SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador - Erick Iván Ortiz holds a lit cigarette to his lips as he balances a glass of vodka in one hand while rummaging through his fanny pack with the other, looking for stickers and a pin with his face on it to hand out to possible supporters. It is nighttime in San Salvador and the tables at this gay nightclub vibrate to the rhythm of reggaeton.
But Ortiz is not there to party. He is working the campaign trail as the first openly gay man running for political office in El Salvador, a country so homophobic he fears taking his campaign to the streets during daytime, and feels forced to do it at night in gay clubs.
Municipal and legislative elections will be held in El Salvador on February 28, and Ortiz doesn’t have much of a chance of getting elected. Some 82.5% of the Salvadoran population is against same-sex marriage, one of Ortiz's main proposals as a candidate, according to the most recent public opinion poll by the Francisco Gavidia University. But that doesn’t put him off, he says. “I have always used the attacks as a platform. When they thought they would build a wall to stop me, in reality, what they’ve done is build a step for me to continue climbing,” he says.
With ten years as a pro-LGTBQ activist in El Salvador, Ortiz is well-acquainted with the attacks on his sexual orientation. He also knows how they mix with politics. In 2017, when he broke his affiliation to the ultra-conservative, right-wing political party ARENA, he was attacked. “They took videos of me from when I was studying at university in which I’m wearing a skirt because I was acting in a production and they said, ‘this one doesn't know if he’s a man or woman’ and that my arguments didn't matter because a person who doesn't know their gender cannot engage in conversations.”
Ortiz says that after years as an activist and an openly gay man, he has learned to use adversity to his advantage. That's why he doesn't mind being called a culero, a homophobic slur derived from the word for asshole and generally considered the worst expletive you can call a gay man in El Salvador. In fact, Ortiz has used that word as the basis for his campaign slogan: “Peguemos el primer curulerazo,” a clever play on words that roughly translates to “Let’s get the first gay man elected.” “
“Getting a culero in the Legislative Assembly would be a first great step against conservatism in El Salvador,” says Ortiz.
Most advertising companies have refused to carry Ortiz’s slogan, and the only message that the big billboard companies have allowed him to display is “Let's fill the seat with pride.” The argument given by the companies, says Ortiz, is that advertising laws in El Salvador do not allow ‘messages that damage morality.’
“But it’s a hypocritical argument because there’s a lot of advertising that uses images of half-naked women,” he claims.
“My campaign is a metaphor that seeks to honor our history as LGTBQ people and appropriate the word that heterosexuals use to name us: ‘culeros’.” If I already know that I aspire to a seat and the worst thing they can call me is ‘culero,’ I'd better come to terms with that word,” says Ortiz.
The candidate has also given the word another layer of meaning that has served to name historical soccer milestones of victorious underdogs. “Historically, we have the Maracanazo (July 16th, 1950, Uruguay beat Brazil 2-1 at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro), with Brazil losing at home; then the Aztecazo (June 16th, 2001, Costa Rica beat Mexico 2-1 at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City), with Mexico losing at home. And if we go to the political context we have the Cordobazo, in Argentina (May 1969). So I assume that I’m on the court of heteronormativity, of conservatism, where they’re the ones who have stipulated the rules, the referees, the players, the court and so on. And if this case is about a culero reaching the Legislative Assembly, then let's call it a ‘Curulerazo’”, says Ortiz.
But the attacks have not been just words. Ortiz says that he recently tried to campaign in a community, and an older man tried to douse him with holy water. Other times they have yelled slurs at him or forbid him from entering the premises of peoples’ homes when they see the gay flag that adorns the fanny pack he wears everywhere. Because of that, the only times he campaigns in public spaces he does so accompanied by colleagues from his political party Nuestro Tiempo, or Our Time, a new party that was born from a group of dissidents from the right-wing party ARENA. And whenever he goes on the campaign trail, Ortiz follows security protocols such as never notifying his whereabouts on social networks and leaving public spaces before everyone else does.
That is why he decided to campaign at gay nightclubs, places he calls “the only safe spaces.”
“These are the spaces in which I can also find receptive people for my campaign. On the other hand, on the streets, where homophobic culture reigns, even if I find someone who is an outed gay person, they may not even welcome me.”
In addition to laws against discrimination that may not only help his community, but also indigenous peoples, Ortiz says he will propose the legalization of the cultivation and consumption of cannabis, and an identity law that allows members of the LGTBQ community to change their name according to their sexual orientation.
At the gay nightclubs he visits, Ortiz doesn’t have a podium or a microphone to address the crowds. Instead, he walks from table to table and group to group with his drink and a cigarette in hand, explaining his political proposal to friends and strangers alike and handing out stickers.
His message is well received by many, but not everyone is convinced by the use of the word “culero.” Two gay men who were at the disco the night Ortiz was campaigning said they are totally against it. Both gay men, who spoke to VICE World News on the condition that they be called Paola Jimena and Samanta, see the use of the word as offensive. “It’s an offense that Erick hasn’t had to live [like us] and he doesn’t know how hard it is because he’s always lived in privilege,” they said, referring to Ortiz’s middle class background.
Ortiz sees it differently. “In this country we believe that being a culero is synonymous with weakness, cowardice, but in reality, this country needs great curuleradas - the accomplishments of culeros. Because proposing a special law against discrimination is a big deal and nobody has had the balls to do it. The same thing has happened when proposing an identity law, nobody has the courage to do it. In other words, being a culero is actually being courageous. Because being gay in a violent, sexist and homophobic society like the Salvadoran one, requires bravery. We’re not people who are afraid,” says Ortiz.
It's almost two in the morning and at the “Living” nightclub, the atmosphere just got hotter. On the counter, two men dance in their underwear. Couples kiss and swing to the music on the dancefloor. Ortiz has made a small space for himself, and, surrounded by five other men, dances gently while talking about his proposals, without letting go of his drink.
As VICE World News makes an exit, people scream excitedly while the intro of the song “Amor prohibido” - Forbidden Love - by Selena plays loudly.