Donny Reyes is Coordinator of the Arco Iris (Rainbow) Association of Honduras. Founded in 2003, Arco Iris is committed to empowering and informing the LGBTI community from Comayagüela and Tegucigalpa on issues of holistic health, the defence and promotion of human rights related to sexual diversity, advocacy, research and outreach. Honduras has been found to be the most dangerous country in Central America for LGBT people, and Donny Reyes has suffered violence, threats and stigma throughout his life for his work in defence of human rights.

On the right to defend human rights

I was born in the north of Honduras in a department of the Atlantic coast, a rural community. I had quite a happy childhood, although in great poverty. My mother was a washerwoman and my father a cobbler. We were a large family of nine children; I was the fourth.

Human rights were something that our parents instilled in us. My mother was a housewife; she participated in the women's group and entered the feminist struggle when I was very young. As children we began to organise ourselves in the youth movement, which was like a club that watched over community cleanliness. We used to walk through the neighbourhood, a poor neighbourhood, and work together to burn the garbage and clean the gutters. That was when I was about 5 to 10 years old. Then I entered high school and there I began to collaborate with the progressive student movement, fighting to vindicate the rights of students in the early 90s. My militancy as a human rights activist began there.

When I was an adult, I moved to Tegucigalpa with the dream of studying, because in the north going to university was very complicated and expensive. There for the first time I was invited to a gay organisation called the PRISMA group and I started to get to know the LGBT movement. At that time it was focused on the prevention of the AIDS pandemic that was at its peak, especially among gay people and trans people. That was how I began to educate myself in this struggle and little by little, I got involved in the trade union movement and the movement for children’s and youth rights. The value of respect for others was fundamental.

The choice of nonviolence is fundamental to my life. As I said, I am from a large family of nine brothers and sisters. As we grew up, we began to see that when we fought we did not get anywhere. But when we respected each other, loved each other, cared for each other, we made positive achievements. I have transferred that spirit to my work. Seeing the patriarchal and imperialist context in Honduras, the machismo, how you are discriminated against for the slightest thing, not only for sexual orientation but for gender, poverty, color, class... I said that that cannot be allowed. I joined many other comrades who fight for an inclusive and respectful Honduras. I think that is what has motivated me the most.

On the significance of UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

When the Declaration came out in the 1990s we were working on children’s rights and there was not much talk in the country about what human rights defenders are, although the concept of human rights was known. We have been learning from the Declaration with the passage of time. Like any document, it is not perfect and perhaps needs to be adapted to the millennium. However, I consider that an important element is that it recognises that individuals, both individually and collectively, have the right to defend rights. Rights are not tied to an institution but are the responsibility of each human being.

Something very important was that in the year 2008, on the tenth anniversary of the Declaration, the World Health Organisation gave me an award that helped us to deepen our work on the issue we were working on at the time - access to treatment for people with diverse sexual identities, access to prevention and actions for care and self-care. We believe that the Declaration is a very important tool that we have made it our own in the organisation, from the collective to the individual. We have also used it for the creation of the Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Honduras and it is our main tool for making use of national and international legal frameworks. Defending health, land, the rights of women, children, the LGBT collective, the environment, animals – these are all rights, independently of the field where we do it. We all do it with the aim of seeing a better world. In many cases the Declaration has protected us as defenders of human rights throughout the world.

On the contribution of defenders to society

Currently I am the coordinator of the LGBT “Arco Iris” (Rainbow) Association of Honduras. Our work has to do with promotion of human rights in the country, especially regarding the LGBT population. We are also present in other spaces such as the National Council for the Protection of Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators and Justice Operators. We fight for defenders at the national level, we challenge the system, pressure it to offer protections to our comrades in rural areas, to the comrades who are protecting the natural assets of our country, who are against open pit mining and irrational exploitation without sustainability plans. We participate in the Coalition against Impunity, in different civil society spaces promoting public policies. We are currently promoting the Law for non-discrimination and the Law for Equality and Gender Equality. We are promoting several such initiatives, working for this Honduras that I believe deserves a better future.

One thing that made me feel proud and very happy was when for the first time we gathered together more than 25 fathers and mothers who had rejected their sons and daughters because of their sexual orientation. We sat down and explained things to them and we began to work on their awareness, the importance they have as fathers and mothers in our lives. We heard how these families had gone for years without communication, with lost children who did not come near their houses. That meeting was very beautiful because now these people, these fathers and mothers, are part of the association and raise awareness among other fathers and mothers just like them. It was a beautiful moment that makes me feel many emotions, because as a homosexual person the discrimination and rejection that we experience at home hurts us and affects us physically, psychologically and socially. Therefore when we experience the opposite response of acceptance, respect, affection... I tell you that it has an incredible value. It is one of the most important moments I remember.

On the right to be protected

I have faced many episodes of risk in my life and I am trying to heal them and move on. I have been imprisoned, a victim of sexual and physical violence by the state. I have also been persecuted and have had to leave the country on many occasions. I have faced difficult situations but the energy that my colleagues and the movement have given me is what has brought me to where I am today. I am still here in the struggle. I believe that the fight that we have started is a just fight; we must continue improving and continue working.

Unfortunately, the Honduran state is not defending the right to defend rights. On the contrary, it is stigmatising, criminalising and depriving many defenders of their right to defend land, property, and freedom of expression. We have a repressive government, a government with no values and no respect for the dignity of people in general. However, we continue fighting for defenders to be recognised and protected. I am part of the National Council for the Protection of Defenders and there we are putting forward all the situations that are experienced in the country. The murders of comrades who have been beneficiaries of precautionary measures from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, women who have lost their lives defending their rivers and communities… we continue to pressure the state and demand that they stop this war against defenders. In the National Council we also look for opportunities, within the small space that we have, to report such crimes. We do not remain silent or complicit with the institutions that are repressing our people.

The protection law in its article 1 recognises the right to defend rights and the protection of defenders. The Declaration has helped us to identify ourselves as defenders. Despite the fact that it is a hostile environment with a lot of stigmatisation and criminalisation, there are ever more voices joining the demand for respect for human dignity.

On the right to communicate with international bodies

We have had the opportunity to report to global and regional organizations such as the Organisation of American States or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). Arco Iris made the first reports about hate crimes against the LGBT community; we asked for hearings before the IACHR to report the situation. Evidently, the state did not like this. There were reprisals at the time such as revoking the legal personality of the organisation, restriction of tax conditions, greater control of the small resources that we receive, intimidation towards the organisation. We were raided after the presentation of the hate crime report; they stole computers, burned stationery, committed acts of violence and terrible vandalism. No one was ever punished even though we filed a complaint.

We also prepared, together with other sexual diversity organizations, the shadow report for the Universal Periodic Review on human rights, demonstrating the prevalence of harassment and violence based on sexual orientation and that the government was not doing anything to address that situation. We have always been told that we are liars. And we continue to receive threats.

Recently we went before the UN Committee for Human Rights (UNCHR) with a number of organisations and there was a campaign of criminalization, stigmatization, from the president of the Republic. He said we were "bad Hondurans" who were putting the country down abroad, spreading misinformation, damaging the prestige of Honduras. They put photos on social networks of the civil society delegation. It was a difficult time with a lot of fear. In that session the human rights deputy minister arrived, who is now a minister, and said that we were lying, that it was not true, that Honduras had taken the militias off the streets. He started to threaten us right there, in a public forum in Geneva. We doubted whether to return to Honduras with so much fear. But we returned and faced the situation and held a press conference together with other organisations.

We are clear that the purpose of the UNCHR is to contribute to the state and respond to the needs of the states. These bodies are subsidised by the states. But they are bodies that offer us an opportunity, at a point of power in the world, to give information about what happens and not remain silent. These benefits must be taken advantage of.

On the right to develop and discuss new human rights ideas

We have to undertake our work with a lot of courage and a lot of creativity, inventing new strategies to communicate our messages, since there are powers such as the Church with a lot of control over the institutions. The Church, with its fundamentalist religious dogma, is one of the greatest conservatives that does not allow the advance towards the respect of human rights, paradoxically when they should be natural allies. We face these waves of conservative ideological currents that seek to undermine, minimise and take advantage of everyone. We must reinvent ourselves to find different ways of communicating our messages and starting conversations. Using technologies, social networks, alternative media, community radios, approaching youth to let them know what human rights mean. The impact they have on economic, social, cultural life, on equality. That is one of the challenges we are facing. We are creative, committed to what we are doing, we do not give up. We are here because I had an opportunity and it is important that others also have that opportunity – to join this movement, in the hope of one day walking freely, safely, joyfully through the streets of Honduras. Today we face the opposite; we walk with sadness, with insecurity and fear. We are trying to reverse that, to give joy and security where there was sadness.

On the path to healing

When I was a teenager I faced discrimination based on my sexual orientation. And I heard very hard things from my parents, for example that it would have been better to have an abortion than a gay son or that I should kill myself. And when today I see many boys and girls in the organization who have empowered themselves, who have managed to reduce this violence in their family, this energy helps me heal. When we see that there are very young people who have come to the organisation and have had the opportunity to educate themselves – before they did not know what the rights of LGBT people were and now they see the importance they have. That keeps us active and any step however small is very important. 30 years ago it was unthinkable to see a group of parents talking with their children and teaching others to do the same. It was unthinkable to have a space like Arco Iris, which we call the Rainbow House, because it feels like a place of support where we seek consolation, advice and friendship, where we eat together and have a very happy time.

If you share PBI's vision of a world where individuals and communities are free to protect their rights and lands without fear of reprisals and violence, you can help by donating to our Shoulder to Shoulder campaign.