Until You Change

Paola Paredes



It was four years ago that I first learned about the private ‘clinics’ that claim to cure homosexuality in Ecuador. My first thought was that it could be me held there and told that, as a gay woman, I needed to change. Two years later, I came out to my family and was accepted by them. In my country, many young women and men are not so fortunate.

I discovered that around 200 clandestine centres are in operation. Over three quarters of Catholics and Protestants in Ecuador believe homosexuality is morally wrong. Parents send their children to otherwise clandestine legal drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres that operate as a front which house an alarming number of gay men, women and transsexuals. I spent six months interviewing a woman who had been sent to one of these religious ‘clinics’ by her parents and locked up for a number of months. With time, I gathered more first person accounts.

The centres’ secrecy made it impossible to approach this issue using traditional documenting practices. Instead I set out to reconstruct a series of images, based on details from real life accounts, using myself as the protagonist and carefully sourcing locations, actors and props. I incorporated my own emotions and experiences with theatrical methods to explore the abuse of women in these institutions.

These staged 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.

The human rights of these young men and women are disregarded by Ecuador’s government, these centers are camouflaged and hidden in remote areas and in small towns. Currently the Ecuadorean State does not have the capacity to regulate these clandestine places, and owner’s of these places are usually the military, the police, and doctors who hold the power. In some cases these horrendous tortures occur inside of churches and in worst instances the government is somewhat complicit in these actions.

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  • At times the girl may be forced to sit in a chair, alone and locked in an empty room. Her only chaperones are the bible and rosary. She is there to read about sin.

  • 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.

  • 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’.

  • 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 looking up or talking occurs. On their plates is cheap tuna and rice, bread or bad noodle soup.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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 first time she was tied up was the night her parents hired men to sedate and kidnap her in order to bring her to the centre. Once there, she has been tied to a bed or left in the bathroom on many nights.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.