When you think of Venezuela, you may first recall food shortages, mass migration, and political instability. You wouldn't suspect that, in the last 10 years, the country that has been regarded as one of the least advanced in South America when it comes to LGBTQ rights. While Venezuela is ruled by a man who openly hurls homophobic slurs at his rivals, it has produced internationally acclaimed LGBTQ films, daring to explore community, family, class, gender, and race. But it's been a long and difficult path.
I grew up in Maracay, a small city two hours west of Caracas, best known for baseball player Bob Abreu and beauty queen Alicia Machado. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, I’d see two types of queer characters onscreen: the over-the-top human punchlines in comedy shows or the tragic figures that were secondary to straight, cisgender protagonists.
As I entered into a confusing, sexless adolescence, there was a part of me that was curious about queerness. But for the most part, the positive queer characters I ended up finding in shows like Will & Grace and Sex and the City, and movies like In & Out were upper-class, American, gay white men living in a big city, immersed in a culture that felt alien to me.
I knew I was attracted to men, but I couldn't find myself in what I was seeing.
Then, around 2010, something changed: Local LGBTQ films started to be released, providing an opportunity to view my community onscreen. It started with Cheila, a comedy-drama about a transgender woman—played by trans actress Endry Cerdeño—who returns to Venezuela with the intention of reconnecting with her downtrodden family.
Though it was produced by the state-run studio Villa del Cine—mainly known in the country for nationalistic historical dramas and pro-government documentaries—it stands subversively to the rest of the studio's output. At the end, Cheila leaves Venezuela, feeling that her family and country hold no place for her.
Arguably the most successful and important of the movies that make up part of this movement is My Straight Son, which won Spain's Goya Award in 2013. It tells the story of Diego, a gay photographer living with his partner in Caracas, whose life changes when he's forced to take care of his estranged son, a teenager who doesn't take well to his father's homosexuality.
I actually missed this one the first time around, but was able to see it in a packed theater when it was re-released after winning the Goya. I was in college, still trying to figure myself out, and something stung me after I finally watched it.
Diego was open and mostly accepted by his family. I wasn’t. Diego was a high-paid professional with a loving circle of queer friends. I didn’t have that. Diego had a dedicated partner. I couldn’t even ask a guy out—in fact, I was afraid to (an openly gay 18-year-old had been sprayed in gasoline and burned alive in my hometown). I couldn't help to feel envious of the security portrayed in My Straight Son, a comfort that was unknown to me.
It wasn't until I saw Bad Hair directed by Mariana Rondón in 2014, the year I graduated from college, that I found what I was looking for: a strong, provocative statement on being queer in Venezuela.
Junior is a young Afro-Venezuelan boy growing up in the projects with his single mother. He wants to straighten his hair, convinced that it will make him more attractive, as he develops a crush on an older boy. His mother, meanwhile, is troubled by her son's budding queerness and finds ways to squander it.
Touching on beauty standards, misogyny, race, gender roles, and family in a country that’s on an economic decline, Bad Hair can be read as a critique on life under Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Revolution, with images of oppressive conformity and militarism.
Around this time, the country's economic problems started to hit the movie industry. In 2016 alone, movie attendance dropped almost 60% amid rising poverty and social unrest. The number of local movies that premiered was diminishing every year.
One such film was Liz in September, directed by Fina Torres, about a grieving mother who finds love and companionship with a group of lesbians while vacationing on a seaside inn. Another was the Venice Golden Lion winner From Afar, a twisted portrait of the relationship between a middle-age man who falls for a street-hardened youth who assaulted him.
Despite the effort to bring queer stories to the screen, LGBTQ policies have hardly progressed in Venezuela. Currently, there's no legislation on marriage equality, adoption, trans rights, and very little against discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. Many have preferred to follow the massive exodus and settle in safer places like Colombia, Chile, Spain, and the United States. The migration is tempting for many, myself included.
Nevertheless, the legacies of these works linger within me—the uniqueness of their perspectives transcending both physical and cultural borders. They offer the knowledge that no matter where I am and regardless of what I do, there are not only different ways to be queer, but different ways to be Venezuelan. They affirm that I exist—and that I’m not alone.