By Gina Romero
In mid‑2016, the organisation I lead conducted a review of work we had carried out from 2013 to 2016 to advance LGBTIQ rights in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). Our findings were disturbing: freedoms and rights acquired in the past had been reversed or were under threat. The analysis concluded that the mobilisation and political advocacy of many neo-conservative religious groups was directly related to these processes. We thus understood that we had to broaden our activities to cover an entire sector that until then we had not taken into account: the religious sector.
At that time, I – as an atheist – and my organisation knew little about the religious sector, so we decided to establish an alliance with another regional organisation (more of a think-tank at the time) called Gemrip, now Otros Cruces, a Latin American network of scholars that studied the relationship between religion, politics and socio-cultural developments on the continent. This was the beginning of a journey in which an open, constructive and sincere dialogue led to the creation of strategies to make visible the characteristics of the religious sector in Latin America, to give a voice to previously silenced stakeholders, to promote dialogue and alliances between different stakeholders, and to amplify and enhance the dialogue on political advocacy and the impact of religion in the public sphere.
This process was not at all easy. Firstly, I had to overcome my own aversion to working with religious groups and religion in general. Due to my lack of beliefs I had been rejected by a very religious family, country and continent. As a response to that rejection, I defined myself for many years as a very strict atheist, belittling believers and treating them as irrational, as slaves to their beliefs, as untrustworthy people. So it was hard to convince myself that I needed to move past my own lack of interest (and my fear) for the benefit of my organisation and our partners, and indeed the strengthening of the civil society sector on the continent.
I overcame my aversion through many long talks with experts in the religious sector, including one colleague in particular (the director of the partner organisation I mentioned above), which helped me understand this sector, including very personal views on faith and beliefs. Dialogue was the only door that could allow me to enter a completely new world I despised and feared.
As my organisation’s board of directors are very capable and innovative people, and trust in my work and my vision, I did not have to try hard to convince them to go ahead with opening up a new field of activity. But this was not the case for many of the organisations and activists we work with. Broad swathes of civil society perceived the religious world as homogeneous and monolithic, as an enemy of most of their causes related to human rights, and at first rejected the idea of involving religious stakeholders in the activities we collectively lead on the continent.
We were able to overcome this second challenge, too, through dialogue. We set up several dialogue sessions between LGBTIQ leaders, human rights defenders, sexual and reproductive rights advocates, CSO directors, and religious experts and leaders; only by allowing them to share their fears, ideas and views on the present and future of Latin America could we develop a new common understanding and path of action.
Thirdly, convincing donors to invest in work on religious issues was a very stressful task. Fortunately I had funds that could be used to create the first path of action. Its success helped us to convince donors to fund other work, but progress was slow. Ultimately we were able to secure enough funds to expand the strategies and move forward.
As a result, we have organised dozens of events (conferences, seminars, interfaith and multicultural dialogues); we have created an observatory of Freedom of Religion and Belief in LAC; we have published articles, books and studies; we have been involved in advocacy activities addressing the Organization of American States (OAS), the inter-American human rights system and the United Nations; we are the official ambassadors in LAC of the UN campaign Faith for Rights; and we have joined forces with NGOs, faith-based organisations and religious stakeholders to create the regional Coalition of Religions, Beliefs and Spiritualities in Dialogue with Civil Society (Coalición Religiones, Creencias y Espiritualidades en Diálogo con Sociedad Civil) to move forward with a broader dialogue and collective action with a human rights perspective, among other things.
The coalition itself marked a milestone in dialogue between different stakeholders that led to in-depth reflection on the role of the religious in the public space and brought hope to hundreds of individuals who found potential new allies in a group that until then they had seen as an enemy – all using dialogue as our main tool and strategy. Since then, the progressive religious world has begun to be seen as an ally by CSOs even in processes of national political advocacy. In this way, it is possible to overcome, in part, the distrust that exists between the two worlds, eliminating stigmas and expanding democratic dialogue.
These last years have been an intense lesson in humility for me. I must also confess that I no longer define myself as an atheist, nor as a believer, but as a deeply spiritual person. I always have been, but I never understood it. I have reached complete acceptance of my spirituality, recognising that its singularity is the key to my capacity to traverse between worlds of different beliefs with an open heart. As I mentioned in a previous post in this series, dialogue can transform you if you have a generous heart and allow yourself to be moved by the people you are sharing with.
Dialogue can then be used to create bridges between worlds that appear very distant from each other, and to bolster democracy. In the next post I will be telling you about other examples of this bridging process involving businesses in the private sector.
 Over the last 15 years, Latin America has seen the growing presence of a sector of Christian churches – Evangelical and Catholic – that have gained a high profile in the public space (through street mobilisations, political lobbying and communication campaigns). The mobilisation of this sector, including neo-conservative Christian groups and some fundamentalists, has resulted in the obstruction of potential advances in terms of inclusive public policies and laws on gender equality, as well as in backslides in the human rights agenda. A less evident consequence is the promotion of a reductionist vision of the religious sector, which has obscured the diversity of progressive voices within it and created a latent conflict between this sector and a broad segment of civil society organisations (CSOs).