LA PAZ, Bolivia—Bolivia has a new gender identity law that might put it in Latin America’s vanguard on LGBT rights—but the story behind the measure reveals how far the Andean nation still has to go before ending homophobia. That’s according to Carlos Parra, aka Paris Galán, the country’s best known drag queen and a prominent gay rights campaigner.
Signed into law in May, the measure allows people to change their gender on official identity documents. It means that Bolivia joins Argentina, Uruguay and Colombia as the only four nations in the deeply Catholic region to recognize the needs of transsexual and transgender citizens in this way. Unveiling the new law, Vice President Alvaro García Linera said it would put an end to the “social hypocrisy” in which many Bolivians had previously refused to acknowledge the existence of the LGBT community.
Yet, says Galán, the law was only finally pushed through congress, dominated by President Evo Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party, to quell anger from activists at a remark he made months earlier. In a speech, Morales had publicly mentioned his health minister, Ariana Campero, who is a single woman, saying: “I don’t want to think she’s a lesbian.”
Galán, a former MAS activist, adds: “We were asked to keep a low profile, to not talk to the media while the bill was in congress. The MAS didn’t want anyone to know. They said it was to avoid generating opposition.”
That the rights of women and sexual minorities have progressed since Morales took office in 2006 is undeniable. In addition to the gender identity law, women now make up 51 percent of the national assembly, the second-highest proportion of female lawmakers in any national legislature in the world after Rwanda. Yet Morales describes himself proudly as a “feminist but with machista jokes." The president’s stated retirement plan, of returning to the Chapare, the Amazonian region of his birth, with a “quinceañera,” or 15-year-old girl, doesn’t feel like it was made in jest.
Predictably, the gender identity law has met with stiff resistance, not least from the Catholic Church. There have been protest marches, particularly in Santa Cruz, the conservative city that is Bolivia’s economic motor. Writing in Bolivian newspaper El Diario, theologian Gary Antonio Rodrígues Alvarez even warned that the concept of “hate,” as used to define crimes committed against gays because of their sexuality, is “highly dangerous.”
Yet Galán, 48, believes Bolivia is a relative beacon of light in a region plagued by not just homophobia but homophobic violence. A 2011 report by the International AIDS Alliance reported that Latin America is the scene of 80 percent of the world’s reported murders of transgender people. “Of course, it can be difficult growing up gay in Bolivia, but there are worse places. In La Paz, I have never experienced anything serious, not since I realized I was gay at the age of 4,” Galán adds.
That includes back in the 1990s while performing in character as Warmi Runa, meaning Woman Man, in the indigenous Quechua language. In those days, when Galán was starting out as a drag queen, he used to describe himself as a “transformationist.” Now his act is more explicitly gay and he lip-syncs in front of all kinds of delighted audiences in Bolivia, gay and straight. One person who has yet to watch the show, however, is the president.