GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — Aldo Iván Dávila Morales is poised to take up a seat in Guatemala’s congress in January, making history as the first openly gay man elected to the country’s legislature.
Proudly gay and living with HIV, the 41-year-old activist says the rainbow flag will not be his only cause. He intends to begin his congressional career with three main agenda points: Fighting endemic corruption, ensuring Guatemalans’ right to health care and defending human rights, with a focus on the LGBTQ community.
“I’m happy, with a lot of mixed feelings,” Dávila said in an interview with The Associated Press. “The worry is I’m putting myself in a snake pit. But at the same time I’m no slouch, and I’m ready and able to fight when it needs to be done.”
While it hasn’t been officially confirmed by electoral authorities, experts say Dávila’s left-wing Winaq party won four congressional seats in Sunday’s general election, and he is set to represent a Guatemala City district.
“People have to see me as just another citizen, since I was elected democratically,” Dávila said.
Guatemala has taken baby steps toward guaranteeing LGBTQ rights, such as adopting measures to identify hate crimes against members of the community and allowing people to change their legal names and choose how they appear in photos on official IDs, which let transgender people better express their identity.
It remains a socially conservative society, however, with the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant faiths dominant. Prejudice and fears over HIV are deeply rooted, and LGTBQ people have historically been the targets of discrimination and sometimes assault, although such treatment is slowly becoming less socially acceptable.
Neither Dávila’s name nor photo was on the ballot — only the name of his party — and he didn’t emphasize his sexuality during the campaign. So Gabriela Tuch, a lawyer and former human rights prosecutor focusing on the LGBTQ community, said his election can’t be attributed to any significant shift in attitudes.
“It’s not that society has said, ‘A gay man, affirmative action, let’s vote for him,'” Tuch said. “He was favored by the votes and the position he was in. Now the challenge begins.”
One of the congressman-elect’s first battles will be opposing a bill proposed by the conservative party that would criminalize abortion and codify into law that same-sex couples are barred from marrying or adopting children. He also intends to propose a new commission that would report and investigate all kinds of discrimination.
“You cannot be a spectator when your country is falling apart,” Dávila said. “You have to take a leading role.”
That’s why Dávila was motivated to accept an offer to run for the party, founded in 2009 by Nobel Peace Prize-winner Rigoberta Menchú.
Dávila lives in Guatemala City with his partner of 19 years and their gray Schnauzer, Valentino. Dávila said both inspire his activism and political participation.
He said he considers himself lucky because he has the love and support of family members who were always open and accepting of his sexuality. His mother went with him to the country’s first Pride march in 2000.
Until recently Dávila was the director of Positive People, an organization supporting those living with HIV. He said that people have often come to him with complaints about discrimination, and that he himself was once dismissed from a job.
“Look, here are my diplomas and my trophies,” Dávila said. “But they fired me because they found out that I’m gay, and that’s how things are here.”
Dávila said that when he was 22 he suffered from meningitis, which ultimately led him to discover that he had HIV. Today he is in good health, but he knows some may not understand how the virus is transmitted and may be afraid.
“It’s very hard, of course, that they’re not even going to want to sit next to me,” he said.
“In this country people should no longer be dying of AIDS,” Dávila continued. “It’s the stigma and the discrimination that kill you, and the lack of medicine.”
José Arriaza, a 24-year-old who identifies as queer, said Dávila’s election gives him hope because he now sees himself being represented. Guatemalans will have to learn to accept diversity, he added.
He “isn’t your typical privileged white man, like a majority of the congressmen nowadays,” Arriaza said. “For me he’s an example to follow, because he is someone empowered with ideals that help the community.”
Carlos Valenzuela, a 36-year-old openly gay business administrator, agreed.
“It’s fantastic because what we most want is to feel represented,” Valenzuela said. “All minorities should be represented.”
Dávila said his path was paved by Sandra Morán, the first Guatemalan lawmaker who openly identified as lesbian.
“She is a courageous woman who inspired me,” he said.
But she didn’t have it easy, and was even insulted on occasion by some of her colleagues over her sexual orientation. Dávila, who said he’s been subjected to verbal abuse since he was young, is prepared to possibly go through the same thing.
“A worker at congress called me and congratulated me and told me to prepare myself,” Dávila said. “But I will try to not respond to the attacks.”
“With all the homophobia there is,” he added, “they could even boot me from my seat.”
Dávila criticized those who have pushed legislation limiting sexual diversity rights and said he does not believe Guatemalan society will change its views in the short term.
“We have to do a lot of work on educating, in demanding that the state be secular and for the church to stop intervening in things that don’t concern it,” he said. “We need to rule with the Constitution and not the Bible.”