June has been Pride month—a chance to celebrate the fact that love takes many forms and that all people have the same rights to live in dignity and freedom, regardless of whom they love. It is also a sobering reminder that recognition of these truths remains elusive in many countries. Individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersex, or otherwise define their gender or sexual identity (LGBTQI+), often face real risks and disadvantages—especially in situations of heightened vulnerability, such as cross-border and internal displacement. However, not enough research has been done to understand the specific risks faced by LGBTQI+ individuals in these circumstances.
Diálogo Diverso is changing that. The Quito, Ecuador-based group is the first in the region focused on the rights and protection needs of LGBTQI+ individuals in the context of human mobility. In March 2019, I traveled to Ecuador with Refugees International Senior Fellow Sarah Miller to study conditions for Venezuelan refugees and migrants there. We met with Diálogo Diverso’s Executive Director, Danilo Manzano, and his team to understand their role in the country’s response to the displacement crisis. Ecuador is now home to about 263,000 of the 4 million Venezuelans living abroad. Venezuelans have fled violence, oppression, and economic collapse. Yet many still lack security and stability in host countries, and even governments taking a more welcoming approach have been limited by underfunding and institutional constraints.
For LGBTQI+ individuals in Ecuador, stigmatization and discrimination make access to services more difficult. Shelters routinely turn away gay men and transgender individuals, leaving them to sleep outside. What health care and psychosocial assistance do exist fail to deliver targeted support for LGBTQI+ individuals. This worsens common risk factors. A lack of job opportunities leads Venezuelans to sex work or survival sex, and chronic health conditions, including HIV, have long gone untreated.
These vulnerabilities are growing. More Venezuelans leaving their country are younger, poorer, less educated, and in worse health. New, stringent entry requirements for Ecuador are forcing them to use irregular routes to enter. They are unable to fully access the rights to work, education, health care, and regularization they are due under international and national law. Moreover, tensions with host communities are rising as demands on social services surge. While these trends affect all Venezuelans in Ecuador, Danilo stressed that the social stigma of LGBTQI+ leaves that community disproportionately harmed.
Displaced LGBTQI+ Venezuelans remain marginalized in both practice and policy. Standard humanitarian protocols for protection-oriented responses must be strengthened and adapted for displaced LGBTQI+ individuals. Surveys and needs assessments that could inform the design of an appropriate response have not been done. Indeed, migration registries do not account for individuals’ self-defined gender identity, leaving this community “invisible,” Danilo warns. Moreover, because the discourse around sexual and gender identity is less developed in Venezuela, many LGBTQI+ Venezuelans do not seek out specialized assistance, unaware that it could be available. Danilo said that many who go to Diálogo Diverso are just looking for a place to talk and tell their stories, or a cup of coffee and Wi-Fi. In short, they are seeking a kind gesture, a way to connect, and a sense of solidarity.
Diálogo Diverso delivers that, and much more. Through research, direct services, and advocacy, the organization works to provide assistance to the LGBTQI+ community and to improve the overall response by promoting their rights and mobilizing existing resources. Most directly, Diálogo Diverso’s “Mi Casa Fuera de Casa” campaign—or “My Home Away from Home”—raised funds to build a center providing temporary shelter, food, and other resources for migrating LGBTQI+ individuals, primarily Venezuelans. When we visited in March 2019, the Center was nearly complete. Now it needs more funds for furniture, equipment, and other resources to serve the more than 200 individuals and families it helps.
Danilo says the greatest challenge to providing adequate support is a lack of information—both about and to displaced LGBTQI+ Venezuelans. To address the former, Diálogo Diverso interviews individuals about their experiences with discrimination. It is well-placed to play this role—as a local organization with experienced staff who self-identify as LGBTQI+, it can reach and connect with the community. This also makes it a good information provider. Venezuelans—many of whom live on the city’s edges—may not know what Diálogo Diverso offers or be able to afford even the $1 bus ride to the Center. Staff therefore go out to clubs, cafés, and other popular spots to distribute their cards, and manage a mobile chat on WhatsApp to find those unable to come to them. These proactive efforts to “reach LGBTQI+ individuals where they are,”as Danilo says, are central to Diálogo Diverso’s success.
By both distributing information and feeding data back to international actors like the UN Refugee Agency, Diálogo Diverso adds real value. It links individuals with groups that can help them and connects those groups to maximize resources. It called for the addition of an LGBTQI+ focus into the plan of Ecuador’s national-level platform coordinating the UN’s response to the Venezuelan crisis. Now, it is working to maintain and integrate this LGBTQI+ lens into protection frameworks and humanitarian action plans.
Diálogo Diverso’s impact is clear. Its efforts will both improve the lives of displaced LGBTQI+ Venezuelans today and ensure that the response to future crises is stronger. Danilo’s vision is, in fact, one that all should adopt: “We must give people tools and opportunities and, where there are none, create them.”
Pride month may be ending but, as we work for the rights of the displaced and the marginalized, its message must remain foremost in our hearts and practices year-round.