“Play Ariana Grande!” Stacy shouted as she adjusted her tiara. Everything was going well on the biggest party bus in El Salvador’s Pride parade until the speakers blew. The double-decker filled with trans women and drag queens in high heels started to shake and some took it on upon themselves to serenade the rest with “Side to Side” to avoid an all-out revolt.
El Salvador held its biggest-ever Pride parade June 30, with some 12,000 people in attendance. The stream of people worked its way down one of the main boulevards of San Salvador, the country’s capital, and ended with a salsa concert at the iconic Plaza Salvador del Mundo.
For many, it was a rare moment of freedom, joy and self-expression in the conservative Catholic country. El Salvador’s LGBT community routinely faces high levels of violence and discrimination—at least 145 LGBTI people have been killed in the past three years. Members of the military and police have been known to rape, beat, detain, extort and otherwise abuse them, while gangs have brutally tortured and murdered them.
The country does not recognize gay marriage, civil unions or any other legal relationship between same-sex couples, nor does it allow trans people to change their gender identity in official documents. LGBTQ people are frequently discriminated against at home, at school and in the workplace. Faced with these frequent threats, many consider fleeing the country.
Nonetheless, the capital has a thriving LGBTQ activist community and vibrant culture. For this community, Pride is not just about celebrating who they are, but also demanding recognition in a society that often rejects them.
Estrella, 30, trans woman: “I’m happy today, proud to be supporting the movement. I have support from my family. But people don’t respect us in the streets. Before it was even harder. When we were younger it was really hard, but things have been improving because the trans community has never stopped fighting. On one side, things are good in the sense that I have somewhere to live, but there’s almost no work because people discriminate against us. In interviews they’ll tell us no and then laugh at us, they tell us we are poorly dressed, that we’re ugly, but we keep trying.”
Willa, 32, gay man: “I love Pride. It’s a chance to show off our creativity. I came out of the closet when I was 20. I’ve always had the support of my brothers, my mother, my job — I’m a journalist. I feel grateful for that. El Salvador has come a long way in terms of rights for gay people, but we have to remain united because there can be a lot of in-fighting within the LGBT community, and there’s still a lot of work to do.
I’m single and looking. I like masculine guys. But I don’t like to use the apps because they are dangerous. There have been cases in which people that use certain apps have been assaulted, so I don’t want to use them to find a boyfriend — it’s just not safe. I don’t go out looking for someone — through friends is always best.”
Carlos Lara, 24, gay man: “I’m dressed like a cop because seven police officers beat me up in March and arrested me. I was detained for three days. They came because a homophobic neighbor called and without any proof, the police started hitting me and took me. This is a form of protest — the number on my chest is one of the officer’s numbers. This wasn’t even the first time this has happened — it’s the third.
My father threw me out of the house when I came out — my parents are very Catholic. But I’m here with my Honduran boyfriend, happy and proud."
Debora Penelope Gonzalez, 29, and Brithanny Alexa Luna Turqueza, 23, trans women:
“For most of my life, I’ve suffered discrimination. I’ve had big problems with my family, in school, in finding work, on the streets with soldiers, with police, with gangs — that’s just how it is here for the trans and gay community for their whole lives.
The gangs are homophobic, anti-trans — it’s not a good situation for us. I’ve been shot five times, stabbed twice with an ice pick, been punched in the face. Police and soldiers have harassed me in the streets. I’ve had friends that the gangs have castrated with ice picks. The police and soldiers don’t do anything to protect us. They’ve thrown tear gas in our eyes, say that we are involved in drug trafficking, beat us up with their batons. But I’ve lived.”
Jorge, 21, gay man: “I’m happy to be at Pride but I’m a bit scared because of the violence in the country and the violence against LGBTQI people. I’ve had problems with violence — first at home with my partner — he hit me a lot for years. It’s hard to leave that kind of relationship when that person is what you know.
In society, I’ve been beaten, people always want to drag you down when you want to express yourself. I was bullied out of school, my parents kicked me out, I was dependent on the guy that hit me. It was a hard moment but little-by-little you get over it and as time goes by all you have are scars and memories. I’m going forward and training to be an esthetician.”
Brandon Steven, 27, gay woman/drag king: “At 18, I came out, but I wanted to have a kid, so I slept with a man, because here they aren’t going to give people like us a child — we’re gay, we’re poor. We are really discriminated against in this country. It’s every day. We get on a bus and everyone stares and whispers, sometimes yell slurs at us. But you can’t win so I’m going to live my life the way I want, dress like a boy, cut my hair and be proud of who I am and who I’m with.
We met on the dancefloor in a bar where I’m a drag king. We’ve been together over a year. We are going to have our own wedding and I’m going to raise my child with her.”
Cristina, 19, gay woman: Since I was young, I knew. I never felt anything for men. When I met her, it freed me to be who I really was. This is a celebration.”
Bryan, 24, bisexual man, with his best friends: “It’s my first Pride — I just discovered that it’s the best!
Being LGBTI is kinda hard with discrimination, bullying. Like, even now, right now, our Uber came to pick us up for this and when he saw us with our rainbows and everything, looked at us, and canceled.
It’s really hard to come out as a gay person here in El Salvador. I came out as a bisexual when I was 16-years-old. My family is very religious so at first, my mom said I had to go be checked out and fixed. Now, she’s cool with it.
Basically, when you are out you are throwing yourself into the flames, exposing yourself to be called names, to be beaten. Over time you learn to not care and now I can shut down any bitch who wants to come for me. There’s still a long way to go, but it starts with us, pushing to do something about it.”
Helen, 20, trans woman: “Today I’m happy but with these heels, I’m fighting the good fight. It’s not easy, but I love them. I came out with my identity two years ago, when I had more freedom. Before that I couldn’t just come out — I didn’t have freedom.
I am proudly part of the LGBTI community, but there are a lot of people who discriminate, who are racist — they can make it dangerous. More than anything, when I’m in the street with my boyfriend they throw things at us — trash, bottles, things like that.”
Katy, 33, and Grizelda, 45, gay female couple:
Grizelda: “We’ve been together seven months. We met at an organization that works on creating more gay spaces. Life here is complicated for lesbians because of the violence. When you are out, you feel the discrimination -- at work, at home, in the street. I’m a mom and my family totally rejects me, society rejects me and the way I’m parenting.
I came out 14 years ago. At that time there was no information about the gay community. You couldn’t tell your parents. So I was in the closet forever — it was the only way to survive. I got fired from my job when they found out I had a girlfriend, even though I tried to hide it — I was at that job for almost 15 years.”
Katy: “I’m a mom too and there has been a lot of rejection from society — from my child’s school and my family. They don’t accept me. So I keep my distance. When you are visibly out, people will shout at you, employers won’t hire you.
And of course — men always want to say that you just haven’t slept with a ‘real man’ and if we only gave them a try they would change us. They always say that type of thing."
Stacy, 34, trans woman: “I’m happy, I’m proud to be part of this party that is more than a party, it’s asking the Salvadoran government to respect our rights because as humans, we have rights. We have a law dealing with trans identity that needs to be approved and we won’t shut up until we get it. This country has a debt to pay to us and they will recognize us.
I transitioned at 18. I wanted to study after, but I couldn’t because of my identity — the schools wouldn’t let me in. My family is all good — they support me and I love them for it. In society — it’s a process. They hold on to the stereotypes they have of us. This holds us back from contributing as we can. They tell us we can’t have opportunities because we are 'weird' but we are the same as them.
I’ve had a lot of problems with violence and discrimination. I really notice it when I go to the bank — there’s always a problem with our documents because we look one way in the photo and another in life so they won’t serve us sometimes.”
Bianka, 25, trans woman, director of trans rights organization, COMCAVIS TRANS: “Pride to me signifies living openly — living in a world where difference is celebrated. Where having a different essence, different identity, sexual orientation is a good thing.
My job is everything to me. I defend the rights of people who can’t do it because this society attacks them. My fight is to raise their voice. I left my house because I was suffering violence from my biological mother, but I found a home in COMCAVIS TRANS who took me in in 2015, and I got a job working with them and they helped me take classes in graphic design and photography -- I eventually created the communications department.
With the violence, it can be precarious, but the situation for LGBTQI people here has definitely improved — we’ve had wins, but we have a long long way to go. We are working on a law that recognizes transgender people.
There is a lack of consciousness and a lack of education in our society — people fear and hate what they don’t know. The LGBTQI community is more visible now but fundamentalist groups keep pushing out messages of hate. We’re going to win and I’m here to fight.”
Gabriel, 36, gay man: “I’m an activist and a constitutional rights lawyer — I’ve worked in human rights for years. The situation here is bad for LGBT people. They won’t pass gay marriage, won’t pass the gender identity bill.
But honestly, the situation for LGBT people here depends on your socioeconomic class. If you’re from a family with money, you’re less likely to be subjected to discrimination. It’s not that it doesn’t exist for them, but it’s so much worse for poor people, for marginalized communities. They have a hard time getting a job. People whose parents are business owners -- they don’t have that problem or fear of being fired. But people without connections — it’s a lot harder.
I’m a light-skinned gay man from a family with some money — I haven’t lived even half of what people who have less money and look different from me have.
At the top are white, upper-class gay men. And then going down — black gay men — then maybe lesbians who have been forced to have conversion therapy, trans women, black trans women — they are often in the worst socioeconomic situation.”
Midnight the Light, 20, non-binary: “My gender is fluid for me — sometimes I’m more masculine, sometimes more feminine, what matters is to express who I am in that moment. It took me about seven years to accept it. It was bit-by-bit. And I really just accepted myself last year. It doesn’t bother my family, but they aren’t happy about it. They just try to ignore it. But I still dress up for holidays, sometimes to poke at them.
There have been great advances in a short time for the LGBT community here. I really feel like although it can be hard, we are on the right path.”
Mother and son: Daisy, 53 and Gustavo, 33, gay man/drag queen (name: Kattixa Falcheppy):
Daisy: “At first it was so hard. I asked myself, 'What did I do wrong? How did I fail to make him like this?' But these were trials that we’ve overcome together. We spent long nights talking, understanding. And now we are so much closer and share so much more than if we never worked through it.
My family didn’t accept him or me at first. But it didn’t matter to me. What matters to me is that our relationship as mother/son is good. Anyone who accepts him is welcome into our lives but for those who don’t, there’s the door. The culture doesn’t readily accept the LGBT community, but acceptance needs to start with the family for the outside world to do so. If family rejects them, what can we expect?
He’s my son and I love him as is — I go to all of his shows, I help him pick out his dresses, his props —it’s fun. RuPaul’s Drag Race is now my favorite show.”
Gustavo: “I came out 12 years ago. For the whole family it was hard — because in a conservative country like this, it’s not just you coming out of the closet: it’s the whole family that has to fight for acceptance. Unfortunately, this society is not super accepting of gay people — I’m so lucky that I have a family that fully accepts everything I am.
Things are getting better for the gay community because the fight is stronger and there is more visibility — and events like Pride show people that we are part of their society and contribute to this country. I’ve never been physically attacked thank god, but I get a lot of 'faggot's shouted at me.
I have a five-year-old son that I had with a woman because I decided that being gay wasn’t going to stop my dream of being a father. My son will grow up being exposed to the community — right now he doesn’t understand, but I hope he accepts me.”
Ronald Ramos, 26, gay man and Kathlie Monroe, 22, trans woman:
“We’ve been together for 10 months. We met on Instagram. We added each other, started liking each other's posts, we started talking on Whatsapp, and then met in person.
We live together, and our families accept it — but not society. It’s really dangerous here. We have many friends who have migrated to the United States because of the violence and threats. You can’t be really be open in the streets, holding hands.
We haven’t tried, because nothing has happened to us because we keep a really low profile and are discreet. We are only open today and then if we go out at night to gay clubs — then we can be free.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women's Media Foundation as part of its Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.