How One Novelist Is Fighting Gay Conversion Therapy in Ecuador

In A Safe Place With You,' César L. Baquerizo unpacks the horrors of a practice still prevalent across much of Latin and South America.

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16 August 2016, 12:00am

Baquerizo poses with the English translation of 'A Safe Place with You', which was released in June by Pen Name Publishing. Photo courtesy César L. Baquerizo

In 2013, César L. Baquerizo's novel about the horrors of gay reparative therapy in his native Ecuador, Un Lugar Seguro Contigo ("a safe place with you"), was first published in Spanish. Otherwise known as "conversion therapy," gay reparative therapy is a slate of "psychological treatments" intended to convert patients from homosexual to heterosexual. They often employ emotionally scarring and clinically unproven techniques that have been banned in many countries around the world—but the practice remains legal in much of America and proliferates in countries like Ecuador, where 80 percent of citizens are Catholic.

Baquerizo's novel is set in the early 1990s, when homosexuality was still criminalized and hundreds of clinics operated in the country. It relates the journey of two young men from Guayaquil, Tomás and Sebastián, as they progress through one such clinic named "Grow and Live Normally." The horrors they experience—including electroshock therapy, physical aversion therapy, forced medication, and more—may have seemed so extreme to readers that they could have dismissed them out of hand as fiction, a shameful lesson from Ecuador's deep past. That wasn't easy to do, though, because in that year a lesbian named Zulema Constante was being held against her will in such a "dehomosexualisation clinic" at the behest of her homophobic parents, and her girlfriend was taking the unusual step of demanding her release via social media. The story made headlines around the world.

In theory, that should have been the one-two punch to shake the conservative nation out of its long-standing denial over such crimes. And, in fact, 2012 seemed like just such a breakout year, as the government vowed to shut down all such centers and President Rafael Correa even appointed a lesbian activist as health minister.

But, as of this June, the month Baquerizo's book made its English-language debut, Ecuadorian LGBTQ rights have hardly advanced since. "Whenever one of these places close down, they reopen," lesbian activist Diana Maldonado, director of La Voz LGBTI, an Ecuadorian gay rights group, told VICE at a cafe in Guayaquil last month. "They don't publicize that they're curing homosexuality. They say they're treating alcohol, drugs, whatever. But parents pay extra to get the 'full' package."

Indeed, even as legal rights for LGBT people expand across the region—same-sex marriage was legal in Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay before last June's Supreme Court gay marriage ruling, for instance—the nonprofit North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) says the pernicious "ex-gay" movement is as robust as ever across South and Latin America. "The belief that homosexuality is a sickness in need of a cure... remains widespread region-wide, providing a constant supply of mostly young LGBT people for the private practice of 'conversion therapies,'" NACLA's Annie Wilkinson wrote last year.

"It's supposed to be that these centers are illegal, but still they operate in hiding and with the family's approval," Baquerizo told VICE. "Ecuador lives a façade of lies. People from around the world say it is a secular and progressive country, which it absolutely is not. The reality is far from that."

Latin America's conversion therapy movement emerged from the ashes of its increasing disfavor in the United States, where it largely originated. In 1973, the same year the American Psychological Association declassified homosexuality as a mental illness, gay conversion group Love in Action was founded, which morphed into Exodus. In 1994, it created two separate organizations, Exodus Latin America and, later, Exodus International. In the US, the group became ostracized and mocked as science debunked its practices and high-profile figures were exposed as closeted gay hypocrites. In the face of growing visibility and political power for LGBTQ Americans, Exodus shut down in 2012. By then, its final president, Alan Chambers, apologized to patients for "the pain and hurt many of you have experienced."

These days, the movement to ban such therapy sits near the top of US gay activists' to-do list, especially in the face of the GOP's inclusion of such therapy as a plank in the party's 2016 platform. Success has been slow but steady, beginning in 2012 with California and now reaching five states, DC, and Cincinnati. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a fiat barring insurance companies from covering it. The US Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the constitutionality of such bans when challenged by right-wing religious groups, but a new federal lawsuit challenging Illinois's statute was filed last Thursday.

While the conversion therapy movement atrophied in the US, American evangelical leaders found fertile ground in pushing their discredited pray-the-gay-away creed abroad, and Exodus Global Alliance remains a formidable force across Latin America and Africa in particular. Exodus International's first office abroad, in fact, was established in 1998 in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito. Homosexuality in the country was only decriminalized in 1997.

"The thinking behind their presence elsewhere in the world, especially in developing, religious countries, was that these were places they could grow," David Maas, a co-author of a 2013 study, "The 'Ex-Gay' Movement in Latin America: Therapy and Ministry in the Exodus Network," told VICE.

Baquerizo, now 30, was never sent to an ex-gay clinic, though when he came out to his parents in his early 20s, his mother took him to a physician, who tried to persuade him to take testosterone to become more "manly." He refused, moved "to live far away from the influence of my family," and began writing his novel in 2011. He based it on newspaper accounts he says he read of clandestine operations where gay and questioning teens and young adults were subject to torture, including rape and electro-shock therapy. It's unclear how many conversion therapy clinics exist across Ecuador today, because they're fly-by-night operations, but Maas's study asserts there are hundreds.

After his book was published in Spanish, Baquerizo became one of the most prominent openly gay Ecuadorians, in part because his great-grandfather, Alfredo Baquerizo Moreno, served as the country's president in the early 20th century. His parents have not disowned him, but he has struggled to fit into his extended, religious family.

He has taken on substantial risk—there are no openly gay pro athletes, elected officials, singers, or actors in Ecuador. He has stepped into a vacuum, and LGBTQ activists now revere him.

"You know, it is not too common here to have a man like Cesar Baquerizo, who is from high-class society, to say, proudly and openly, 'I am gay,'" Silvia Buendia, an attorney who works with LGBTQ people, told VICE. "It is more usual that gay people come from the middle or lower class. It is very important."

Such becomes clear when, coincidentally, two of the nation's Spanish-language newspapers—El Universo and El Telégrafo—publish profiles of Baquerizo to report on the English edition of "A Safe Place with You" the same day I speak with Buendia and Maldonado. Baquerizo, who now lives in New York, was thrilled. He hopes to remind the country that despite LGBTQ gains there, its "illegal" gay conversion movement remains in full force. He believes an English translation can help shame Ecuador into doing more to close conversion centers.

"It's important for me, because I can let a large audience know about the reality of Ecuador and some parts of the world—about this evil experiment on humans," said Baquerizo "All I want to do is to make a good difference and be visible so that the LGBTQ community can stop hiding and be true to themselves."

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