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In Harm's Way
A Honduran activist visits Milwaukee.

Pepe Palacios on-air at WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. (photos by Gary Cozette)

Wearing a rainbow bracelet around his wrist, Pepe Palacios is smiling. He’s sipping a mocha on a snowy Milwaukee Monday, not alarmed by the amount of snow that has hit the city today, something he rarely sees at his home in Honduras. His trips through Atlanta, Chicago, and up Interstate 94 don’t seem to have taxed him at all, and he remains calm as he explains the events that have brought him to Wisconsin.

He uses the word “murder” so often that nearby coffee drinkers look over in alarm. In the past three and a half years, violence and unrest have besieged Honduras and its LGBT activists in particular – people like Palacios. The turmoil began on June 28, 2009, the day a military coup ushered President Manuel Zelaya from his home and onto a plane bound for Costa Rica – all before he had a chance to change out of his pajamas.

To fight the military government, LGBT organizations allied with other social groups to form the Honduras National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) and a political party called LIBRE. Its candidates, who are sometimes gay or transgender, have proven themselves to be legitimate competitors in Honduran elections.

At the same time, violence against LGBT citizens, especially transgender women, has skyrocketed. “From 1994 to 2009, the reports say only 20 LGBT were killed,” says Palacios. “In the three and a half years (since the coup) we have had 89.”

The first of these killings happened on the day of the coup, and since then, shadowy opponents have assassinated gay and transgender political candidates and journalists. Palacios and other activists speculate that police forces, or someone linked to them, are responsible.

The UN has noticed the rise in deaths and the U.S. State Department advised the Honduran national government to look into the crimes. Few, however, have been investigated, and Palacios is in the U.S. asking for help.

He says the country’s LGBT groups are also launching a campaign against bullying and in favor of sexual education in schools. “It’s not the time to ask for struggles just related to the LGBT’s, so we’re not interested, for now, in equal marriage,” he says. “There are some other things that need to be included in the platform. For example, we don’t have a non-discrimination law. We need that. Hate crimes don’t exist in the penal code.” Palacios and other activists are pushing for additional penalties for hate crimes against LGBT members or women.

Right now, Palacios is seeking out Americans who would be willing to observe the country’s November elections. LIBRE fears the current government or military could launch yet another coup if their candidates fare poorly.

He’s not afraid of putting himself in the spotlight and becoming the next target. “We have talked about it many times,” he says. “We don’t care. If you stick back, they win. They want us to be scared. We can’t stop now. We don’t have time to think about it.”

With a conservative Catholic culture in Honduras, many voters are less than receptive to LGBT candidates. Palacios’ own mother disapproved of homosexuality, though he still considers himself lucky. In the final days of her life, she asked if he was happy with the life he was living, he says, as if that was all that mattered.

He ends the coffee break by shoving his rainbow bracelet into the sleeve of a heavy winter coat, and he heads out into the snow.

His next stop: A presentation at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center at 7 p.m. tonight.

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