Freddy Bernal, a man with short grey hair, wearing a red polo shirt and in front of press microphones

Venezuelan president of police reform commission makes homophobic remarks

In October of last year, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro selected Freddy Bernal to lead a new presidential commission on police reform. Yesterday, Bernal stepped into hot water when, after saying he did not believe people with tattoos or men with earrings are police officer material, he was asked about his position on gay officers. 

Host: Can a homosexual be a police officer?

Freddy Bernal: Yes [a homosexual] can be an officer, so long as they don’t manifest their sexual preference publicly. Because imagine if a police officer that might want to wear a pink shirt, or wear lipstick. I think that that, at least in Venezuela, I don’t know in other places, doesn’t go with our culture. And I clarify: I have nothing against sexual diversity. Each person has their own right to the free determination of their sexuality, and there are sexually diverse men and women who are well-qualified, intellectuals, professors, academics. But in terms of material for the national armed forces, or material for the police, there could be a person that is gay, and that’s each person’s right. But they couldn’t manifest it publicly, because it goes against the structure of what a police officer should be. That type of concept, without being xenophobic, homophobic, without discrimination, because everybody in the constitution – there’s no discrimination here, on the basis of race, sex, or social condition. And socialists, because we are socialists, accept and value above the sexual condition, the human condition, which is the most important. But, in a police academy, there has to be men and women that give an example of unity, of work, of sacrifice to society.”

Venezuelan LGBT activists are, quite reasonably, incensed. The old trope of “it’s cool if you’re gay, just don’t be loud about it” is patently homophobic, and it’s obvious that there’s a healthy dose of transphobia in Bernal’s statement as well: his comments on what exactly would be improper about a gay officer deal more with perceived gender transgressions than anything else. It is clear that Bernal does not believe that LGBT Venezuelans are moral citizens capable of being “an example of unity, of work, or sacrifice to society,” and are therefore an inferior class of Venezuelans.

But how is it possible that a socialist government official, with his beliefs on equity and revolution, would be so ignorant of the ways homophobia and transphobia functions on a systemic level?

For those of us having critical discussions on feminism in Venezuela, this is no big surprise. The making of these homophobic and transphobic statements alongside claims of respect for sexual diversity is indicative of a larger pattern in Venezuela’s largely cis straight male-run socialist government. A spoken — or even at times legislated — commitment to feminist ideals, such as nondiscrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, etc., is met with institutionalized and unquestioned discriminatory practices. Similar claims about a lack of discrimination on the basis of race are equally absurd; one quick look at the residents of Venezuela’s slums reveals that indigenous and Afro-descended Venezuelans are disproportionately poor, and one quick look at who has risen to power in the new socialist bureaucratic elite reveals that lighter-skinned (cisgender, straight or closeted) men have the highest political positions.

Here in the United States, police officers are major drivers of violence against LGBT communities, as I’ve written about before. Venezuelan anti-violence activist Lexys Rendón confirms that, in Venezuela too — unsurprisingly — police officers are quite implicated in human rights violations against LGBTI persons.

Given these facts, it’s unclear whether any LGBT Venezuelans would even want to join the police force. Certainly, inclusion in violent systems is not the path to queer and trans liberation. Yet, these remarks speak to a larger pattern of state violence against LGBT Venezuelans, as well as the reticence of a friendly-by-name government to address systemic and institutional discrimination against LGBT people.

Internationally acclaimed transgender lawyer and Venezuelan LGBT activist and leader Tamara Adrián is calling for an apology from Bernal and his resignation.

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Verónica Bayetti Flores has spent the last years of her life living and breathing reproductive justice. She has led national policy and movement building work on the intersections of immigrants' rights, health care access, young parenthood, and LGBTQ liberation, and has worked to increase access to contraception and abortion, fought for paid sick leave, and demanded access to safe public space for queer youth of color. In 2008 Verónica obtained her Master’s degree in the Sexuality and Health program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. She loves cooking, making art, listening to music, and thinking about the ways art forms traditionally seen as feminine are valued and devalued. In addition to writing for Feministing, she is currently spending most of her time doing policy work to reduce the harms of LGBTQ youth of color's interactions with the police and making sure abortion care is accessible to all regardless of their income.

Verónica is a queer immigrant writer, activist, and rabble-rouser.

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