You are the founder of the association Colectiva IrreversibLes. Could you tell us a bit about how you set up a lesbian women’s rights organisation in Costa Rica?
I founded it with other friends in November 2011. It has not been easy, I spent several years trying to establish a specific organisation of and for lesbians, that represents our needs, makes an impact on public policies so that the specificity of being lesbian is taken into account and receives the necessary attention. There is also the very important issue of rescuing our historical memory, that history, both of our movement, and about our peers; this you cannot find in the official history books.
It involved talking with many peers, making several calls to get things going, until I managed to have three friends from the National University (we studied the same career), and three other friends, interested. Finally, we got together and started the journey of founding the Collective, we defined the name and the organisation’s objectives, which established the direction and given us the way forward.
What have been de the greatest challenges of the lesbian movement in Costa Rica and Latin America?
I would say that there have been many, and very similar throughout the region: gaining visibility of our existence; un-doing myths, stereotypes and taboos of between what a lesbian is thought to be and what it means to be a lesbian.
Building our own identity, creating positive references, and the recognition of our rights and access to public health services, education, employment, housing, matrimony, as women, lesbians and other intersectional aspects that make up our identities such as: being of afro or indigenous descent, maternity, being from a rural area, social economic background, just to mention a few.
We also face the challenge of being able to evidence the discrimination we face, as lesbian women are made invisible. In my opinion, this form of discrimination and rendering lesbian women invisible is structural as we are a threat to the system.
What role does the lesbian women play within the LGBTI movement?
In my opinion lesbian women remain in the background, almost invisible. The main protagonists in the LGBTI movement are gay men and trans women, not because lesbians don’t fight, but because within the movement there is a reproduction of the patriarchal and macho system.
With so much diversity the specificity is lost and even more so if you are a woman who disrupts the patriarchal system. For example, when the recognition of equal marriage is raised, there are those who define it as gay marriage and in the collective imagination it is referred to the existence of couples between men only.
When did you know that you liked women? Could you tell us about your experience when you came out of the closet?
When I was about five years old, I had a recurring dream: I dreamt that I was getting married with my classmate from kindergarten school. Since I had no reference other than the heterosexual one, I blamed it on the Catholic church. She was wearing a white dress and I was wearing a dark suit, and the most sexual thing I could imagine was to hold her hand. I did not even think about kissing her, maybe just on the cheek. This is where I realised that something was happening to me that I could not tell anyone, because I knew that somehow it was not ‘normal’, that it was ‘bad’. I never spoke about those dreams until a few years ago.
But that “taste” for women followed me into my adolescence. I even consulted a psychologist, who told me that bisexuality was a normal stage in adolescence and that it would pass. Because in those days my life was so complex, I turned my energy and focus to develop my political life: I campaigned with the Youth of the Costa Rican People for peace in Central America. I discovered that I was in love with my “best friend” although I tried to justify those feelings for her in a thousand ways. And then I had “boyfriends” as was expected of me, but I never took them seriously. For some of them I felt affection, but they were not what I really wanted.
Then I traveled for a year out of my country where I fell in love with another woman. Of course nothing happened, I only dreamt of her… Upon my return to Costa Rica, in my rational logic, I said to myself: “If I already kissed a man, I should now kiss a woman, to see what it feels like and figure out what I like more” (and I talk about kissing because I never had sexual relations with men, I was never interested in doing it); I did it and to be sure of what I felt, I said to myself again, “I already kissed a woman, now I should kiss a man again to see how I feel” and well I did that too. Result there was no doubt, I liked women and since then, I began to understand and accept it. I was about 18 years old.
And as I carry activism in my veins, the first thing I did was to contact the lesbian feminist group Las Entendidas, because I wanted to join them and take part in the struggle for my condition as a woman, as a feminist, as a lesbian.
I was 19 years old and it was clear to me that we had a great struggle ahead of us to obtain respect and our rights, and this led me to become an organiser for the second Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Encounter, held in Costa Rica in 1990. I mention this because as a result of taking part in that event, my mother was informed of my attendance. She confronted me and for me this was my “coming out”. It was not easy at almost 20 years of age, at the beginning of the nineties, for a mother to accept that I was a lesbian and that that was the life that made me happy. But it was good that it happened, as since that time I can freely express my sexual orientation.
Being an openly lesbian woman in Costa Rica, have you suffered much discrimination in the social and professional spheres?
I believe that I have suffered discrimination and it was manifested in different ways. The first that I remember explicitly, was in 2009, when I applied for a candidacy for deputation. A note was circulated among those who had to vote choose that said “Remember that Emma is a lesbian”. Four years later, in 2013, I present my candidacy again and I was told that because I was a lesbian I did not have much support and finally I was not elected.
Another manifestation of discrimination has been in the workplace, where I was being harassed. This became evident after I participated as a special guest, in 2014, in the hoisting of the diversity banner in the Ministry of Culture for the first time, which led to a labor transfer.
Finally, I may have experienced other manifestations of discrimination because of my feminist lesbian status and maybe I have not been able to recognise them, because often discrimination is experienced as something “normalised” or you no longer know if it is because you are a woman or a lesbian or Feminist or all the previous ones … What I have felt are attitudes that show levels of lesbophobia. After many experiences and years of struggle, it is clear it is clear that the problem is lies with lesbophobic person, not against an individual per se.
Do you have any memories or personal experience that marked you significantly?
I consider myself a daughter of the struggles for peace in Central America, which took place in the eighties, as well as the heir of a long family trajectory of being on the side of social justice, dialogue, equality, non-discrimination and respect; which has led me to be an activist, politician and be involved in social movements since my adolescence and all this has led me to have many moments that have marked me, but today I can point to two specific moments.
In April 1990, at the second Latin American and Caribbean Feminist Lesbian Encounter (ELFLAC II), the first time I took part in an event that was attended by lesbians from many countries, a space to share, talk about and from us, from our needs, of our rights, of our forms of organisation and how to face the violence we are subjected to, from the State, the media, from religious hierarchies. This was an experience that culminated with the explicit manifestation of violence. During the last night, when we were about to start the closing session of the event, we were attacked by a rain of stones and balls by a group of men who threatened to enter the venue.
It was a difficult time, that filled me with fright, of feeling unprotected, even though we were about 200 lesbians. But I came out with more conviction, with more energy and strength. I knew that that the struggle would not be easy, but that it was the right one; we must keep gathering, we can build a better world for all people. The system reacted because it tried to keep us silent, to ensure that we did not become visible or get together, as we realised that together we can do a lot.
April 2015, 25 years after the ELFLAC II, I presented the report “A historical memory of the Costa Rican lesbian movement from 1970 to 2014” at the Legislative Assembly of the Republic of Costa Rica, in the Benefit Room at full capacity. This was a dream fulfilled, to tell our story through the narrative of 26 women, about what our organisational forms and struggles for our rights have been.
But above all, to be able to leave a document that shows that we have arrived here, because there have been many other lesbians who have fought, who have risked their lives, so that we, and perhaps the youngest ones, can enjoy walking in the street holding hands, to be able to express their affections in public; that other lesbians, before us, already opened the way for us and that we continue to open paths for future generations. That, even 25 years before, the same State persecuted us and that, 25 years later, we could be openly and publicly presenting a report on the history of the lesbian struggle. It has simply been one of the most significant moments, on a personal level, as an activist, as a lesbian and as a feminist.
In Costa Rica, marriage equality is not yet legal or recognized. How does the absence of this fundamental right impact lesbian couples?
It has terrible impacts on the lives of lesbians, because we have already had situations where one of the couple is hospitalised and the family members do not allow the partner to enter, even some have not been able to say goodbye to their partners, or attend a funeral.
Many others have had their assets seized upon becoming a widow, assets that were built together with their deceased partner. Others have not been able to claim their economic rights, at the end of the relationship, when the patrimony has been constituted by both.
Those living in poverty have not been able to access State benefits, such as accessing housing loans. In other situations, when there are daughters and sons and the biological mother dies or the parents separate, there is no protection so that they can continue to be a family.
What are your hopes for the future of lesbian women’s rights in your country? Do you believe that they will achieve equality?
Well … hope is the last thing that is lost …
I think that we will obtain equality. I believe that even if the road is long, it is less long than it was 30 years ago. We are at a complicated political moment in Costa Rica, with some fundamentalist, backward and opportunist deputies; as well as some magistrates who do not believe in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, because they do not follow their resolutions or answers, when it comes to the human rights of women or LGBTI populations. But I do believe that equality will be achieved, because societies, in principle, evolve.
What advice would you like to give to women who are afraid to come out of the closet?
First I would say: that I understand your fear, that your decision is respected. But I would also tell you that life must be lived without fear, that it is best to be honest with yourself, that coming out is liberating, that not all people will react positively, but that over time you will realise that freedom is better than living in hiding. To those for whom it is not possible to do so, because of the environment they live in, I would like to let them know that they can count on me, and count on someone close to you who will love you for who you are. I will fight for all those who cannot fight, so that one day we can all be free and happy.