Ecuadorian organisations representing gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals report that more and more young people are being kidnapped and taken to “dehomosexualization” clinics. It’s believed that there are 200 of these clinics in the country. The unscrupulous owners of these centres tell the parents and family members that being gay or lesbian is a disease and that they have a “cure”.
by Luisa Fernanda López
This is what happened recently to Zulema Constante last month. “My parents are so ignorant,” she says. “They didn’t realize the awful consequences I would suffer by being locked up in one of these centres.”
The story behind the kidnapping began when Zulema decided to tell her parents that she was in love with another girl. Zulema never imagined what the consequences of this would be. On May 17, the International Day against Homophobia, Zulema’s parents picked her up in their car for lunch. Some men stopped the car and forced her into another car to take her to the clinic where she would be “cured”.
Zulema tried to resist. She tried to alert police officers but they ignored her. “On the highway, the authorities stopped us a couple of times, but despite my screams and the fact that I told them that I was an adult, that they couldn’t do this, the authorities ignored me. My father had used his influence to prevent them from freeing me.”
As soon as she arrived at the clinic, the manager read her the rules she would have to follow. From early in the morning, she and the other nine young women there had pray, do chores, play sports and have talks with a psychologist. Zulema says she was repeatedly punished: she had to do difficult cleaning chores, she was subjected to psychological torture, physical aggression and even in some cases to sexual abuse.
“I was treated better because I’m the daughter of an influential person but that didn’t mean that I was freed from doing heavy labour. I was humiliated and they tried to force me to admit that I was an alcoholic.” According to Zulema, the clinic is run by “a type of pastor”, with the support of doctors, nurses, psychologists and social workers.
Zulema was rescued by her lover, Cinthya, and Ecuadorian LGBT activists. When she heard about the kidnapping, Lía Burbano, the president of the Woman and Woman Association, contacted the People’s Defender (who performs the functions of an ombudsman) and the Human Rights Committee.
The next step was to file a complaint with the prosecutor and to launched a Twitter campaign to find out where Zulema was. According to Burbano, this was essential to confuse the family and to get the media talking about her kidnapping. The scandal grew and that’s when Zulema’s father started getting scared. He asked the centre’s director to send his daughter back to Guayaquil. During the trip, Zulema managed to convince the driver to lend her his phone . That’s how she managed to reach her lover and tell her that she was going to Guayaquil and probably to her parents’ house.
Her girlfriend, her lawyer and the activists at the Women and Woman Association quickly drew up a plan to intercept the vehicle and free her. Zulema and her girlfriend then organized a press conference. They wanted to show people in Ecuador and the rest of the world that these sinister clinics exist and their number is increasing.
The reality behind these “dehomosexualization” clinics became public knowledge a few years ago, revealing a practice that violates people’s human rights. At the time, the authorities pledged to prosecute those responsible and to end this practice. In 2011, it’s estimated that there were 200 of these clinics in Ecuador which operated allegedly as rehabilitation centres for drug addicts and alcoholics.
The Health Ministry ordered the closure of 30 of the clinics, but according to Lía Burbano, almost all of them re-opened under different names. Burbano says it’s important that there is a committee which carries out visits and investigations and supervises the centres. But the main problem, says Burbano, is that many of the centres belong to influential people, and they can avoid problems with the authorities by paying big bribes.
In Zulema’s case, the story had a happy ending, even though it will take some time for the pain to disappear. But the case highlights the fact that Ecuadorian society still has a long way to go in dealing with latent homophobia and respecting sexual diversity.