Although Cuenca is generally considered the most progressive Ecuadorian city for respecting gay rights, this has not always been the case. The catalyst, many say, was the mass detention of more than a hundred homosexuals in September, 1997.
The arrests sparked a quick response from the gay and lesbian community who were backed by many city and provincial officials. Two months later, the arrests were thrown out by the Ecuadorian constitutional court.
“This was definitely the turning point in public opinion about gay rights in Cuenca,” says Servio Mendez, one of those arrested in 1997. “Many important people in the straight community supported us and this had a big impact on changing attitudes in the larger population. Compared to most of the rest of Latin America, and even to Ecuador, Cuenca’s gays are treated very well and what happened in 1997 has a lot to do with this.”
Mendez welcomes provisions of the new constitution and laws that protect the rights of gays. A hate crime law, passed in February, makes crimes against gays and other minorities punishable for up to six years and strengthens work place rules.
“The laws are good but the most important thing is to change the attitude of the people, and this takes time,” says Mendez. “We see much progress here too. We have gay festivals, like the film festivals, and we have bars and restaurants that welcome the gays.” He adds that events such as the Queen of Summer, Red Lady and Gay Chola Cuenca contests could not have been held before 1997.
Gay bar owner Manuel Gallardo agrees that progress is being made. “The situation has improved a lot in the last few years,” he says, noting that his bar attracts many heterosexual customers as well as gays in the 18 to 27 age group. “We are about having fun and providing entertainment in a safe, tolerant atmosphere.”
New York native Grant Simmons who teaches at the University of Azuay agrees that Cuenca is tolerant for a Latin American city. “This is not San Francisco or Miami or New York. It’s still Latin culture. On the other hand, I find it much more comfortable than other cities I’ve lived in South America, including Buenos Aires. Ecuador in general, and Cuenca in particular, seem much more open to differences than many places I’ve lived, including in the U.S.”
According to Grant, who has lived in Cuenca with his French partner for a year and a half, the cultural atmosphere in the city is a major factor for positive attitudes. “One of the first things you figure out when you come to Cuenca is that this is a city of artists –painters, writers, musicians, you name it– and artists are generally tolerant people.”
He adds: “I have to be honest and say that being gay is not the center of my life. It is for some people and they may have a problem in Cuenca, or anywhere outside of a few cities in the U.S. and Europe. I have a lot of friends here, gay and straight, and I have to say my partner and I have been made to feel very welcome.”