Alumnus Ecuadorian minister of health combats anti-gay clinics

Carina Vance ’99 has risen to prominence in Ecuadorian politics at an impressive speed. She is currently the Ecuadorian minister of public health and is using her current position to focus attention on important human rights issues in Ecuador.

Many of Vance’s projects as minister of health have focused on issues pertinent to the LGBT community. For Vance, who has been open about her homosexuality for most of her life, such problems are personally resonant. “I remember vividly on Coming Out Day [at Williams], some of us came out in Daily Messages,” said Vance, who added that she was very fortunate to be able to leave Ecuador at a time when homosexuality was criminalized. She returned to her native country in 2007, and after working within the government for five years, she was appointed minister of public health in January by President Rafael Correa – a move that was hailed by LGBT activists throughout the Americas.

Vance said that, as a lesbian, she did not feel safe until she came to the Purple Valley. Though she heard of some incidents of homophobia on campus, Vance’s experience at the College was very positive because of the administration and student body’s openness to diversity. After graduating from the College, Vance moved to the Bay Area and then to Berkeley, where she earned an M.A. in public health. Vance ended up staying in the U.S. for 12 years after graduating from the College; she could only visit Ecuador “once or twice a year,” Vance explained, because individuals out as homosexuals had to be very careful in the country.

Though Ecuador overturned its sodomy laws in 1997 and in 1998 became the third country in the world to include sexual orientation as a protected category in its constitution, the country was and still is “very homophobic and transphobic,” Vance said. She was not sure whether she would ever be able to return to Ecuador permanently until in late 2006, when Correa, the current Ecuadorian president, won a contested election. “I would be in my room in San Francisco and listen to his speeches, and I felt that [his election] was a very important part in my decision to come back to the country,” Vance said. Correa is one of the most progressive leaders on LGBT rights in the world.

Upon her return to Ecuador in 2007, Vance entered the Ministry of Public Health as the “assistant to the assistant to the assistant” of the minister, as she described her position. While working to understand the stucture and challenges of Ecuador’s health system, Vance became involved with Fundación Causana, an LGBT activism group. Causana gained worldwide attention earlier this year for exposing the fact that over 200 supposed drug rehabilitation centers in Ecuador operated as fronts for clinics where LBGT men and women could be “cured” of homosexuality. These clinics often resort to imprisonment, isolation and psychological and physical torture in order to get homosexuals to recant their natural sexual tendencies. Women such as 24-year-old Paola Ziritti have come forward in the past year to expose the treatment they endured at these facilities. Ziritti claims that, after the clinic failed to alter her sexuality, “For three months [I] was shackled in handcuffs while guards threw water and urine on me.”

Any attempt to approach homosexuality as a psychological condition that can be cured is not recognized by any legitimate medical circles as valid, though such therapy is still widely available in America. California recently outlawed the practice on minors, but in Ecuador, no such legal protection is available. According to Vance, the most common way homosexuals end up in ex-gay clinics is by forcible abduction at the behest of conservative family members.

After working with the Ministry of Education and as an assistant to the president, Vance was appointed Ecuador’s minister of public health in January. At about the same time, Causana initiated a petition on Change.org to shut down the anti-gay clinics in Ecuador. Though Vance was not involved with the petition, she leapt at the opportunity to make the first legitimate progress against the clinics. Correa found out about Vance’s involvement with Causana after appointing her and when the petition came to his attention, immediately began working with Vance to help shut down the clinics. Vance’s predecessor shut down 30 anti-gay therapy centers right before stepping down, but had only faulted such clinics for technicalities such as a lack of beds or unsanitary conditions. As such, the clinics were allowed to reopen after a short waiting period. By the time the petition gained more than 100,000 signatures, Vance got Correa’s personal support for shutting the clinics down on the basis of human rights violations.

Vance subsequently formed a coalition with the Ministry of Justice to begin criminal proceedings against people who are involved with anti-gay clinics. So far, Vance and her colleagues have only shut down 10 clinics, but because the process has been implemented through the courts, “These 10 clinics will not reopen,” Vance said. Vance acknowledged that the ministry has a lot of work to do and that at times, “It’s been very difficult; there are a lot of people out there who are trying to make sure that what we’re trying to do doesn’t happen,” including members of the government who are involved with owners of the clinics. The process is made all the more complicated by the fact that some lesbians who have come forward about being tortured in anti-gay clinics have received death threats.

But Vance said she is confident that the government will succeed in keeping Ecuadorians safe from anti-gay therapy; the real challenge, Vance said, is combating the underlying stigma that compels families to send their kin to these clinics. “It is a big problem,” said Vance, one that she herself has been fortunate enough not to experience. “I haven’t had a problem finding work or a place to live, but I have a lot of privileges that most people don’t have.” Vance has lesbian and transgender friends who cannot find work at all beyond prostitution.

Despite the challenges ahead, Vance’s progress has been a beacon of hope for homosexual and transgender men and women throughout the Americas, and she is hopeful that her continued advocacy will help LGBT people all around the world feel as safe as she did within the purple bubble.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated Vance’s graduation year. She is class of ’99, not ’95.