Until You Change
In Ecuador approximately 200 facilities exist to ‘cure’ homosexual men, women and transgender people. Unfortunately, the majority of these centers remain open because they are disguised as Treatment facilities for alcoholics and drug addicts. Imprisoned against their will, those interned are subject to emotional and physical torture, through force-feeding, beatings and corrective rape.
I spent six months interviewing a woman who had been locked up in one of these clinics for months, with time I gathered first person accounts of other victims. The strict camera prohibition inside this places made telling this story with traditional documenting practices impossible. If my family had not been accepting when I came out to them, I may have joined the young men and women whose families have them sent to these institutions. Influenced by this notion, I chose to cast myself as the protagonist of these images. I incorporated my own emotions and experiences with theatrical methods to explore the abuse of women in these institutions, staging a series of images based on the testimony of the women who I interviewed.
These images allow us to see what was never meant to be seen. The perversion of pills and prayer books; the regime of forced femininity in make-up, short skirts and high heels; torture by rope or rubber gloves; the spectre of ‘corrective’ rape.
Neither laws nor protests have changed my country’s attitudes, and until Ecuadorian society can accept the human right to ones sexual orientation and/or gender identity, there only remains this so called malady they will try to cure.
Sleep eludes the girls, told she is an abomination to her country’s God, a disappointment to her parents. She is an involuntary patient at an illegal, immoral clinic.
At 6am, the young women are told to line up, three at a time, to enter the bathroom. If they don’t respond with order and obedience, they are threatened with harsh discipline and their bad behaviour is recorded in a notebook.
She is alone for a maximum of seven minutes, a minimum of four, for her shower. Ahead of her, hours of Catholic music, study of Alcoholics Anonymous literature and therapy for her homosexuality ‘disorder’.
Prayer and bible study take up mornings, afternoons and evenings. The young women are instructed to pray sitting down on chairs, standing up or kneeling. The staff move around to check that they are praying with their eyes closed. If they are not or if they fail to learn bible passages correctly, it is written down in the anomaly book.
The morning make-over is, according to the orderlies, how girls should have fun. Transvestites and drag queens hold group lessons on braiding hair and manicures.
In front of the mirror, the ‘patient’ is observed by another girl, who monitors the correct application of the make-up. At 7.30am, she blots her lips with femininity, daubs cheeks, until she is deemed a ‘proper woman’.
The young women enter the dining room in a line. They say ‘buen provecho’, eat their lunch in silence and say thank you. No talking occurs. On their plates is cheap tuna and rice, bread or bad noodle soup.
Between meals, the fridge door is locked. At meal times, the residents may request food dropped off by their parents. But otherwise the fridge remains locked the whole time.
During the weekend the girls are permitted to watch a movie while eating a biscuit or a piece of chocolate. It is the only thing to look forward to at the end of each week when the demands of the routine take a particular toll on the girls.
Each imprisoned woman spends hours and hours of her time on cleaning duties. Each day she is allocated to a cleaning group for the office, corridor, kitchen or bathroom. The girls later recall feeling empty or worse, feeling nothing. If the staff are not satisfied with her work, they insult and beat their charge on the spot.
For cleaning materials, the young woman is equipped with a sponge, a rag and a toothbrush.
If insomnia does not keep the girl awake, it is the sounds of women being tortured. One of the therapists plays loud religious music through the night in an attempt to mask the noise.
Walking into any room, the women will encounter an artefact or shrine to Jesus or Mary. The staff believe they are doing God’s work, saving young people from the devil.
A girl is beaten with a TV cable for failing to pick up her bag from a chair, often other gay teenagers in the centre witness this. A book of anomalies worthy of punishment is read aloud daily to the group.
The beverage is worse than a beating. An orderly force-feeds the girl a corrective concoction of liquid for misbehaviour. She does not know what she is drinking. The women in the centre share their suspicions that the beverage contains chlorine, bitter coffee and toilet water.
One of the young women seeks out liquids of her own, overcome by a growing dread. She glugs down the contents of a shampoo bottle. The small hope is that it gets her to a hospital bed, out of the anti-addiction centre.
The memories of the girl return to the cables and rope which feature in many stories from these private clinics. Sometimes yelling, other times sedated, sometimes left in a bath of ice water until restless.
In the bathroom, she must be vigilant when mopping and scrubbing every surface with a toothbrush. She must pick up all the hairs on the floor. If she makes a mistake, an orderly pushes her bare hand into the toilet bowl and holds her down until it is clean.
The owner of the centre monitors the residents of using a screen in the main office. When away from the wing, she sits at home and watches the camera feeds.
One inmate knows she is not allowed to talk to the other girls. She is caught passing notes and taken to the therapy room. When she arrives, alone, loud religious music is playing. The therapist hits her in the chest, orders her to kneel on the cold floor and spread her arms. She takes the weight of the bibles, one by one, and is still.
As part of the daily regime designed to ‘cure’ women of their sexuality, exercise takes place in the early morning or late at night. A therapist or orderly shouts at the girls over push-ups and squats.
Every night the women take different types of pills, often described as vitamins but not labelled. The drugs vary in colour; some cause insomnia, others memory loss. The girl suspects, but is not sure, that she was raped after taking one of these pills.
Under the gaze of the male therapist, the girls are made to dress in short skirts, make-up and heels and to practice walking like ‘real women’. The act is emotionally draining and physically painful.
Young Ecuadorian women have provided testimony that they were raped by male employees as part of ‘treatment programs’ to cure homosexuality. Others have some form of memories or nightmares suggesting that they were sexually assaulted, possibly after they were drugged.
Making of video
Camera Assitants and direction:
Ana Maria Vizcarra
José Luis Espín Rivadeneira
Verónica Villegas López
Alejandro Aulestia Tapia