|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
|Jennifer Josef, ILGA-ASIA|
QUITO (AFP) - It all started with a kiss. In July 2009, two lesbian soccer players in socially conservative Ecuador locked lips in a passionate act of defiance that saw the team expelled from its amateur league.
The expulsion meant the team, Cultural y Deportivo de Guipuzcoa -- based in the La Floresta working-class district -- could no longer participate in a high-profile indoor tournament played by teams from the Quito suburbs.
The bigger picture was the unease over homosexuality which the case highlighted in this deeply Catholic country of 15 million, wedged between Colombia, Peru and the Pacific Ocean.
The kiss was blatantly an organized event. After their own match the women went into the stands to watch the next game and kissed in front of their team before being ejected by an angry crowd. The episode was also captured on film.
"They had enough (of being stigmatized) and decided to make people talk about them. It was their response to so much aggression," explained team captain Karen Barba.
Although homosexuality is considered a taboo subject in Ecuador, football is like religion and the matter was taken very seriously.
The league's managing board suspended the whole squad of 22 players, even those who were straight, for one year after voting to punish the women for "engaging in immoral acts inside or outside the playing field."
Guipuzcoa, a team with many lesbian players founded in 2005, has since appealed the expulsion in court and this month finally won a reprieve and was reinstated in the league.
However, it is now refusing to play because the women feel the judge's ruling did not go far enough on women's rights or to protect lesbians from further discrimination.
A new Ecuadoran constitution, passed by a referendum in October 2008, made discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal for the first time. Homosexuality, itself, was illegal until 1998.
However, a subsequent report in late 2009 by the UN's Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights alluded to the Guipuzcoa incident and suggested sexual discrimination was still rife.
"Human rights violations against lesbian and trans women (male to female transsexuals) persist in certain social institutions and in the private and public spheres," the report said.
"Lesbian women continue to be forcibly hospitalized by their families in private 'addict rehabilitation' clinics, while trans women continue to be discriminated against and subjected to abuse by school officials, police and in spaces of political participation."
La Floresta football league lawyer Felix Zambrano said the team was expelled not because of the women's sexual orientation but because they committed obscene acts, "kissing and stroking their intimate parts in public."
Barba welcomed the ruling but vowed to seek tougher measures clamping down on the type of discrimination her team experiences, explaining: "When we win, our players are accused of having touched their rivals."
She told AFP that Guipuzcoa's players, who used to be called "Saltamontes de Venus" (Venus's grasshoppers), had also been accused in 2007 of having sex in the locker room.
"One of the organizers entered the locker room to take pictures... which he said would prove the players were engaging in immoral acts."
Local anthropologist Maria Virginia Herdoiza told AFP Ecuador's justice system had a lot of catching up to do. "There is a gap between the society's socio-cultural rhythm and the legal framework," she said.