San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tolerance for Gays Improving, not Perfect

TUCKED away on the second floor of a downtown SanJosé building, among disco balls, purple lights and black andwhite question marks on the walls, Luis Enrique Solanorecently celebrated his 27th birthday.Solano is a university student and a transvestite whoperforms in a weekly drag show. And on this night, at thepopular gay discotheque Déjà-vu, gays, transvestites andheterosexuals alike intermingled and rejoiced alongsidehim.“I have just as many non-gay friends as I have gayfriends,” he said. “There are some people who have problemswith my lifestyle, but in general people accept me andrespect me.”The climate for gays in Costa Rica was not always as tolerantas it is today. In 1992 and again in 1993, there weremajor police raids without warrants at Déjà-vu – it was atime when those type of raids were commonplace in gaynightclubs. Intended to shake up the patrons, the raidsbecame a catalyst for change in Costa Rica.“THE police just came in and took everyone out, theytook documents,” said Déjà-vu owner Norbel Antonini, whobought the club a few months ago after working there forseven years. “The (previous) owner went to court and arguedthat they didn’t have the authority to do that.”The raids at Déjà-vu and the publicity that followedgained notoriety among the gay community as well as madethe rest of the public aware of the prevalence of policeharassment at the time.Richard Stern, director of Agua Buena Human RightsAssociation, a non-government organization that focuseson getting AIDS treatment for gays in countries that don’thave universal healthcare, agreed that the Déjà-vu case aswell as a few other court decisions around the same timewere major factors in helping Costa Rica become more tolerant.“Around 1998, a series of court decisions put an end topolice harassment. Now there are no raids unless they havea warrant that shows evidence that a crime has been committed,”Stern said. “Politicians realized that the courtswould not allow that kind of discrimination, and that reallyopened the door for gay businesses.”STATE-sanctioned discrimination was common throughthe late 1990s, a time when Costa Rican Tourism InstituteExecutive President Eduardo León-Páez said that sex touristsand gay tourists were equally unwelcome (TT, April 9, 1999).“We don’t want, under any circumstance, Costa Rica tobecome a destination for either ordinary sex tourism orhomosexuals and lesbians. We don’t believe it would behealthy for this country,” León-Páez said at the time.In 1998, organizers of Costa Rica’s second annual Gayand Lesbian “Festival” were forced to cancel the tour as aresult of public outcry (TT, Aug. 28, 1998). Protest camefrom religious groups, community leaders, and even then-President Miguel Angel Rodríguez (TT, Aug. 14, 1998).Ombudswoman Sandra Piszk denounced the protests, inwhich “children between 4-15 years old were instructed tochant ‘Homosexuals aren’t born, they’re made.’” (TT, Aug.28, 1998)WHEN Stern, originally from New York, first arrived toCosta Rica in the late 1980s, he encountered a very differentatmosphere for gays.“When I first came here in 1988-89, there was a lot ofdiscrimination. Gays were often fired from their jobs, raidsand firebombs in clubs were real concerns,” he said, addingthat at that time he remembers just three gay bars in existenceat the time, and one bar did not even have a sign outfront, people just knew where it was.Stern, who used to work for the now-defunct humanrights association Triángulo Rosa, said that gay nightlife inSan José is now as open and accepted as in any U.S. city.“In terms of nightlife, people can count on a safe environment,just like Chicago, New York or Miami, where theywill not be discriminated against,” he said. “And the onlyproblem gays businesses have now is competition. New oneskeep popping up and every year some go under since thereis only a limited market.”Stern added that outside the capital, community standardsmay be different and gays might suffer more harassment.In fact, he said, many gays from more rural parts of thecountry migrate to San José for that reason.ANA Victoria Vega, owner of La Avispa, San José’s oldestgay nightclub, said that while police harassment has beenvirtually eliminated, homophobia in Costa Rica is still veryreal. The country is predominantly Roman Catholic, andmany church leaders in Costa Rica have made commentsdenouncing homosexuality.“Homophobia is always greater in underdeveloped countries,”she said. “Also when the church has more influence,homophobia tends to be greater.”Vega is the original owner of La Avispa and witnessedthe systematic discrimination that was ubiquitous when theclub opened 25 years ago.“The police would arrive and takeyou away, this would happen all thetime, on weekends, during the week,with no respect for people’s basichuman rights,” she said. “Now, thereare no longer police raids but therepression is more strategic now. Wehave no more problems at the policelevel, but homophobia still exists in agreater social context.”MARK Strickland, a 42-year-oldfrom Seattle, Wash., who has been livingand studying in San José for severalmonths, agrees that gay life here is stillnot fully accepted by the community.He said that while gay life here isvibrant and gay clubs and businesses arecommon, it is still really kept hidden.“Costa Rica is like the UnitedStates was 20 years ago,” he said.“(Gay life) is there, but no one wantsto acknowledge it.”But Jorge Angulo, who, a Web sitethat reports on gay life in Costa Rica,said that despite the church’s influence,he thinks Costa Ricans are making uptheir own minds about homosexuality.“The church is in a bit of a crisisright now; this is giving people a reasonto be more open minded aboutthings in general, and about gays aswell,” he said.ANGULO, 29, can sometimes befound at one of San José’s many gayclubs taking pictures, some to use onthe Web site.Angulo said it has only been inthe last 12 years or so that gay life hasreally been brought to the attention ofthe general public. And according tohim, the public has been so acceptingthat many other Latin-Americancountries are looking to Costa Rica asa positive example.“Costa Rica is conservative, but atthe same time it’s very open,” he said.“The other countries in CentralAmerica look at us as taking initiativeand being at the forefront, this is alsotrue of the attitude toward gays. Forinstance, in addition to the naturalimmigration flow from Nicaragua,many gays come here as well.“Gay nightlife is very open andthere are now so many clubs and barsto go to,” he added. “There is somewhereto go every night of the week.”

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