When Erika Venadero was 15 years old, she attended a retreat that she thought would bring her closer to God. But instead she found herself held captive, deprived of food, and then raped by men who told her she should be thankful because now she was “a real woman”.
I met Venadero, now 26, in Mexico City last month. She said that when she first started to feel romantically attracted to women, at 15, she was confused and had many questions. Homophobia is widespread in her community and she went to a religious family friend for guidance. He signed her up for what she thought would be a spiritual retreat.
She described leaving on a Friday night from the city centre of Guadalajara, her hometown. A van drove her and 14 other teenagers four hours away. Venadero was the only girl, and one of only two LGBTIQ people in the group dominated by young men with experience of drug or alcohol abuse and, in some cases, suicide attempts.
“I was there because I had many doubts, I wanted to know what in me wasn’t working”, she told me. None of them knew where they were when the bus stopped at their destination. Venadero can only recall that it was a wooded highland area that seemed far from any town. She remained convinced that she was at a spiritual retreat like any other.
After a six-month openDemocracy investigation, major aid donors and NGOs have said they will investigate anti-LGBT ‘conversion therapy’ at health facilities run by groups they fund.
But unlike the other aid donors, US aid agency PEPFAR has not responded at all.
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Soon she realised otherwise. Upon arrival at the site, the teenagers were separated into three groups, stripped of their belongings and sent to bed. Before they took her phone away Venadero noticed it didn’t have signal.
Then it got worse: they were not allowed to shower, change their clothes or be alone – and weren’t given any food for the entire three-day retreat.
Venadero says they believed “that because I was a lesbian, I wasn’t a real woman”. She and the other LGBTIQ teen were separated from the group and ‘counselors’ made them list their ‘sinful’ actions and feelings.
They only joined the other teenagers for certain activities, including to kneel and shout that gay people are disgusting, sinful and deserve eternity in hell. The counselors yelled at them, blaming their parents for their sexuality. Young, fragile and food deprived, Venadero says their words had a profound impact on her. She remembers that she also started blaming herself and her parents for being gay.
Then, after the retreat, returning to Guadalajara, she was physically attacked. “I was the last to be dropped off and they parked close to my house”, she told me. Then the drivers blocked her from exiting the bus, she said, “and they started to touch me without asking for permission and, in turns, abused me sexually”. Venadero said they “justified themselves” by saying “Thank God that now you are a woman” and that it was “as if they were talking about an initiation ritual”.
“They said ‘Thank God that now you are a woman’... It was as if they were talking about an initiation ritual”.
‘ECOSIG’ is an acronym used by LGBTIQ rights activists in Mexico to describe various activities to ‘correct’ sexual orientation or gender identity – from religious retreats like the one Venadero attended, to mental health workers that promote conversion therapy, to fathers bringing sons suspected to be queer to sex workers, or teachers pushing gender non-conforming teenagers to follow expected gender roles.
This term therefore refers to any activity to ‘correct’ queerness and it doesn’t necessarily imply religion or therapy. These activities are diverse and have long histories in Latin America but LGBTIQ rights campaigners say they’re experiencing a resurgence amidst increasingly visible lobbying by ultra-conservative and religious groups and close links between the current government and the evangelical church.
Some survivors of ECOSIG practices are now pushing to end these practices, including through new legislation – though they face organised opposition to their campaigns. Mexican law does not currently ban conversion therapy activities – but that is the case in most countries around the world, according to a new report released this week by the LGBTIQ rights organisation OutRight International.
The report shows how ‘conversion therapy’ is a worldwide phenomenon.
In Latin America, the context is a conservative “populist movement against ‘gender ideology’” that is “gaining ground” and threatens public policies to support LGBTIQ and women’s rights. Just four countries have total bans on conversion therapy – two of which are in Latin America (Brazil and Ecuador) – while Argentina and Uruguay have partial bans.
But enforcing such bans, where they exist, is also challenging. “Laws are important and can certainly help”, Amie Bishop, author of the OutRight report, said in an interview with openDemocracy, yet these practices can take a wide range of forms and are ultimately fueled by “societal and internalised homophobia and transphobia” and the idea “that being LGBTIQ is pathological, disordered, and unacceptable”.
The study traces the history and expansion of ‘conversion therapy’ practices, including the role of organised and internationally-connected ultra-conservative and religious right movements. Marija Sjödin, the NGO’s deputy director, warned that these practices could become even more widespread around the world as part of a global backlash against LGBTIQ rights and that it is urgent to raise awareness about them and the “irreparable damage” they can cause, “before it’s too late”.
The context is a growing, conservative “populist movement against ‘gender ideology’”
In Mexico, prominent ultra-conservative advocates for conversion programmes include Nadia Carolina Mora Román, a psychologist and active campaigner with the lobby group Frente Nacional por la Familia. She also leads the Consejo Mexicano por Las Familias group that publishes anti-LGBTIQ content online, including a recent video comparing women who are lesbians to those who have eating disorders.
Another Frente Nacional member is Everardo Martínez Macías, also a psychologist, who has built a business off of conversion therapy by leading sessions himself, as well as publishing a book including 11 testimonies of people claiming that he’d ‘cured’ their homosexuality.
The Frente Nacional group was founded in 2016 as a reaction to government initiatives to legalise same sex marriage and include LGBTIQ issues on the national sex education curriculum. It has also been vocal in opposing initiatives for gender neutral uniforms.
It also has connections far beyond Mexico. It’s part of the Latin American ‘Con mis Hijos no te Metas’ (meaning, ‘Don’t Mess with My Children’) movement that started in Peru in 2016 to oppose the inclusion of LGBTIQ identities and relationships in that country’s national sex education curriculum. Since then the movement has spread across the region with similar campaigns on sex education, school uniforms, abortion and same-sex marriage in countries including Mexico.
Frente Nacional’s president, Rodrigo Iván Cortes is also director of international relations at Red Familia (a coalition of conservative ‘pro-family’ groups) and vice-president of the Political Network for Values that connects ultra-conservative politicians and lobbyists across borders. Delegates from these groups regularly attend the annual summits of the World Congress of Families network (Mexico hosted it in 2004), which has been described as an ‘anti-LGBTIQ hate group’ in the US and also has ties to the Spanish campaign group CitizenGo.
In Veracruz, I met Jazziel Bustamante, a transgender woman in her beauty salon. She is also an ECOSIG survivor.
She told me that, as a teenager, she was active in her local church and taught younger children how to pray. She was 15-years-old when she started to experiment with wearing women’s clothes, though continued to present herself as a young man at church. Then, one of the church volunteers saw her in a skirt and make-up at a bus stop. The next day she went to church and was asked to stop teaching immediately.
While Bustamante began to resent the Catholic church, she continued to seek spiritual guidance. On a friend’s invitation, she started attending an evangelical Bible study group. For a while, she was happy. But they did not accept her as a woman and said she must live like a man “as God intended”. At one Sunday service, the pastor called her to the front and invited the whole congregation to gather around and pray for her soul.
Bustamante told me she attended conversion therapy prayer sessions in her name every week for a few months. She remembers that she “liked being the centre of attention”, but also felt afraid. “obviously there comes a time when you believe it… it led me to feel very guilty for being trans”.
She described having an anxiety attack and cutting her hair off in front of the mirror, “believing that I was going to feel good as a boy”. Eventually, “that weight of guilt took off a little”, though she describes how her feelings of “sin and guilt” remained deeply embedded.
“Her feelings of ‘sin and guilt’ remained deeply embedded”
The NGO OutRight International’s report found that of their respondents who had experienced conversion therapy around the world, two-thirds said they had been ‘coerced’ into these activities. One-third said they had sought out such ‘therapy’ themselves. For Bishop, the report’s author, this reflects profound internalised homophobia and transphobia “when your family, your faith, and your community are all condemning you”.
This is why Bustamante joined forces with other LGBTIQ activists to fight against conversion practices by bringing them to the public’s attention. She told me that they want to shine a light on the negative psychological effects these practices have on vulnerable young people.
Iván Tagle, the director of Yaaj (which is a Mayan word for love), an LGBTIQ rights group that advocates against ECOSIG, is another survivor of these practices. He told me: “Of course, at 15, I didn't want to be gay… who chooses a life in which he will be discriminated against?”
He described how he’d grown up indoctrinated by his religion, believing that: “if you are gay you go to hell, but if you kill yourself then you are there in limbo”. As a teenager, he said he was wracked with anxiety over these two options, deciding his only other option was “to do everything possible” to challenge widely entrenched homophobia in his community.
In 2017, Yaaj published a dossier about ECOSIG in Mexico followed by a 2019 handbook for mental health professionals with guidance on how to ethically treat LGBTIQ youth, emphasising the need for acceptance and understanding that LGBTIQ identities cannot be ‘cured’. Now Yaaj is advocating for new legislation that would make ECOSIG illegal.
There is some political support for such a law. Tagle told me how campaigners at Yaaj are working with Senators Citlalli Hernández, Patricia Mercado and Alejandra Lagunes to draft a proposal for a bill. This bill, he says, would ban ECOSIG on the grounds that gender and sexuality are not mental health disorders, and thus cannot be ‘cured’, and that all mental health services must be regulated.
Tagle from Yaaj told me that they are steering clear of even mentioning religion in this proposal – even if religious groups are among the clear drivers of these practices – for fear of provoking a backlash from these movements that could threaten the bill’s passage.
11 years after her own traumatic experience, Venadero says she has turned her pain into motivation to work for a better future for young, queer people in Mexico. When her sister told her she was bisexual, “I sat down with her and told her everything” about being LGBTIQ, her experience of conversion therapy, and the damage it had done.
This, Venadero said, helped her see how her story could impact the lives of others. She stressed: “This has to reach all people, especially so that they do not happen again or what happened again”.
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