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`The only fight we lose is the one we abandon’: Mexico’s first openly lesbian MP on LGBTI rights and people’s power

Patria Jiménez. Photo by Rachel Evans.

By Rachel Evans

May 21, 2009 -- Coyacan, Mexico -- I interviewed Patria Jiménez in Coyacan’s normally bustling markets. The onset of the swine flu crisis had emptied the streets and enforced a stiffness into Mexico’s normally effusive greetings tradition. No kissing hello or shaking hands was encouraged. Jiménez ignored swine-flu protocol and greeted me warmly.

In 1997, Jiménez made history by being elected the first openly lesbian member of Mexico's Chamber of Deputies. Representing an alliance that included the the Workers Revolutionary Party (PRT) and the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), Jiménez was also the first openly lesbian candidate to be elected in Latin America. She is standing again within a coalition, Salvemos a México (We Will Save Mexico), for the July 2009 federal elections.

In 1997 the PRD had won control of Mexico City, opening up significant space for left-leaning projects. Jiménez's election was based on decades of campaigning around lesbian, gay, feminist and Indigenous people’s rights, and her work gathered her international recognition. She was nominated in 2005, along with another 11 Mexicans, for the Nobel Peace Prize, inside the Project 1000 Women for Peace.

Born in San Luis Potosí in 1957, Jiménez’s political activism began at high school, around the issues of lack of resources in secondary schools.

Politics and coming out

``When I discovered I was a lesbian, I went to night events but they contained drugs and alcohol with risks and dangers. You see, I was never in the closet’’, she recounted.  Jiménez left home so her parents wouldn’t try to take her to a psychologist or psychiatrist. When she did leave she was campaigning in the streets, marching and proclaiming who she was. ``The first demonstration I went to I unfurled a poster at the Iranian embassy, because they were killing women who took off their veils. It was a big sign saying: `Mexican Lesbians Against the Assassination of Iranian Women’.’’

``I always liked to go out to lesbian and gay social events but they were ghettos, we just didn’t have other possibilities to meet. Then in 1979, I was invited to a meeting in Cuernavaca in Nancy Cardenas’s house. Nancy was an open lesbian, one of the first open  lesbians in Mexico. She was a director of theatre and she fermented the social movement, and helped us not forget how to organise.’’

Continuing, Jiménez noted, ``I was very interested because they talked about feminist politics, about the lesbian movement. So it was from this meeting that I began my activism, within the feminist movement and, at the same time, the gay and lesbian movement.

``In Mexico at that time, we were organising the first gay and lesbian march, and simultaneously, actions were organised in the feminist movement. We were organising both movements in a parallel fashion. Then, in 1994, at the time of the conflict with the Ejercicio Liberation National Zapatista (ELZN) movement, I also began to work, with them, for the human rights of Indigenous people.’’

In 1992 Jiménez co-founded a lesbian rights organisation, El closet de Sor Juana (The Closet of Sor Juana). ``We always took the opportunity to forthrightly declare that we were lesbians protesting this or that. Because I believe it is very important to get involved within social movements as lesbians, homosexuals and bisexuals, and to work within them, like the Indigenous movement in Mexico, for example. That gave us presence, and made us, and them, realise that one is not alone.''

A student of psychology at Mexico Autonomous National University (UNAM), Jiménez recalled that ``the first women I spoke to at university was Jan Mariela Castro, a very well-known comrade painter who has always had a radical line and is a Marxist-Leninist. With her, I hurled myself into, and understood, Karl Marx's Capital. These were my years of study, and that which I did not learn in school, I learnt in my first years of activism. Those studies of Marx’s theory were more interesting because they were more in accordance with reality; they were understood in the field of action, hence more easily grasped.’’

At this time, Jiménez reflects, ``The movement was so intense, so interesting; every day there were things to do. So much so, I did not finish my schooling at UNAM. In 1982, the Workers Revolutionary Party (PRT), a Trotskyist group, was very supportive of the gay, lesbian and feminist movements and achieved electoral registration, so a committee was formed to assist the campaign for the first female presidential candidate, Daniela Rosario Piedra Ibarra. In my opinion, the PRT was the party that helped the gay and lesbian movement the most. Daniela the mother of a disappeared political activist, Jesús Piedra Ibarra. Jesús was kidnapped in Monterrey in April 1975, during the `dirty wars’ of the 1970s’’, explained Jiménez.

Battles of the 1980s

``Therefore, in 1982, we had a committee to help Daniela stand for president. The PRT also gave us some space for candidates taken from the gay movement -- it helped us with electoral registrations for candidates.

``We assessed we would not necessarily win, but that we would be able to spread the ideas of the movement. And so we had a platform from the movement to popularise. At that time, the press was very much against us. According to it, we were not gay candidates -- we were maricones [butterflies – derogatory term used against homosexual men] or things like that. However, when we entered the political arena for the purpose of spreading these ideas, we began to change these terms within the press. Indeed, we protested against the press in order have these terms banned’’, recalled Jiménez. ``We were able to plant the idea that we are homosexual men and lesbians, not weak or inferior. After some time, the press was less aggressive, less derogatory.’’

``In the beginning of the movement’’, emphasised Jiménez, ``there was lots of repression. Now, as a result of the campaigns we have fought, that repression has diminished. To march was not a crime. There was only one gay and lesbian, transgender, bi-sexual (LGBT) march where there was fighting. The police sent a battalion against us, at the march in 1983.’’

Historically in Mexico, there is a formal separation of church and state, but there is frequent political intervention by the Catholic Church. Benito Juárez, the Indigenous Mexican president who served from 1858 to 1872, strengthened the separation between church and state. The Mexican people have been very clear about the separation of church and state.

Early battles of the LGBT movement

``Before the movement rose in the late 1970s’’,  Jiménez remembered, ``it was difficult to leave the closet, but after the movement many more people began to be open about their sexuality. In the middle of the 1980s in Mexico it was easier. In general, it is easier to leave the closet, and be open about sexual identity in the Federal District  – Mexico City –  than in the outer provinces, but it is still difficult.’’

``The sexual revolutions that took place in the USA and European countries also had a positive impact in Mexico. Within the PRT there were all the experimental books from New York, San Francisco and Europe. Juan Hernández, a comrade in the PRT, went travelling and came back talking of the ideas and the movement in New York and other parts of the USA’’, recalled Jiménez.

``A big issue was segregation -- there used to be very little possibility of development of your profession, academic or otherwise, when you were out of the closet in this early period of the movement. If you were a doctor or teacher you were not able to be out of the closet’’, said Jiménez.

``There also used to be a lot of hate crimes against LGBT people -- assassinations, bodies just left in the streets and lots of violence. The police were terrible, with lots of corruption. There were cases where young gay and lesbian people were raped, and the police knew who was the rapist was, but would say they knew nothing. In some cases, police would defend the perpetrator. They would also extort gays and lesbians. There are still cases like this today.’’

Early demands of the gay and lesbian movement

``The early demands of the gay and lesbian movement were the right to work, to education and to housing. Under the labour laws, health and public housing for working couples and married couples are provided. Of course, within this, there was no inclusion of homosexual couples. Now there is a private contract,  a privatisation of this contract. We believe not in more or less rights for homosexuals and transgendered people, but campaign for the same rights that heterosexual couples have’’, Jiménez stressed.

``In the 1980s, particularly in 1985, there were lynchings of gay men because of AIDS. Gay men had a strategy in fighting AIDS from 1985-1989, and women and lesbians worked with gay men on this strategy. It was very necessary. AIDS had a grave impact on the gay and lesbian movement. Many, many male activists and gay men died. Many of the first wave of activists died.’’

Party of Democratic Revolution

Explaining the role of other political parties in Mexico, Jiménez told Links, ``the Mexican Communist Party was a Stalinist party and joined the now current Party of  Democratic Revolution (PRD). They were radicals during their time. But at the time of the PRD’s birth, which was in May 1989, these activists were already older.

``The PRD’s birth was a combination of the social movements and those expelled from the capitalist Institutional Revolution Party (PRI). Many current PRD leaders were expelled from the PRI at this time. So a large part of the PRD membership comes from the PRI, which also explains their conservatism’’, Jiménez said.

``The PRD broke with the PRI, but conformed to power politics. Others saw the PRD as a democratic front. This period of the PRD's formation and reach into Mexican politics was from 1988 to 1998 -- slightly before, and during, the rise of the Zapatistas. In 1994 the Zapatista movement arose, and they too, were composed of Marxist-Leninists.

``Within and around the PRD was the peasant movement, workers movement, gay, lesbian and feminist movement, and the movement of petrol workers. Within the PRD too,  there was and remains a Marxist current. As well, a LGBT and women’s current. However, there are limitations with the PRD

Manuel López Obrador is commonly known as Mexico's legitimate president. It is popularly held that Obrador was robbed of the presidency in 2006 by Mexico’s current president, Felipe Calderón and his National Action Party (PAN). Mexico’s people rose up against this fraud in 2006, and organised the biggest mobilisations in the country’s history.

``Frankly’’, continued Jiménez, ``there is no PRD without Obrador. He is crucial to the politics of Mexico. Unfortunately, within the PRD there is no democratic participation. However, now there is the Salvemos a México (We will save Mexico) coalition, which contains Obrador, the Convergencia party and the Workers Party. This coalition is designed to support Obrador. Obrador is not a strong feminist or Marxist but he has respect for women and homosexuals.’’

``Marcelo Ebrard is the current PRD mayor of Mexico City/District Federal and is the PRD leader who most uses feminism within his political discussion. He is very much in favour of women’s rights, the rights of single women. Under Ebrard, in November 2006, there was an advance for homosexual couples. In much of the press there was an explanation that the changes were about marriage and that the Federal District now permits homosexual marriage. Which is not true; the `social convenience’ law is a registration program and it has limitations and problems’’, Jiménez explained

Success in struggle

``Before this social convenience law, within the 1st article of the constitution, there were the right of `preference’ but no mention of `sexuality’. This constitutional change was in 2001-2002 and is very new, but very significant; there was also a civil code against discrimination of gay people. But we still need to change and clean up the laws’’, stressed Jiménez.

``We have had success with a campaign to delete references to homosexuality within the Article 201 of the Federal Penal Code. This was in relation to crimes of sexual practices that corrupted minors. The campaign against Article 201 included the presentation of an ‘Initiative of Law’ that also dealt with pornography and prostitution involving children; and initiated reforms at different juridical levels to stop family violence. Another battle was to change radio, television and printing laws in order to protect the identity of the victims of sexual crimes.

``Another campaign that was very strong when I was a deputy was the ‘Justice for Nadie’ campaign. A young woman, Nadia Ernestina Zepeda Molina, was condemned to jail in May 2004. She was charged because she resisted rape by the Public Security police. In September 2005, Nadia Zepeda won her liberation.

``Another issue taken up was the brutal assassination of 25 transvestite men between 1991 and 1993. They were executed, one by one, in the state of Chiapas. The murders were carried out with high-powered weapons, those reserved for the exclusive use of the armed forces and the judicial police’’, reported Jiménez.

Running in elections, victory in 1997

``So I ran with the Workers Revolutionary Party (PRT) in the 1989 elections, and it was thanks to the PRT that I eventually won the position in Congress in 1997. I was put forward on the LGBT and feminist list for the PRT to then decide upon. I was high up in the list because of the work I had done for the gay and lesbian movement. I was a very public lesbian.’’

Jiménez was part of an alliance in 1997 that included the PRT and the Party of Democratic Revolution, Convergencia and the Workers Party (PT). She ran for the PRD-PRT alliance in the 1997 elections, and won.

``In the 1997 election, I was not discreet about my sexuality -- we campaigned with the slogan `Safe Sex, Save Vote -- Make the Future Yours!’. We had public meetings in a dozen different cities and I went through Mexico's gay bars, and halls, presenting my candidacy and encouraging discussion’’, Jiménez explained.

To understand this victory, it is important to explain Mexico’s electoral system. Andrew A. Reding, in ``Election of Gay Legislator Marks Major Shift in Land of Machismo’’, notes that ``Before the election, the party puts out a list showing which individual members will fill the seats. The PRD placed Jimenez twelfth on the list, making it a virtual certainty that she would hold office. With this move, the party effectively identified itself with the struggle to win acceptance of homosexual lifestyles -- a big risk in what is an overwhelmingly Catholic, conservative society. Yet the PRD ­­won about 36 percent of the vote in central Mexico, more than twice what it won in the last election’’ (http://www.pacificnews.org/jinn/stories/3.17/970819-mexico-gay.html).

In 1997 Jiménez became one of 200 ``plurinominal'' legislators in the 500-member Chamber of Deputies. Each party appoints certain number of such candidates to represent a several-state region, based on the percentage of the vote the party receives in the region.

To win, in Jiménez’s case, according to Rex Wockner in ``Interview With Latin America's First Openly Gay Congressmember’’, taken just after she was elected, ``the PRD needed 16 percent of the vote in the states around Mexico City to put her in office -- as she was listed at number 12 on the PRD's proportional-representation candidate list. To everyone's surprise, the PRD captured about 36 percent of the vote in those states and won the mayor's seat in Mexico City -- stunning the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which had clung to power for 68 years amid routine allegations of electoral fraud’’ (see http://www.qrd.org/qrd/world/americas/mexico/interview.with.1st.openly.gay.congressmember-08.05.98).

From 1997, Jiménez served her term in Congress, then in 2006 spent time in the Senate, substituting for senator Demetrio Sodi of Tijera. For the coming July 2009 elections, Jiménez has been selected by Convergencia to stand on its plurinominal list for a Mexico City (Federal District) position.

Zapatistas

Jiménez eagerly reflected on her time in the Zapatistas. ``From 1994, I lived for seven years with the Zapatistas, and was involved in the campaign with Subcomandante Marcos. There was great participation of gays, lesbians and feminists within the Zapatista movement. My name was very connected with the Zapatista process, through the daily Mexican newspaper La Jornada. There was a great amount of internal discussion within the Zapatistas about gay, lesbian and feminist issues. They very publicly included bi-sexuals and homosexuals, and Subcomandante Marcos was one of the first organisers of the Zapatistas to openly include and support gays, lesbians and feminists. Inside the Zapatistas we weren’t simply incorporated into the process in a paternalistic way. For three years, the LGBT community participated in the great debate about elections within the Zapatistas’’, recalled Jiménez.

``Then in 2006 there was massive electoral fraud. There were millions protesting in the streets, but even still, I would consider the Zapatistas the biggest movement in Mexico since the 1990s. In elections here in Mexico, if you have money, pesos, you can buy votes and win. Unfortunately, in the 2006 fraudulent elections, the Zapatistas did not call for a vote for Obrador. `Wait’, said Marcos. However now, thanks to the Zapatistas, Chiapas has more health care and there have been beneficial transformations. Regrettably, much of the time they have been silent about the fate of Mexican politics. Therefore, by omission, they have agreed with the current trajectory’’, commented Jiménez.

LGBT movement today

``Currently, the gay and lesbians rights movement is building for a march on June 20, 2009. A committee led by gay men organises one every year. There are up to 50,000 people at these processions each year. I hope soon there will be a general march and then, within that, a march for women.’’, Jiménez told Links.

Jiménez added, ``I am helping organise marches that take place in other states, where it is harder for LGBT people to be out of the closet. We still need to fight for equality, for all sectors to be equal. The LGBT activists are the ones that work very hard, in all sectors.

``Internationally, there are many advances. Young LGBT people are not in the closet. For maximum strength we need to have the cities full of LGBT people out of the closet. And throughout the entire South American continent there are LGBT social movements.’’

``In the upcoming July 5, 2009, elections, I am standing as a candidate with Convergencia. I am also involved in the Salvamos a México coalition, which includes the Workers Party (PT), Convergencia and Mexico’s legitimate president Manuel López Obrador’’, Jiménez reported. ``In the future in Mexico we will win more positions electorally and be stronger in Congress. And we will match that with sufficient strength in the streets. Abortion is a big issue as other states are taking away this right, but in the District Federal, we have won advances.’’.

Asking Jiménez for final comments, she smiled and in a considered fashion said ``the only fight we lose is the one we abandon. We have to force the government to provide equal treatment, stop discriminating, respect the right to health care and provide jobs for gays. In order to exercise these rights, we have to demand them.’’

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