José Ignacio López (53) is a human rights and LGBTI activist from Nicaragua. He works for the Red de Desarrollo Sostenible (RDS) organization, which was awarded the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights in 2019
The Hirschfeld Eddy Foundation has been working with Red de Desarrollo Sostenible (Network for Sustainable Development) in Nicaragua since 2010. José Ignacio López, who was born in Managua in 1968, was there from the start. He keeps a close eye on the LGBTI+ movement not only in his homeland but also throughout Central America.
López describes his family as not very traditional – as Catholic, but not practicing. His parents never attempted to eliminate his left-handedness, as was usual at the time, by forcing him to write with his right hand. As a child he always had a left-handed desk at school because a family member brought it there at the start of each week and picked it up again every Friday, ensuring he could do his schoolwork naturally.
López describes civil-war conditions in the 1980s after the Sandinista revolution brought the decades-long Somoza dictatorship to an end in 1979. He had two choices: staying in the country and doing mandatory military service or taking a completely different path. In 1986 a friend was applying for a scholarship in Germany and suggested he try too. It didn’t work out, but López did receive one in the Soviet Union where he studied oceanology. “It was enormously difficult to spend six years in an entirely different culture learning a new language and still manage to complete the studies,” he says.
In 1992 he returned to Nicaragua, two years after the Sandinista government led by Daniel Ortega was defeated in free elections. In 2006 the same people who had ceded power to the conservative opposition in 1990 returned to office. In 2018 the most serious political and social crisis in 40 years unfolded when the Ortega government brutally suppressed mass social protests in the country and committed crimes against humanity. Hundreds of young protesters were killed or vanished into prisons. “I worked as a human rights activist during this period,” says López. “Events like that leave a mark; their effect on people’s personal and professional development shouldn’t be underestimated.”
Like many LGBT people, López had realized by high school that he was different. Fearing rejection by family and friends, he hid his feelings. In the later years of his studies, he got to know a young Cuban, found his bearings, and came out. He was studying in Odessa, Alexis in Moscow, and they met at a Black Sea holiday home for students in 1989. “It changed me to see how open and natural Alexis and his friends were with their sexuality.” López believes many of his family members, friends and neighbours were aware of his sexual orientation before he was. He didn’t emphasize being gay, but tried to live openly. Yet his family still rejected him, upon which he withdrew in 2005 and has not had contact with them since.
López likes to lead a structured life. He rises early and cleans and maintains the house where he lives, which belongs to a friend. He sweeps leaves nearly every day, including in front of the house, which he considers a contribution to the general good. Cleanliness and order were important to his grandmother, and he thinks she passed the propensity on to him. He then feeds the pets and gets ready for work. He’s at the RDS office from 8 to 5, sometimes longer, after which he walks home, watches the news, and reads or cooks dinner for friends. Then he turns to his childhood hobby, namely stamp collecting. When the 2018 political and social crisis broke out he also began constructing models out of paper – “it helps me relax and forget my cares for a while.”
His road to activism
López likes to travel and learn about history, architecture and other cultures. What he doesn’t like is when people are unable to admit their mistakes, or lack empathy, awareness, respect or responsibility for others. That leads to a spiral of social wrongs, and ever greater apprehension and discontent. He is happy to have completed his studies with good results and returned to Nicaragua in 1992. That was his first and longest period abroad, without any support from his family. When he returned, the new government was taking action against everyone who had benefited in any way from the revolutionary period in the 1980s. “It thought they represented a threat, which is probably why I didn’t find work. I fell into a depression,” he says. “One day I was watching TV and there was an appeal to young environmentalists. My mother encouraged me to get involved, and that helped me overcome the depression.” That also gave him helpful organizational skills for finding a job. In addition, he got to know some lesbians and gay men. An acquaintance invited him to the founding meeting of a new organization. Although he didn’t like all the people or their demeanour or actions necessarily, his interest in actively helping fight for LGBTI rights was born.
Same-sex relations between consenting adults were still punishable at the time by up to three years in prison. It wasn’t until 2009 that they were decriminalized, a special representative for LGBTI human rights was appointed, and two anti-discrimination sections were added to the penal code. Yet the 2014 constitution still stated that marriage could only be between a man and a woman. “We had been invisible and without rights; then we became visible but still didn’t have rights,” he remarks. The current crisis that began in 2018 has deepened the divide in the LGBTI community between those who stand with and serve the government and those who condemn its violations of human rights.
The Red de Desarrollo Sostenible organization in Nicaragua (rdsnicaragua.org) is dedicated to fostering sustainable human development. “We’re trying to build the capacities of the most vulnerable social groups so they can be integrated effectively and proactively into decision-making processes for sustainable human development in the country,” says López. “As development agents, we take part in many processes on national, regional and local levels. We identify communities’ needs and place our technical expertise at their disposal.” Measures like surveys, empowerment workshops, educational campaigns and IT capacity-building are developed in consultation with cooperation partners and with organizations that work for women’s, youth, LGBTI and indigenous rights. Together the groups find sources of funding to conduct the projects together.
RDS is a member organization of the Asociación Internacional de Lesbianas, Gays, Bisexuales, Trans e Intersex para América Latina y el Caribe (ILGALAC) and the queer Latin American network of archives, museums, collections and researchers (AMAI LGBTQIA+). López notes that regional mechanisms to promote human rights are unfortunately rarely used, even though in some countries, strategic litigation on national or regional levels have in fact resulted in major achievements. More information needs to be provided about how these mechanisms work, as well as about lobbying strategies. Recommendations to the government of Nicaragua from the UN’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process have remained largely ineffectual because civil society is not equipped to follow up on them. At the same time, international mechanisms to protect LGBTI human rights defenders have not proven sufficient for emergency purposes. Moreover, greater restrictions by the Nicaraguan government leave hardly any space for the LGBTI community to lobby for its rights.
Successes and goals
One form of success consists of recognition for work, such as the Franco-German Human Rights Prize for the RDS in 2019. With support from the Hirschfeld-Eddy Foundation and the German Foreign Office, the RDS conducted a project that led to a national LGBTI+ discussion forum back in 2013, a network which continues to be active today. Project work has also led to regional exchange and networking among LGBTI organizations in Central America, which are expected to deepen. By contrast, efforts have not been successful to have major LGBTI concerns addressed in the current period of political crisis. Repression and the elimination of space for civil society organizations continue to prevent this. “Since 2018, when the crisis broke out, we’ve been seeing more discrimination and violence against LGBTI people in Nicaragua,” says López. A medium-term goal is to build capacities for organization and action on the part of young activists in the country. The future of the community and sustainable influence on policy depend on them.
From donor countries, their governments and civil societies, and from philanthropic organizations, López foresees greater flexibility in how projects are supported, especially under emergency conditions such as a harsh pandemic and irresponsible government actions that have greatly restricted organizations’ scope of action. For example, bureaucratic factors prevented many donors from responding quickly to applications for funding; evaluation processes were too slow and support often arrived too late. At the same, López criticizes the inability of some left-leaning LGBTIQ+ organizations in Latin America to clearly and unambiguously denounce violations of human rights on the part of so-called left-wing governments.
As for short-term goals, López would like to see a position or office that monitors LGBTI inclusion in Nicaraguan society, one that can present a realistic account of the level of anti-LGBTI violence in the country. Another medium-term goal would be a “Museum of Equality” to foster a culture of tolerance and peace. “That’s my dream,” says López, “because history has taught me that respect and human dignity will ultimately win out.”
15 Portraits of LGBTIQ+ Human Rights Defenders:
|Cesnabmihilo Dorothy |
|Mauri Balanta Jaramillo|
|Jean Elie Gasana|
|José Ignacio López|