As travelers, we’re always on the lookout for safe spaces. Being LGBT adds another layer of safety concerns, since being gay is illegal in about 40% of the world.
Our rights can change with the stamp of a passport. LGBT travelers have a heightened awareness of safe spaces, whether at home or abroad, and for good reason. Safe spaces can be as simple as bathrooms. In Tennessee, a lesbian was kicked out of a girl’s bathroom for “looking like a boy.”
While being gay is legal has been legal in Nicaragua since 2008 (yay?) and I’ve come out to countless strangers here, homophobia still exists. I’ve still been called a cochona (dyke) in the street after I’ve shaved the sides of my head, and I’ve heard my male students call each other cochones (fags) for wearing earrings or growing their hair out. It’s not until I explain to people (Peace Corps staff included) about how these terms are offensive that they think twice about using them.
Nicaragua isn’t always the land of sunshine and rainbows, but I’m lucky that my sexual orientation isn’t much of a safety concern. For volunteers in Tanzania, it’s a different story–but I know a brave, queer volunteer who fought for LGBT rights from the travel closet there.
On a trip to El Castillo, Nicaragua (population: 1,500), which is a seven-hour bus ride and surreal three-hour boat ride from Managua, I didn’t expect to find any queers. I expected to see a remote part of the country, and tour the Spanish Castle built centuries ago to guard the area from pirates.
I stumbled upon an unexpected treasure, though: Yamil, the dazzling, kind, and vivacious owner of Border’s Café. He cooks the best vegetable curry in the country and makes deliciously creamy mango milkshakes. He also happens to be openly gay, and has survived multiple assaults because of it.
Why would an assault survivor stay in a rural community and run an LGBT-friendly business? I asked myself when I met him. This interview will show you the definition of resiliency, and will inspire you to support LGBT friendly businesses. They aren’t just found in cities.
Where are you from and where have you been? Tell me about yourself.
Yamil: My mother (in featured image above), and owner of the local Nena Lodge, adopted me when I was 11 years old. When I was a student, I was ambitious—in good and bad ways. I didn’t get the best grades, but I always wanted to open up a bar, a café, or a restaurant. My mom told me that I had to learn to be responsible, and that if I got my grades up, she’d send me to study architecture in Panama. I bumped my grades up to 85%, and went there. I’ve also lived in Costa Rica. It’s not so homophobic over there.
Have you faced homophobia in El Castillo?
Yamil: Yes, very much so. I know I’m not the only gay man here, but I’m the only openly gay man. In our culture, homosexuality is seen as an act, and not an identity. Married men often have sex with other men on the side, but they don’t leave their spouses and live openly gay lives. This would be a cultural taboo, and it would be disrupting the societal expectation of being married. People don’t want to be outcasts, so they stay in their marriages so that people don’t see them as weak.
Sometimes, when tourists come visit, and they ask about Border’s, the locals might tell them where it is, but some of them might say “But the owner’s a cochon.” Once, an Argentinean man was told this, and he said “I don’t care. My mom’s a lesbian!” During the high tourist season, my business does much better. A lot of the locals don’t eat at Border’s because they’re afraid people will think they’re gay if they do!
You’ve been assaulted for being openly gay. Could you tell me about this?
Yamil: My ex partner of four years was stabbed and attacked by 14 men at the entrance to me café. He was almost killed.
In 2008, a man with a machete threatened to kill me. In December 2015, my cousins ganged up on me at a bar and one of them punched me in the mouth.
On March 16th, 2013, I’d gone out for the city’s Patron Saint festival. I was at a bar with a friend and a man offered to buy me a beer. I declined, and he slapped my rear. He then waved his finger at me as if I’d done something wrong. I went home to the café, then at 2 a.m. I heard my dog barking. I stepped outside my door, and this man was hiding next to my door. He jumped out and beat me up, then he dragged me and left me in the riverbed around my café. Luckily, it was the dry season and there was no water in it, or I would’ve drowned. I still have a scar on my elbow.
All of these things happen because these men have suppressed their sexual orientations and they want to rape me. In Nicaragua, there’s a myth that you’re not gay unless you’re the submissive one in bed. They think that by violating my body, they can fulfill their needs without having to come out of the closet.
Why do you still have such an LGBT-friendly café here?
Yamil: Every day is different. I was tempted to sell Border’s but I know that some people want me to leave. Little by little, I’ve built this place up with the help of friends who believe in me. Maybe in 10 years, when I’m old, people will leave me alone.
Are there other LGBT-friendly businesses in El Castillo?
Yamil: Yes. My mom owns Nena Lodge. She suspected that I was gay before I came out, and she has always supported me. Nena also runs tours of the river, jungle, and cacao farms. Other businesses are Las Orquidias Restaurant, and Hotel Luna del Rio and Hotel Posada del Rio.
As an assault survivor myself, Yamil’s resiliency is truly inspiring. A stranger on a run assaulted me outside of my city, so the anonymity behind the attack didn’t push me to leave my large site. Yamil, on the other hand, couldn’t be a more visible business owner in this tiny town.
People know exactly who he is, and he’s not letting that stop him from continuing his dream of running a café.
Yamil: After having met him, I needed to tell the world about his story. If you have the choice and ability to support LGBT-friendly businesses, please do. Because of the hostility Yamil faces in his community, most of the business he attracts comes from foreigners. I’d never consciously supported an LGBT-friendly business until I heard his story, and I ended up inviting my friends to eat at his café to support him. He was also incredibly grateful to me for wanting to tell his story. He didn’t have to, but he treated me to breakfast before my interview. For the two days I was there, I only saw one other customer there (from Managua) beside myself and my Peace Corps colleagues.
As travelers, we have the privilege of being able to come in and out of homophobic communities as we please. It’s our duty to support other businesses who don’t discriminate against others for who they love.