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#HappinessStories | Coming out as gay in Venezuela

A quest for peace and happiness

Story published on

January 22, 2020

#HAPPINESSSTORIES | Maximo Amaury Olivieri Moreno – Max is one of the most cheerful people you’ll ever meet. He has a laugh that fills the hostel he manages in the Colombian city of Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast. You look at him and you think he’s the classic Colombian – he seems so full of life and at peace with himself. Only he isn’t: “My internal life is not happy”. Oh, and he’s also not from Colombia.
Max is one of the 1.6 million Venezuelans who are now in neighboring Colombia, claiming their right to a better life, to a more dignified existence. This is the remarcable story of a Venezuelan who opens up about his journey and his struggles of being openly gay in a very conservative family and an equally conservative country.

In 2019, I travelled across South America and documented the Venezuelan refugee crisis. These are some of the stories I have learned

For the facts and figures of how a once rich country got to this tragic point, see this story as well.

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Watch Max’s story in the video below:

“Sometimes I feel very empty”

There’s something quite disarming about someone who can admit to his unhappiness with a smile on his face. Our mind is unprepared for this level of acceptance. “I’m honest. I don’t lie to myself”, Max explains. 

We’d been sitting on the rooftop terrace of his hostel for 45 minutes. There we were, on a windy day on the Colombian coast, in between storms: two strangers talking about happiness and peace. “I don’t have peace. It’s weird that I can say ‘I don’t have peace’ smiling”. It is, isn’t it?

“Sometimes I feel empty, because my family is very, very far away from me. My mom is very sick, she needs my company, my smell, my voice close to her. But that’s impossible for now with the situation”.

He doesn’t deny his life in Colombia is much better than what he left behind. The material things are there. He has a job, even though he works 7 days a week, up to 12 hours a day. He has a partner, who lives with him in the hostel. He can be more open about his sexual preferences than in Venezuela.

This young man found a lot of things when he left his crumbling country behind. All but his peace. He keeps thinking about the problems he left behind, all the sorrow following him like a trail that tries to grab hold of him. “I’m not happy. 100% not”.

Coming out at 15: “Everybody hated me”

Gay rights in Colombia
Gay marriage is legal since 2016

Adoption by gay couples is legal since 2015

LGBT people are allowed since 1999 to serve openly in the Army

Gay rights in Venezuela
Gay marriage is banned by the Constitution adopted in 1999

Adoption by gay couples is banned

LGBT people cannot serve openly in the Military

Max talks a lot about his family, even though, he admits, they haven’t always been supportive.

When he was 15, he came out as gay. Keep in mind the context in order to understand his courage: Venezuela was and still is a very conservative country, with one of the worst track records on LGBT rights in the region. Furthermore, Max’s mother is Muslim and his father is Catholic. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the reaction wasn’t what he had hoped for. “Everybody hated me at that moment. But I thought – hey, the important thing is that I will be happy. I will be happy. I need to be happy”. 

His father took it worse than the rest. “My father didn’t speak to me for five years. Because he said ‘in my family nobody is gay, different, weird’”. Now, that they live in the same city again, in Santa Marta, his father does talk to Max again.

Max, together with his mother and sister / Used with permission from personal archive

Growing up in a crumbling country

Top recipients of Venezuelan refugees
Colombia: 1.63 million

Peru: 863.000

Ecuador: 385.000

Chile: 371.000 

USA: 351.000

Brazil: 224.000

Argentina: 145.000

Source: BBC

The Venezuelan refugee crisis, in numbers
4.76 million Venezuelan refugees (December 2019) – Source HERE

Projection for 2020: 6.5 – 8 million Venezuelan refugees – Source: UNHCR, Brookings Institution

Max is 31. His mom has French, Lebanese and Romanian roots. His father is a Colombian with Italian heritage.

45 years before his son fled from Venezuela to the Colombian city of Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, the father was on the same journey, but in opposite direction. He was leaving, like so many Colombians, his homeland to go to then prosperous and safe Venezuela. It’s no wonder that, with these incredibly diverse roots, Max’s dream is to travel and see the world.

“In Venezuela, it’s impossible to live”, Max says. “With one day of work in Colombia, my mom can eat and have the medicine for 2 weeks”.

And so he sends money to his mother every single week. When we met, Max told me the minimum wage in Venezuela was worth 3 dollars. Since then, the Maduro regime, in a desperate attempt to appeal to the furious people of Venezuela, raised it to 8 dollars. It’s just a number. The dramatic reality remains the same: this is a bankrupt country, where money is worthless and there’s nothing left to buy.

Max, together with his mother and sister / Used with permission from personal archive

“Life has always been a conflict for me”

Things have never been easy for Max. “It has always been a conflict” is how he describes it. He says his family has been poor even before his country became a failed state. His parents got divorced and so Max’s mother was always working. “My image of a family is my sister”, he says.

Now, even though he misses his mother terribly, he knows the best way to help her is to send her money and to have her visit him once or twice a year. She can’t be uprooted from all that’s ever been familiar to her, Max explains.

How he left

Max studied Journalism, has a degree in Advertising and PR and he teached at a university, back home in Venezuela, for close to 3 years. He’s been in Colombia since 2017, but he tried going to other places before that, because the situation in Venezuela had been worsening years before he left for good. 

He lived and worked for a year in the Dominican Republic, then for 6 months in Trinidad and Tobago. He also tried Ecuador, but the colder climate of Quito was too much for a Caribbean soul like Max’s.

Back once more in Venezuela, he started a small business venture in video recording and editing. That was in 2015. By then, Venezuela had nothing to fuel his ambitions with. So he told his mother he had to leave and help her more.

Sleeping on the street in Colombia. A guardian angel comes by

The Venezuelan economy's demise
Contraction between 2013-2018: 45%

Inflation in 2019: 500 000%

Inflation projection for 2020: 10 million % Source: IMF

94% of population under the poverty line in 2018

Minimum wage worth $8/month (Bloomberg)

Malnourished and without education
21% of Venezuelans are malnourished

70% of Venezuelan children lack access to regular education

Source: EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell

2 years later, he was gone. That’s how he got to his father’s hometown of Santa Marta. “In an instant, everything went bad around me. At that moment, I was sleeping on the street, for three days”. His family knew nothing of his hardship at the time.

And then, as it often happens in fairytales, Max found a guardian angel who gave him a job in a motel. 6 months later, the same angel flapped his wings and got Max his current job, of managing a small hostel in Santa Marta. He lives on the ground floor, with his partner. 

“Maybe God has a plan. And if God’s plan is for me to stay here for now, I’m here. But I want more”, he says.

When life leaves you exhausted

For now, though, he’s tired. So very tired. “I don’t have power in my body. I’m very exhausted.

In Colombia, people work more. In Venezuela, they only work 8 hours a day. Only 5 days a week”.

I wish I could have watched our conversation from a roof above the rooftop terrace.

I’m sure my matter-of-factly way of teaching Max what a “normal” working schedule is would have brought an embarrassed smile on my face.

For you see, no matter how much of the world they see, people are always so willing to preach their own gospel of normalcy to those who are disarmingly honest about the abnormal circumstances they have been forced to. 

For now, though, he’s tired. So very tired. “I don’t have power in my body. I’m very exhausted.

In Colombia, people work more. In Venezuela, they only work 8 hours a day. Only 5 days a week”.

I wish I could have watched our conversation from a roof above the rooftop terrace.

I’m sure my matter-of-factly way of teaching Max what a “normal” working schedule is would have brought an embarrassed smile on my face.

For you see, no matter how much of the world they see, people are always so willing to preach their own gospel of normalcy to those who are disarmingly honest about the abnormal circumstances they have been forced to. 

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