We are all Nicaragua: The sexual diversity community

By Becca Renk

This article was published on the Alliance for Global Justice web site on June 12. Becca Renk has lived in Ciudad Sandino, Nicaragua, for more than 20 years, working in sustainable community development with the Jubilee House Community and its project, the Center for Development in Central America. Becca coordinates the Casa Benjamin Linder solidarity project in Managua. The linked articles and books are in Spanish.

Julio Sánchez aka Julia Chinamo

The Story of Julia Chinamo

“I realized when I was nine years old that I liked boys,” Julio Sanchez tells me. Julio is also known by the nickname “Julia Chinamo” and socially as “Nahomy Campbell.”

“My father was a military man, a macho man. My aunt told him, ‘Look at Julito, he’s queer.’ I didn’t like boys’ things: no marbles, no tops, no cars for me. I loved dolls, I loved fixing their hair, I loved to wear my grandmother’s heels, my grandmother’s apron. I loved all the women’s stuff, that was my thing,” Julio laughs out loud.

In his early thirties, Julio has a dazzling smile. Founder of the Nicaraguan Association of Diverse Communities (ANCD), Julio visits its 3,000 members spread around the country, and he often talks about his own life. But as he continues telling me his story, Julio’s mile-a-minute talking slows.

“When I was 12, my math teacher found a note where I had written love poems to another boy.” Julio’s brown eyes fill with pain as he recounts how proud he was that his father got a day pass to go to the school to pick up his report card. When the teacher asked to speak to his father alone, young Julio was sent away to the snack bar for a treat of soda and quesillo. “I was happy, because I didn’t fail a single class. I was a very dedicated student.”

When they got home, his father took Julio into his room. “He said, ‘Look, I need to talk to you about something.’ I said, ‘What is it, Dad?’ ‘Listen to me you son of a big so-and-so’ — he called me a terrible word — he said, ‘Are you a man or are you a pussy?’ Boom. I was like, ‘Dad, no, I’m a man, I like women,’” Julio pauses.

“I viscerally remember that moment in my life because it was so, so painful for me,” he shakes his head. “My dad then hit me, not with a belt, but he hit me with a hose, and when the hose split open on my back, he hit me with the electrical cord from the iron. … I received so many blows that my right eye swelled shut and my lip was split open, and then my dad threw me out into the street with all my clothes. For me, it felt like that day was the last day of my life.”

Neoliberal Nicaragua: ‘There was no dignity’ 

Even two decades later, when Julio talks about what happened after he was kicked out of his house, he unconsciously slips into the third person, as if needing to distance himself from that time.

“After his dad threw Julio out on the street,” he says, “Julio took drugs and did many things; he was a sex worker on the street. He would sleep on the streets and in the parks, because he didn’t belong anywhere.”

Julio’s story is a common one worldwide for members of the LGBTQ+ community.  When adolescents wind up homeless, they often turn to sex work to survive, and to drugs and alcohol to cope. Most are unable to finish high school. 

Unfortunately for Julio, he was kicked out of his home in the 1990s, under neoliberal rule in Nicaragua. During the earlier Popular Sandinista Revolution in the 1980s, neither homosexuality nor sex work had been illegal. But after Violeta Chamorro came into power in 1990, her neoliberal government passed a 1992 law that criminalized homosexuality.

“We couldn’t hold hands as men, because we would go to jail,” remembers Julio. “We couldn’t kiss each other on the cheek because that was ‘promoting homosexuality,’ and they would throw you in jail. Before 2007, our diverse community wasn’t allowed to exist in society. We were clandestine, we had no freedoms or human rights. There was no dignity.”

Sandinistas return to power, restoration of rights

In 2008, following the Sandinista party’s return to power, a law was passed overturning the penalization of homosexuality and making it illegal to discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation. Since then, the Sandinista government has also passed laws specifically guaranteeing equal rights and opportunities for the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, public institutions have administrative regulations in place to ensure that no one faces discrimination for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“If I compare Nicaragua with other countries in the world,” explains Julio, “we have regulations, public policy, legal framework and laws that support us. Here you cannot violate the rights of a trans woman because she is a trans woman — you cannot deprive her of her life, her freedom. I consider that Nicaragua is an example for the whole Central American region and for all of Latin America.”

Julio explains that in his experience, the LGBTQ+ community — in Nicaragua called the sexual diversity community — has a network of support and a clear path for recourse through the police and the national special ombudsman for sexual diversity, a part of the attorney general’s office.

“If I feel safe, I feel that this security will transcend to … be able to support the new generations. This government has vindicated the rights of sexual diversity.  It is a government that has been advancing hand in hand and including our diversity in all governmental plans.”

Focus on family support

In 2023, the Nicaraguan government released a primer on sexual diversity called “Diversity with Dignity: The Right to Choose and the Duty to Respect.” The primer is written for families, and its aim is to decrease discrimination within families.

The primer was initially presented around the country in community meetings with a special focus to include church leadership. Since then, it has been used to start conversations during routine home visits by the special ombudsman’s office, police and other government entities, such as the Ministry of the Family, Ministry of Health and Ministry of Women. 

“[The primer] establishes that diversity in sexual or gender identity is not a disease,” explained Minister of the Family Johana Flores at the presentation of the primer in Granada last year. “That is why we have to respect the partner, the companion, the whole diverse community.”

For Julio, the primer represents explicit support of the sexually diverse community by the Nicaraguan government and has provided an opportunity to start conversations and improve communication within families. “The primer has been accepted by thousands and thousands of parents of Nicaraguan families throughout the national territory,” explains Julio. “I think it is very important to call the parents’ attention to tolerance, reflection, to family unity; to encourage them to have an active communication with their children … To grow up with the family is beautiful.”

Supporting education

For many in the sexual diversity community, education is key to building a different future for themselves. Julio credits a former teacher with helping him succeed. He remembers: “In my last year of high school, I had a teacher whom I will never forget, Marta Martinez. I did sex work on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; and on Sundays I went to a high school for non-traditional students. I would show up at dawn on Sunday and fall asleep at the teacher’s desk, She knew what my life was like. She understood me, she supported me a lot, and I managed to pass the grade.”

Julio went on to university and graduated with a degree in communication and after four years decided to go back to school. “I’m now studying law at the best university in the country, UNAN Managua,” he says proudly.

Julio has been integrally involved in organizing the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education’s Community High School Diploma Program for Sexual Diversity. This is a free accelerated Saturday school program by and for the sexually diverse community.  All students and teachers are from the LGBTQ+ community. Students receive a high school diploma in two years by attending school on Saturdays.

Julio explains: “We saw the great need, because trans, lesbian and gay community members had not finished their studies due to the discrimination [they had faced]. We met with the Minister of Education to work on the proposal and we opened the community high school. … But we also saw the need for our teachers to be from our community: The English teacher is gay, the math teacher is a lesbian, the literature teacher is gay, the physics and chemistry teacher is a trans woman.”

Through this program, the Ministry of Education has to date graduated three classes, with 110 members of the sexual diversity community receiving high school diplomas.

Growing together as families

“It wasn’t until I was 25 years old that my father asked for my forgiveness,” Julio says.  “I was a college student on a scholarship, and he said, ‘Forgive me for everything I did, for all the psychological, physical, mental damage.’ And I forgave him.” 

Julio has a younger brother on his father’s side who is gay and a trans sibling on his mother’s side. He’s proud of the fact that his struggles have paved the way for his siblings’ acceptance by the family. “Because of me, my dad accepted my brother and loves and respects him and his partner very much,” Julio shares. “I forgave him, because in the end he is my father, and I believe that parents want what’s best for you, but I also believe that we have the right to choose our paths, and they have the duty to respect us.”

Julio is an activist, and his personal struggles and triumphs are intrinsically linked with those of his larger community and his country. He explains: “Today I have become an openly gay man, defender of the rights of the LGBTQ+ community that has marked the history of this country, and I am determined to continue supporting, accompanying and leading my sexual diversity community in Nicaragua. I feel very sure of who I am, of who I want to be. 

“But I also feel secure, because there is a legal framework in Nicaragua that protects people; you feel safe when you can walk through the streets, and you won’t be discriminated against because of your sexual orientation. We are all Nicaragua.”

The JHC-CDCA is collaborating with Nicaragua’s sexual diversity community on an entrepreneurship project with students in the diploma program. If you are interested in supporting the project, please contact becca@jhc-cdca.org.

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