A “lagom” sensation, by Herman M. Duarte

Herman Duarte, Founder, HDuarte-Lex

Herman M. Duarte is the founding partner of HDuarte-Lex, a Costa-Rican arbitration and human rights boutique. He campaigns passionately against discrimination based on sexual orientation in the legal profession and wider Latin American community, and is committed to helping create and promote spaces for positive and inclusive work. Alongside managing HDuarte-Lex, Herman serves as the executive director of the movement ‘Igualitos’, which he founded after filing an equal marriage claim before the Supreme Court in his home country, El Savador.

Herman will be a panelist at our upcoming Diversity Summit in Guatemala, where speakers will discuss diversity best practice. Here, he talks about the challenges he has faced as a Swiss Salvadoran LGBT lawyer, his activism and outlines his hopes for the future.

When I set foot in Lima in 2014, it was my sixth international arbitration Moot court competition a mere two years after I gave my first international lecture and presented my Master’s thesis at a law and economics conference. My initial fondness with arbitration goes back to 2008, when one member of the previous year’s Vis Moot team (Manuela de la Helguera) of my alma mater Escuela Superior Economía y Negocios ESEN (El Salvador) knocked on the door of a new generation and recruited me to embark on the adventure of a lifetime that would define my future career in arbitration.

In 2010, after working as a legal assistant in a Salvadoran law firm, I landed in Stockholm to be part of a Master’s program focused solely on international commercial arbitration. On the multicultural 25-person program instructed by Prof. Shaughnessy, I became engaged in the intricacies of arbitration law. Arbitration made me better understand commercial and investment problems. But in my case, it also shed a light on a big personal problem I had been avoiding.

Studying was not my biggest challenge at that time. Anyone that has gone through this process is familiar with the “nightmares” that literally haunt you in your dreams, that people will find out your biggest secret and reject you for who you are. It was in the openness of Scandinavian society that I noticed how the pervasive judgement of Latin American societies was absent and I stopped being terrified and experienced what Swedes refer to as a lagom sensation, which applied to my particular moment, allowing me to embrace my sexual orientation. I recall I could have dinner with my friend Anders Karlsson (now a prominent investment banker) and he didn’t care about me being gay or not – or even think twice about what people might think about us having dinner together.  This understanding helped me exit the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ I was living. By coming out, I woke up from the social coma that Salvadoran LGBT individuals are made to live in. I was done being an accomplice of discrimination against LGBT individuals. This revelation lead the way to me becoming the first Salvadoran board member of Rainbows – the LGBT student body of Stockholm University – and enabled me to start to heal the internal injuries of 22 years of repression in a country with a religion that shamed LGBT individuals.

Litigating before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights with John Corvino, left and Maria Auxiliadora Alfaro, President of the Costa Rican Bar Association, Heredia section, right.

I came out in a very public way, in a blog post I posted on my Facebook page on October 18, 2010, alongside the George Michael (RIP) song “An Easier Affair”.  In those days, content seldom went ‘viral’, but my post was widely circulated on Facebook, Twitter and email threads. It even reached superstars like Ricky Martin, who sent me a message of solidarity. I can’t express enough thanks for the support of other students of Stockholm University, like Alexandra Kirgios (now working for the European Union), Aline Bolli (a promising Swiss lawyer) and Rafael Reyero (a Venezuelan maritime lawyer), among many other beautiful souls. I was overwhelmed by, and grateful for, such a positive response, but the period was not without its problems.

Some friends and relatives took steps back in our relationship and I remember how some even sought to insult me for being authentic with myself. It also left marks on my professional profile, which I had not even considered could happen: “Herman Duarte blog gay” was the autocomplete search form on Google in the upcoming years. After the initial euphoria faded, I was left in a silent position that made me question on the wisdom of my decision.

When I returned to El Salvador, I experienced discrimination for the first time as a young professional. Doors were shut in my face, all due to my sexual orientation. It is still painful to remember how some offices said they “had no desks” and how others simply made offers that I had no choice but to refuse. The discrimination that minorities suffer in El Salvador and the rest of Latin America is real and transcends social status, contaminating all areas of life. The country´s conservatism, along with a vast range of problems ranging from violence to political corruption, leaves LGBT inclusion at the bottom of its priorities.

The period 2011-2012 was a difficult professional period. I had the pressure of paying my student loans and the urgent need to put the knowledge acquired under the instruction of professor Shaugnessy into practice. I had to do something, else my master’s degree would end up worth nothing and worse, I would become another victim of social segregation due to my “bright” idea of very publicly coming out.  I never considered myself unemployed, I just couldn’t get business; I was barely 24 and lacked the necessary experience to give the required confidence to potential clients.

I needed an opportunity and I found it thanks to the Chambers & Partners directory. I reviewed all the best dispute resolution law firms in 2012 in the region. I prepared a curriculum and cover letters and probably sent around 300 applications. They all said no, except one that offered me a ray of hope. It was from the Tufts alumni, Mariano BATALLA Garrido.

The email response came with a phone call request. We had a 45-minute call, and three days later, with an airplane ticket, 100 dollars in my pocket and a hotel coupon to exchange at the Trypp Sabana, I took off to Costa Rica for an interview in Barrio Escalante 150 east, 25 north of the Santa Teresita Church, at the mythological orange brick building of Batalla Abogados.

It was my last hand in the poker game and I somehow got dealt a royal flush.  I asked for an opportunity to spread my wings. I needed it or else my story as a lawyer would have ended without having even started. Batalla gave me that opportunity and I am grateful for it.

The top tier, Costa Rican law firm Batalla taught me with patience and helped me adapt to the Costa Rica legal system. In the firm, I got to meet outstanding lawyers that are worth a mention as my contact with them shaped me into the person I am now. I have been inspired by people such as Róger Guevara Vega, and his approach to law as the best career in the world as we “get paid to learn”. Others, such as Raquel Salazar with her strong and authentic social compromise, and Marco Ureña with his notable support for diversity in the firm, also.

Giving declarations to the Panamá press after filing an amicus curiae for same sex marriage

Thanks to the trust, professionalism and love I experienced in the 5 years I worked at Batalla, I felt safe enough to work to change the reality of my home country. I first began doing that through the op-ed columns in La Prensa Gráfica. The columns challenged the traditional views of the Salvadoran elite, by bringing an inclusive LGBT perspective to the table. One article, a response to the censorship of the appearance of a lesbian couple in a domestic television campaign, explored the close-mindedness of my hometown. Advocating for minorities, in a country where the majority is against opening their minds to sexual diversity, has not being an easy task, as it’s a task that comes with social segregation, insults and threats. But fighting for justice and the promotion of human rights is more important to me than being accepted by the Salvadoran elite.

I learned all I had to learn in Batalla thanks to the extraordinary vision of the managing partner, Mariano Batalla Garrido.  He convinced his partners to grant me the opportunity, believed in me and empowered me to move forward with my campaigning in favor of LGBTI rights that I now lead in Latin America. When it was the right time, him and his partners economically supported me to take a step out of my home and become the founder of HDUARTE-LEX, the first arbitration and human rights law firm in Central America that has a social goal: to eradicate discrimination due to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Civil rights history illustrates how a legal change can influence a society´s attitude towards a given group. Focusing that strike on the center of society – the institutions that police the definition of family – is an important step towards assimilating a marginalized group into society, and into those institutions themselves. My years of activism and the strategic thinking I have acquired from litigation are the cornerstones of the constitutional claim – which was drafted with the significant advice of the Virginia University scholar Mauricio Guim- I filed before the Supreme Court of Justice of El Salvador to achieve marriage equality and to block a regressive constitutional reform. It felt like the right time to take such a stand, both globally, with President Trump in power, and locally, where violence towards the LGBT community remains a critical problem.

Gaining support among the professionals who now form the backbone of IGUALITOS, which is in the process of becoming a foundation,  and recruiting more people to fight alongside me, confirms this is the right time.

Giving a conference at Harvard Law School next to Xavier Careafranco

It is incredible how life works out. I remember on my last day of work at Batalla, my friend Mariano Batalla Garrido stepped out of my car and said “hey, check out your email.” I did, and was greeted with the news that I was now ranked by the Chambers & Partners Global guide. I hope that at some point, there will be a gay lawyer out there that will need an opportunity just like I needed in 2012, and knows that HDUARTE-LEX is a firm that is open to all.

I share my story so that people who are struggling to find a job will be inspired to think outside the box, to search, and to consider ways they can add value to someone else. Degrees are important, but attitude even more so. If they receive many ‘no’s’, they should not give up, because they only have to look for one ‘yes.’ I also dedicate it to all the professionals who live in the closet; I was afraid too, and am working to eradicate that fear from the world.