Sandra Moran is a trailblazer: When she was elected to Guatemala’s Congress at age 55 in 2015, she became the country’s first openly gay member. But for many years, she repressed her identity.
Moran was born in the nation’s capital, Guatemala City, in 1960 to working-class parents, the year that marked the start of the civil war that pitted the Guatemalan government against leftist rebel groups. She grew up in a state of constant fear amplified by mandatory curfews and home raids.
“My childhood and adolescence were almost entirely under the rule of military regimes. I knew people who were killed and people who were tortured,” Moran said.
As she wrestled with the injustices she witnessed, she was battling an internal war of her own. At around 14 years of age, Moran found herself attracted to her best friend: a girl.
She hid her feelings and immersed herself in her studies and later in her work for social justice organizations. Moran says that as she grew older, she better understood the repression and resulting rebellion of the Guatemalan people. After spending some time abroad, where she came out, she returned home in the mid-1990s and founded Somos Mujeres, “We are Women,” which was the first lesbian-centric organization in the country. Today, there are more than 30 LGBT organizations in Guatemala.
Though Guatemala has anti-discrimination laws in place, they do not specifically apply to LGBT individuals. LGBT groups report widespread discrimination in terms of access to education, healthcare, employment and housing, as well as frequent abuse by police. They also report cases of so-called “corrective rape,” in which gay women, in particular, are pushed into forced marriages, a crime that is rarely reported. This leads to a lack of accurate data regarding violence against LGBT individuals.
Moran spoke to Women & Girls about challenging the status quo in Guatemala.
Women & Girls: How did you decide on the right moment to publicly announce you were gay?
Sandra Moran: Though I identified myself as such, I hid it – I denied myself the possibility to just be and I didn’t accept myself until I was 31 years old. I accepted myself in 1991 when I found refuge in Vancouver, Canada, where I was part of a music group. [Editor’s note: Moran had to flee Guatemala after her human rights activism resulted in threats to her life in the late 1980s; she first went to Nicaragua and Mexico before moving to Canada.]
It was a different environment and a community that was receptive to lesbians. When I returned to Guatemala in 1994, I arrived with immense fear, not just because of the political oppression I knew I was returning to, but because I knew my newfound identity was not accepted.
I first came out [in Guatemala] in a closed forum as part of the country’s women’s movement in 1995. At the time, I worked for the NGO Cuso International, and I slowly came out as lesbian among my colleagues when the situation called for it. I also had a partner, and we were openly a couple.
Now, it’s public in the absolute, due to my role as a congresswoman. I chose to come out publicly and use it as part of my platform because I knew my identity would be used against me by opposing conservative groups.
Women & Girls: What drew you to a political career?
Moran: For most of my life, I’ve been involved in social rather than political movements. The social movement continues to be part of my being. But I realized that the way to make profound changes in the country was for people of the movement to be on the inside.
The changes we are working on now are meant to strengthen the autonomy of all individuals. The progressive agenda isn’t being adopted because we don’t have enough progressive lawmakers in Congress yet.
Women & Girls: How did you prepare for your role as congresswoman?
Moran: We did a collective campaign, not an individualized campaign, meaning we focused on general social justice issues that impact the masses instead of a few individuals. That’s what drew people’s attention. We’re a leftist party working for fair representation of women, youth, lesbian and gay communities. I came out of the closet and became a representative of these communities, and promised I would push for the agendas of these communities if elected.
[After I was elected], there was a public campaign against my intent to become president of a forum of women lawmakers because I wasn’t “woman enough.” The campaign resulted in more support for me, as well as more opposition to me, further propelling me into the public spotlight once I became president [of the forum].
Women & Girls: Have you had success with the laws you’ve proposed?
Moran: There hasn’t been a law passed in support of the LGBT community yet. It’s still in progress.
I took office in January 2016 with the goal of pushing for reform that outlawed discrimination and hate crimes against underrepresented communities and sponsoring a law protecting sexual diversity. The sexual diversity bill has yet to be formally presented, but I’ve focused on defining what a crime based on prejudice and what a crime based on discrimination means, so that those crimes can eventually be more easily identified and prosecuted.
I have been working on a law to prevent violence against people with diverse identities, and I have also written a proposed law that would introduce the possibility of civil unions for same-sex couples.
The bills we introduce won’t pass because our Congress is so conservative; however, I would say bringing these issues to the table has been my greatest success, as they weren’t part of the discussion before. I am bringing forth taboo topics in support of the LGBT community and women and girls’ rights such as sexual diversity, abortion rights and equal marriage. Guatemala needs to defend the rights of all citizens. Even if I don’t get re-elected in 2019, at least I will have had these four daring years!
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.