eventually withdrawn; this was largely due to the social outcry spearheaded by activists and political figures like Dávila who were against this blatant attempt to violate human rights.
Vincenzo Bruno (Costa Rica)
Vincenzo Bruno is a Costa Rican activist who fights for the rights of queer families and trans Costa Rican citizens, beginning after he and his partner had a child. Bruno, who identified as a butch lesbian at the time, and his partner faced intensified scrutiny and discrimination because they brought a child into their non-traditional family. The combination of this discrimination and politicians campaigning heavily against queer families inspired Bruno and his partner to get involved in queer activism and start their own organization called Familias Diversas Costa Rica.
Through his activism, Bruno connected with trans Costa Ricans and began to question his own gender identity. He repressed his identity because he saw the discrimination his trans friends faced, but after an emotional shopping experience where he had to decide between masculine or feminine formal wear for a communion, he decided to pursue gender-affirming care and came out as a trans man.
When he sought hormone treatment, his first endocrinologist discriminated against him, and it took time for him to find one willing to assist him in his transition. He pursued a legal name change after years of being outed as trans by his IDs and subsequently being discriminated against; the judge admitted that he would have denied Bruno his name change had it not been for his partner’s emotional testimony about the daily attacks he faced because of his legal name. Navigating the system inspired Bruno and his partner to create Hombres Trans Costa Rica, an organization that hosts workshops on how to change legal names and access gender-affirming care, and works to raise queer and trans awareness.
There was a rise in conservatism during the 2018 Costa Rican election, with one presidential candidate, Fabricio Alvarado, promising to repeal all protections for same-sex marriage and trans people if elected. Bruno knew from personal experience that trans people might be afraid to vote or are illegally intimidated because their legal ID doesn’t match their lived name. So, he teamed up with other activists and organizations to let trans Costa Ricans request that someone accompany them to ensure they could safely exercise their right to cast a ballot. Fabricio Alvarado lost, but Bruno still continues to fight for queer families and trans rights.
Iván Chanis Barahona (Panama)
Iván Chanis Barahona is the founder and president of Fundación Iguales, a Panama-based organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of marginalized communities with a focus on queer and trans populations. Fundación Iguales was born when Barahona returned to Panama after spending nearly a decade abroad. Panama was the last Latin American nation to decriminalize homosexuality and there are no laws protecting queer and trans people from discrimination. Though the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in 2018 that all countries in the Americas must guarantee the right to marriage for same-sex couples, Panama has yet to recognize marriage equality as of 2023.
As a gay Panamanian man, Barahona was called on to use his experience as a lawyer and diplomat to fight for the rights of the queer and trans community and generate social change in Panama. He is involved in the “Sí, Acepto” campaign, which works to combat cultural, religious, and political resistance against marriage equality by giving allies and queer Panamanian citizens a platform to share their own stories. The hope is that projects like “Sí, Acepto” and organizations like Fundación Iguales give queer, trans, and other marginalized groups the public and political representation they need to secure their legal rights and to positively shift Panamanian society’s opinion of these citizens.
Author: Lorely Guzman (They/Them)
Artist: Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He)
Copy Editors: Brooke Borders (She/They), Bella (She/They)