Hailing from a rural area of Bolivia, and having gained strength in faith, Frank Evelio Arteaga has become a human rights defender committed to fight against every form of discrimination.
He is now the coordinator of Manodiversa, an organisation working with bisexual people, older LGBT persons and members of rainbow communities who live in rural areas. “As an organization we feel that we are taking the first steps in a long journey that we have to walk,” he says. We met him on the occasion of the 2016 Celebrate Bisexuality Day.
Can you tell us something about your story? How did you become an activist for the human rights of LGBTI people? Was there a specific moment that made you decide you wanted to be involved in first person?
I was born in a rural area of Bolivia, in a village far from the capital city where expressing sexual orientation brought a strong stigma and mockery, and made you a very easy target for discrimination. Unfortunately, human rights are unknown outside of the big cities.
In my youth I embraced the Bahá`i faith, a religion whose prophet preached that the “earth is one single country and humanity its citizens,” and whose principles promote unity, universal education, and equality between men and women. During this part of my life I began to promote non-discrimination. Religion made me feel that I would be able to fight against discrimination, something that had a profound impact on me since my childhood. Since that moment, I have become a defender of equality.
In 2005, I met some LGBT activists in Santa Cruz de la Sierra and I felt elated and I identified with the cause. It wasn’t until 2007 that I took the courage to lead a public and open life as a defender of LGBTI human rights. I founded an organization in Bolivia, I joined the national movement, and I began to carry out activism.
In 2008 I openly accepted that I was bisexual, but I was afraid to say it. Now, by saying that I was bisexual, the jokes were coming also from the people within the LGBT movement. Being bisexual carries a certain stigma and saying it within this environment made me very afraid. For this reason, starting in 2014 I decided that when possible I would only focus on bisexual activism.
In 2015, Bolivia joined the signatories of the Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination, while this year saw a Gender Identity Law coming into force.
After these victories, what are the issues that should be addressed more urgently? What struggles do LGBTI people still face in Bolivia?
Do you feel that the work advocacy groups did at the United Nations or in a global context had an impact at the local level?
What’s next for the Bolivian movement is to continue fighting for same-sex marriage or a similar legal institution. We see the adoption of the Gender Identity Law as an open window to go for more. In Bolivia, there has been a lot of work for the Equal Civil Marriage, which then became Equal Civil Union and is now called Life Partner Agreement (AVF), which is being stalled for the moment.
We’ve also seen how important it is to work on mainstreaming gender identity and sexual orientation in diverse policies and regulations. We have also talked about the presence of Bolivia on the Human Rights Council, and we must reach the staff of the Permanent Mission of Geneva and New York and also to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to achieve and support advances at the international level.
What kind of work is Manodiversa doing at the local level?
At the local level Manodiversa (an organization founded by and composed of bisexual people) is strongly developing two programs: a Bisexual people in diversity program and a program for older people in diversity. When we were founded we also began to think about working with people from rural areas, which is something that is still waiting to be fully developed.
An issue that I want to mention is the access that we have to resources as a bisexual organization. We have presented a number of ideas for programs and projects and we have received responses explicitly claiming that bisexual people are not a priority. So the resources for all the actions that we have taken have come out directly of the bisexual people’s very pockets. Support in the fight for our rights and in the fight against biphobia, is practically non-existing.
Currently, we are the only point of reference for bisexual people. As an organization we feel that we are taking the first steps in a long journey that we have to walk. We have also established the first centre for older LGBTI adults in Bolivia which will be named ‘Live Well’ (the model of alternative development of the indigenous and peasant communities in Bolivia known as ‘Buen vivir’ [D.P.]).
In 2014, Manodiversa issued a report documenting the lived realities of the bisexual community in Bolivia, documenting how discrimination and invisibility impact on bisexual people’s lives. Where can change start from?
I think that the most important step as individuals, be them part of the LGBT+ population or not, is to stop questioning whether bisexuality exists. This is the starting point. There’s the essence of learning to respect us.
If someone is bisexual, they shouldn’t have to be questioned at all about how they call themselves.
A second step is to demolish false perceptions and myths. We are not freer to exercise our sexuality than a heterosexual or homosexual person. We haven’t got more chances at falling in love than any other person has. Also, bisexual men can also feel anal pleasure as much as any other man.
When we talk at Manodiversa about what actions should be taken to help us, we’ve mentioned the following:
- To encourage a bisexual symbology so that bisexual people can begin to grow and strengthen their identity. This helps their self-esteem and allows them to identify with a cause.
- To talk about human and reproductive rights, but with a focus on bisexual persons, just like awareness is being raised now on the human rights of trans and intersex people.
- The B must stop being like a decoration. It is not enough to have bisexual people in organizations. I have heard various activists say that when they propose an activity or action with a bisexual focus, the rest of the non-bisexual people block them or question them (as if they were bisexual themselves or they understood their reality of being bisexual); they then ask us to make ourselves more visible, but don’t help us with our activities. This must definitely change.
- Our reality should be researched. There is very little investment in the research and documentation of our lives, our needs, our desires, and our psychological and mental health issues. The United States and United Kingdom are at the forefront on this point, but it is not enough: there is nothing that documents our reality at the global level. The Bisexual Secretariat that will soon be a part of the ILGA should begin from here: gathering information. Many say that we are invisible, but things like this do not help to make our bisexual cause visible.
Pervasive stereotypes and negative attitudes about bisexuality are present not only among the heterosexual population, but also within the LGBTI community. Why does this happen, in your opinion? And how can people in our community and beyond be educated to fight this social instinct of outcasting anyone who does not fit into a binary narrative?
Binarism is the main enemy in understanding that there are various nuances. People only want to see black or white, good or bad. People need to understand the existence of a continuum between one side and the other, and that bisexuality isn’t being 50% heterosexual and 50% homosexual. It’s being 100% bisexual. People, especially the LGBTI population, hope that we chose a side, as if sexuality was a choice.
Someone is bisexual simply because they are bisexual (there isn’t scientific or social explanation) and we as bisexual persons don’t have to automatically question ourselves, neither should LGTI people have to ask us why we are who we are, but simply accept us and help us live to the fullest.
As mentioned, bisexual people suffer from stereotypes created by misinformation (thanks to the limited information available about us). Those who do the most damage are the ones who catalogue bisexuality as a phase, and say that bisexual people are confused, or that being bisexual is the easiest option. All these stereotypes are false. Bisexual persons do not have an easy life. On the contrary, we have to fight against the prejudices of homosexuals as well of heterosexuals (many of us have to come out of the closet twice instead of just once). It’s not easy saying that one is bisexual within the LGBTI movement either (at conferences people have approached me to say that they are bisexual, but they are afraid to say it. They feel that the environment is too hostile to be openly bisexual).
People within the community must do something simple: they have to learn not to question other people’s choices, accept that bisexuality exists and that we fall in love, love, and feel just like them, and that part of being happy is in people accepting us as we are. Bisexuals in diversity!
(translation from Spanish by Daniel Waring, edited by Renato Sabbadini and Daniele Paletta)