Rostros Diversos turns disappointment into hope. Dan Berezowsky, a second-year SIPA student, saw how the hopes of the LGBTI community in Mexico were turned into disillusionment when the bill that would recognize equal marriage was voted down. Conservative groups had launched a huge campaign of rumors around the law. False stereotypes and misinformation seemed to have won the battle, but Dan refused to be defeated. It was time to tell the real stories behind the LGBTI acronym.
On May 2016, dozens of activists participated in what was recorded as the first-ever meeting of the LGBTI community with a Mexican President. During the event, President Peña Nieto announced a bill that intended to recognize equal marriage as a constitutional right. Advocates of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights left Los Pinos – the Presidential residence - with a sense of optimism.
A few days later, however, hope vanished from their hearts as tens of thousands occupied the streets to protest the bill. Conservative groups supported by the Catholic Church managed to spin the debate from “let´s build a society where everyone is guaranteed the same civil rights” to “the State is imposing gender ideology on our children and we have a duty to protect the institution of family.”
Newsfeeds and social media were flooded with fake and deceiving information (i.e. “the bill will allow children to change their gender without parental consent;” “the new law will allow the State to take your kids away if you educate them within your own personal beliefs,” and many others).
As ridiculous as it sounds, the counter worked. Conservative groups were a lot better organized than LGBTI advocates; with a naturally autocratic hierarchy, their decision-making required practically no deliberation and happened fast. Meanwhile, activists – myself included - were caught up in everlasting debates about inclusiveness and representation. Eventually, we did come up with a campaign, under the name Todos Somos Familia (“we are all family”), which intended to showcase the diversity of families that exist within society, including of course, same-sex relations. SIPA students participated in one of the many videos that were launched to support the campaign.
However, the bill was defeated. On November 9 of last year – the day after Donald Trump won the Presidential Election - the congressional committee in charge of analyzing the proposal voted it down. Ironically, most of the lawmakers that rejected it were affiliated with PRI – the party that Peña Nieto belongs to.
The vote hit me like a blow to the head. What was even more startling, however, was the massive support that the conservative campaign had received. We had been very naïve to believe that Mexico was becoming a progressive country. On the contrary, there was a lot of misinformation about the LGBTI community. A wide majority of Mexicans saw gay, lesbian and transgender people as outsiders, who lived far away from their communities, probably hidden in some back-alley nightclub. The image that they had in their head was that of a flamboyant character, parading practically nude in a Pride parade.
If we want change to happen, I thought, we really need to transform that. Not only must we modify laws; we must also shift perception.
A few months passed by and the discussion still occupied a place in the back of my head. It was the go-to topic when I was procrastinating a problem set for Micro, or whatever reading for Conceptual Foundations. Then, one day, I came upon the book “Humans of New York”. It is a fantastic compilation of short stories accompanied by photos of people living in this crazy city of ours. It is meant to humanize strangers; it serves as little snippets of lives.
A thought came to my head: what if we can do this with the LGBT community in Mexico? Some sort of platform where people could look at people´s stories and realize that there is a lot more to them, more than their sexual orientation or gender identity. That is how Rostros Diversos was born.
The project became a personal challenge. Whatever time I could steal from recitations and lectures, I would put on Rostros Diversos. I started building a website (no, I knew nothing about coding), designing a logo (no, I can´t use Illustrator to save my life), and pitching the idea to other activists. I remember sending emails out from Publique, and then waiting weeks or even months for a response. It was very slow.
But then, things started to happen. First one or two, then another. I started compiling stories and photos. I was tackling challenges as they came my way (figuring out how to write a release form, so that I could post the pictures online; or having hour-long phone conversations about the exposure risk, while knowing that I had to study for a final exam).
But the results were very powerful. I started getting extremely captivating stories that portrayed exactly what I was hoping for: that we are not outsiders. On the contrary, we are part all of communities. We are the doctor that you call when you feel sick; the writer of that novel that you dearly love; the engineer that is working to build that road that will take you home...
Then finally, a year after President Peña Nieto announced his bill, the platform was formally launched. The first seventeen stories were published on May 17, on a website that is replicated on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Artists, opinion leaders and advocates were among the first to be launched; then, every day, one story was added to the feed.
Today, Rostros Diversos has over 125 published stories and dozens of others that are waiting to be told. It has been featured in major websites. Hundreds follow us on social media and no day passes by without someone sending in a story. We now have stories from eight different countries in Latin America, including Venezuela, Ecuador and Brazil.
The project, of course, is still quite new. I would not even dare call it a success. There are many challenges still ahead: how to avoid the echo-chamber effect; how to measure impact; how to add video onto the platform; and how to fund the project so that it may grow into something bigger and bolder (this was all done on a zero-budget), that is not only a one-man show (yes, it is very time-consuming!)
But thinking about how this was just an idea one year ago, and how it is now live, makes me hopeful about what Rostros Diversos can become. And of course, reading the feedback has been very rewarding. Messages, both from LGBTI folks thanking us for giving them hope, and non-LGBTI people recognizing that the platform has made them think differently, have filled our mailbox.
As we commemorate National Coming Out Day this week, I invite any LGBTI students who wish to join Rostros Diversos to send in their photos and stories. You could help make a difference in the years to come.