Police raid at Venezuelan gay spa stirs fear of lgbt persecution


Men who were detained during a police raid on the Avalon Man Spa and Bar in Valencia, Venezuela, line up outside a courthouse. (Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The Washington Post)

CARACAS, Venezuela — It was an ordinary Sunday afternoon at the Avalon Man Spa and Bar. The gay club in Valencia, two hours west of the Venezuelan capital, was filled with clients, receptionist Jesús Araujo said: “Sunday is our busiest day.”

Then the police arrived. With neither advance warning nor a search warrant, the officers from Venezuela’s National Police entered the massage rooms, the locker rooms and the saunas, witnesses said, shouting “Get out!” and “Hands up!”

Within moments of their arrival on July 23, they had rounded up 33 men, including Araujo and the club’s owner, on charges of indecent outrage, noise pollution and criminal association.

“I still don’t understand,” said Guillermo Luis, Avalon’s 34-year-old owner. “We had all the paperwork and they still arrested us. Not even brothels in Venezuela face actions like this.”

The men were outed and ridiculed, the club was closed for weeks and Venezuela’s LGBTQ+ community fears a new government drive to criminalize homosexuality. The authoritarian socialist state is one of the few countries in South American that does not recognize same-sex marriage. Until this year, being gay in the military was a crime punishable by prison.

Tamara Adrián, who in 2015 became the first trans woman elected to the National Assembly, said the government of President Nicolás Maduro has shown a “clear pattern” against LGBTQ+ and women’s rights. “I cannot recall a case as big as this one,” she told The Washington Post.

“These men were at a private space,” Adrián said. “I can’t prove it, but acts like these are carried out with authorization from the top. It creates a clear pattern of fear among many.”

In the first quarter of the year, the Venezuelan Observatory on LGBTIQ+ Violence recorded at least 60 attacks against the gay community. Thirty percent, the observatory says, were committed by a state agency.

“We have warned of a criminalization campaign against the LGBTIQ community, which is no different from the campaign against abortion and the political criminalization of different sectors,” said Yendri Velásquez, the observatory’s coordinator. He noted that the raid was the fifth against a gay establishment in the past two years, but the first time such a large group was arrested.

Venezuelan authorities did not respond to requests for comment.

Luis said he opened the Avalon Man Spa and Bar in 2021 as a safe place for gay men to gather and relax. “Up until now,” he said, “the neighbors never complained.”

Police took the men into custody. Araujo said officers took their phones, went through their personal information and taunted them.

“Photos, WhatsApp, Calls, contacts, messages,” he said. “From that moment it began to be a mockery. They called us [an antigay slur] and showed all our pictures and conversations to each other, including the videos, which they watched together.”

Officers sent the men’s pictures, names and ID numbers to reporters, who posted them on Twitter.

Most of the men were held for three days before they were released. Attorney General Tarek William Saab, amid protests, eventually announced that charges against them would be dropped. But Luis and two of his employees were held for a week; their charges remain pending.

Velásquez says the government is trying to strengthen ties with increasingly powerful and wealthy evangelical Christian groups.

Maduro in January announced “My Well Equipped Church,” a state-funded program to upgrade and remodel churches “so that the parishioners have dignified spaces where they can develop their faith in the encounter with God.”

“We see with concern how the government has strengthened the alliance with religious groups that use anti-rights language,” Velásquez said. “These groups have funds and institutional support.”

The club opened Friday for this first time since the raid. Luis is still waiting for his case to be dismissed.

“It’s the first time something like this happens to us as a business,” he said. “I don’t feel safe anymore. …

“It’s so frustrating. We are here today, but tomorrow, if they want to attack us just for being gay, nothing will happen, nothing will change.”


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