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Raid On Gay Sauna In Bolivia Reveals The Many Faces Of Homophobia

Police raided a gay sauna. The police's actions — and the following media storm – were violent in more ways than one.

View at night of Civica avenue in Bolivian city of El Alto​

View at night of Civica avenue in Bolivian city of El Alto

Juan Pablo Vargas


Every LGBTQ+ person has experienced the fear of kissing their partner on the street. Many of us have been beaten, insulted or given reproachful looks for doing so, as if a show of affection was a perverse act.

✉️ You can receive our LGBTQ+ International roundup every week directly in your inbox. Subscribe here.

Prejudices have forced LGBTQ+ people to the construct social spaces hidden from the public eye: nightclubs, cafes, saunas and others. They are places designed so that those who pretend to be heterosexual in their day-to-day life can let themselves be free and meet their equals.

Hidden social spaces

In 1990, homosexuality was removed from the World Health Organization list of mental illnesses. To commemorate this, May 17 is the International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia. So what happened in Bolivia in the city of El Alto, just a few days before that date, hits particularly hard.

On May 8, police officers entered a gay sauna under the excuse of having received informal complaints. They mistreated the clients of the place to the point of taking pictures of them without respect for their privacy. As a result of the raid, three employees were arrested, accused of pornography and crimes against public health. The accusation presented to the prosecutor has clear overtones of homophobia and morbid interest.

Instead of explaining why the charges would be relevant, they only point out the sexual orientation of those involved, emphasizing it in practically every line. It seems that more than clarifying the facts, the report seeks to reproach those involved for their sexual orientation.

Two levels of homophobia

An accusation of this nature shows that there was a degree of homophobia installed in those who carried out the raid. Therefore, the entire process can lose objectivity and be tinged with prejudice. The defendants were in police cells for up to five days after the events and managed to get out in a temporary freedom while the investigation takes place.

The accusation has clear overtones of homophobia and morbid interest.

Although this case is far from being over, it allows us to read some of the social levels of institutional and cultural homophobia in Bolivia.

The first is clearly the police actions themselves, accompanied by the text of the accusation, the initial reaction of the Prosecutor's Office and the current criminal process.

A second level, less obvious, is present in the way the news is transmitted by the media. In many cases, it revictimizes those involved. Very popular Bolivian media programs did not hesitate to headline the event as a "men's brothel" and even circulated some photographs taken by the police at the scene. They never asked themselves how to handle the news of a clear violation of the human rights of a vulnerable group.

\u200bParade in El Alto, Bolivia

Parade in El Alto, Bolivia

Pedro Szekely

Less evident, but still homophobia

A third level of violence, much less evident, is in the news readers. People who share their morbid curiosity with laughter and insults. People who defend the police and criticize the existence of a gay sauna because they are unwilling to normalize homosexuality. People who, from the privilege of never having been discriminated against for their sexual orientation, sit down to judge others. People who complain that they don't have a collective that defends them, without stopping to think that the collective that defends them is the same patriarchal system that, on this occasion, embodies the policemen who raided the sauna that day.

Sometimes we think that a homophobe is just someone who hits a homosexual in the street or calls them insulting words. Homophobia is also the one getting angry seeing a gay kiss in a Marvel movie and talking about "forced inclusion".

So is the person who sits calls gay saunas "perverted" but is completely OK when it comes to paying a sex worker for her services.

Homophobia is also the priest who in his homily tells his audience: "I am a martyr because society crucifies me for opposing homosexuals."

Homophobia is also someone who thinks that the accused men have received what they deserve for being in such a place. Or the mother who prays every day that her son doesn't come out gay. Homophobia is also laughing at the homosexuals who "deserve to be beaten".

I ask you to think, then, if you want to continue being part of this chain of silent violence that hurts, that silences, that kills.

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