'We exist' gays say in message to pope in Panama

Panama City (AFP) –


A long and tender kiss between two women in downtown Panama on Friday was a quiet but symbolic message from the LGBT community to the visiting Pope Francis: "We exist!"

Samirah Armengol and her friend Basch Beitia were staging a "kiss-in" with friends in front of landmark Catholic church to draw attention to gay rights during the pope's visit.

"They say it's disrespectful that we kiss in front of a church, but I ask them a question: Why is it not disrespectful when heterosexuals do it? Is it that I am an aberration? We exist!" Armengol, 39, told AFP.

Around 20 protesters around her shouted "Love is love. Love is love!" many of them kissing outside the huge Del Carmen church, symbolic for Panamanians as a gathering point for protests against 1980s dictator Manuel Noriega.

Wrapped in the multicolored flag of the LGBT movement, Levis Calderon said that the protesters were seeking "visibility" because "the eyes of the world are on Panama" during the World Youth Day celebrations.

"Together as a community, we are saying: We are here," said Calderon, 21.

Wearing a multicolored wig, Hilka Zapata had come to support her friends.

"Our call to him (Pope Francis) is that something very different is happening here to what he preaches," said Zapata, a heterosexual, married mother of a teenage girl.

"In other words, the church has to try to unify their criteria so that all the members of their congregation behave in the same way as he says they should behave."

At the outset of his papacy in 2013, Francis signaled a change from the traditional Vatican hard line towards homosexuals. "Who am I to judge," he famously asked reporters in 2013, saying gay people should not be marginalized by the church.

But he also clarified the official church doctrine that homosexual acts were sinful, though homosexual orientation was not.

The LGBT community says the Church still denies them by refusing to embrace same-sex marriage and the adoption of children by same-sex couples, although legislation has moved them closer in Panama.

Francis has also sparked controversy with his comments. Last year, he briefly dismissed homosexuality as a "fashion" before the offending document was amended.

"I believe that the pope is more convinced of our humanity than his followers, because he has already said so," said Armengol, who describes herself as a former Catholic.

Armengol said she had been a victim of discrimination in Panama, being kicked out of shopping centers and restaurants for kissing Basch.