Intro: In Colombia most of the changes for LGBT citizens have happened within just the past decade, or even the past recent years. In 2016, Colombia became the 24th country in the world to allow full marriage equality and in recent years has put in place laws allowing same-sex adoption and anti-discrimination protections. This would appear to be the start of a upbeat story about LGBT life Gay Colombia. But looking and reading more deeply about this country that has only recently escaped fifty years of internecine war a mixed picture comes into focus, in slow motion intertwining sad and hopeful news.
By Richard Ammon
Despite the approval of gay marriage and adoption rights for gays, Colombia is not yet the type of place where you’ll commonly see gay couples affectionate in public. Given Colombia’s history, it’s strong religious and machismo roots and its immersion among Catholic neighbors in South America, it more accurately can be said to be ‘somewhat’ more progressive than its neighbors. “In large cities like Bogota and Medellin and Cartegena Gay pride celebrations and protests are mounted so the LGBT community has an active and visible small voice.” An active voice, but is anyone paying due attention? Mostly not the masses so that’s why activists focus on the judiciary to get their agenda heard, sort of. “That proved to be a wise move. The Constitutional Court eventually ruled in favor of the gay rights issues on various occasions.”
“The first victory came in February 2007 when gay couples finally won property and inheritance rights previously reserved exclusively for non-married heterosexual couples. To obtain that right there is no need to go to any notary public – it is automatic after two years of living together. Later that year, social security benefits were authorized for same-sex couples and in 2008 the Court ruled in favor of pension benefits. In January 2009, another decisión came from the Court, granting same-sex couples over 42 additional rights, such as visas for same-sex spouses.”(http://www.colombia-diversa.org/p/in-english.html)
For many in the gay community these newly won rights were enough. Non-married heterosexual and homosexual couples would be treated practically the same under the law. However the right of marriage would provide immediate protection (no need to wait two years) and would be universally understood. It would also, most certainly, affirm gay couples’ rights to jointly adopt children, something that was not mentioned in the court victories.
Scene and Not Seen: Theatron
That’s why public Gay Pride is important here, to be seen as well as heard. Cartagena is host to Colombia’s largest gay party called Rumors Festival held once a year. Medellin has a noisy colorful Pride event. (http://www.twobadtourists.com/2017/03/03/this-south-american-country-might-be-the-newest-emerging-gay-destination/)
In Bogota there is Theatron, the biggest indoor gay scene and also the largest nightclub/disco in South America (or the world?) This club rivals Europe’s biggest and best. (https://www.portaltheatron.co/) It has ten separate dance floors and theme bars; it sponsors drag shows, fashion shows, musical shows, Mr and Ms Colombia contest, strip shows (photos left and right) I was told the converted movie theatre with five floors of lights and sound can hold over five thousand customers. For jaded night-owls and bar crawlers this is the place to visit. Entry fee is a steep US$15 which includes (mixed) drinks but the price does not stop willing people, gay and straight. The street outside is lined with party-goers starting at eight PM, an hour before the doors open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday only.
Away from the ‘scene’, I visited the downtown office in Bogota of Colombia Diversa to interview two publicity staff members about their work of being an LGBT activist organization. Jose Vargas and Daniela Franco were articulate and forthcoming about some of the issues that LGBT people face living gay in Colombia. Colombia Diversa was founded in 2004 in Bogotá, Colombia. One of the most significant achievements for the community was the approval of same-sex marriage by the Supreme Court in 2016 (https://thecitypaperbogota.com/news/colombia-says-yes-to-gay-marriage/10653)
Some of our conversation was focused on the issue of heterosexual machismo in the culture which traditionally and currently has a denigrating effect on women, gays and especially transgender people. “There is no place for diversity in the thinking of men raised to be the dominant gender in Latino culture. Physical spousal abuse is high in Colombia especially in urban areas (statistic?) while at the same time the pressure to marry and have children is fixed firmly in the minds of most young men and women. Some officials think spousal abuse should be settled privately, in the family, outside of protective services of police and judges. (https://colombiareports.com/most-colombian-officials-say-domestic-violence-should-be-solved-in-privacy/). (photo right: Daniela and Jose of Colombia Diversa)
This is hardly a useful remedy since a couple who are locked into a problem usually do not know how to resolve it by themselves given the emotions involved. Getting professional help is often avoided because of cost and because of the resistance of the couple to let outsiders know about the trouble. So it persists until the situation explodes into violence or the husband walks out leaving the wife and children, sometimes without financial support. It is felt as a man’s prerogative to dominate women at home and in business. Downtown at lunchtime out on the public square I noticed many more men dressed for business than women.
The Colombia Diversa was founded in 2004 in Bogotá, Colombia. Marcela Sánchez is co-founder and current executive director of the organization. (photo right: Jose and Daniela)
In 2007, Bogotá became the first city in Latin America to open an LGBT community center. Just after the annual commemoration of Bogotá Pride, the city government is tripled its commitment with two more. That was then, before recent elections. Today in 2018 the current mayor of Bogota is less supportive of LGBT programs and has not increased it commitment. https://translate.google.com/translate?hl=en&sl=es&u=http://www.colombiadiversa.org/ddhh-2017/&prev=search
From 2007 to 2010, more than 25,000 people were served with psychological counseling, legal and medical advice and other social/community activities at the Centro Comunitario LGBT in the gay nightlife district of Chapinero. Originally supported by LGBT rights organization Colombia Diversa, gay nightclub Theatrón and Profamilia (the Colombian International Planned Parenthood affiliate), in conjunction with the city government; today the center is 100% operated and financed by the city.
One of the centers in the working-class neighborhood of Bosa is dedicated to LGBTQ youth. “Young people in Bogotá, whose parents often don’t accept them for who they are, who are told by church leaders that they are sinners and who must hide their sexuality in school for fear of bullying need spaces where they can talk about sexuality issues in a safe and non-judgmental environment,” said Marcela, of Colombia Diversa. “They need places where they can simply be themselves. LGBT community centers are such places, and are making a positive impact on their lives.” A second new center is located in the Los Mártires neighborhood and will serve transgendered people.
The situation of LGBT persons in Colombian jails and prisons is a subject of ongoing concern for Colombia Diversa. In its annual LGBT Human Rights Report, the organization has documented several cases of psychological and physical abuse of LGBT persons in Colombian penal institutions. These often affect transgender or transsexual men as well; cases of solitary confinement for lesbian couples have been noted as well. One of those cases in the city of Valledupar tragically resulted in suicide.
Machismo and Homophobia
Ever present and pervasive is homophobic aggression against LGBT citizens, especially against lesbians who are felt to violate the machismo code of feminine submission. Daniela and Jose call this prejudicial attitude against women ‘gender ideology’ to describe an attitude of male entitlement to superior position in the culture, in the work force and in the family. Independent-minded lesbians do not subscribe to this second class status and resist the constraints that hold them back from equality of opportunity. Society says they ‘need a man’ to fit traditionally in this society.
Daniela said, “it’s better to be a gay male than a lesbian in this patriarchal society. They are more discriminated against than men.” Political homophobia as well has been strong against lesbians and especially couples’ adoption; in the past it was easier for a single person to adopt than a gay couple.
Mark Reynerus is a campaigner who tirelessly advocated for reform to allow gay couples to adopt children succeeded in his efforts: in 2015 Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled that gay couples can adopt children just like any other couple. As often is the case, a well-educated, fair-minded judiciary looked beyond the emotional prejudice and saw the social injustice in the out-dated law and ruled on behalf of modern reason, reality and equality. (photo left Botero statue))
Ignorance of Gender Ideology Perpetuates Discrimination
Gender ideology, as described by Daniela and and Jose, is an emotional issue; it believes blindly that sexual orientation is a learned effect and not inherent so that prejudice against gays is irrationally entrenched in many heteros’ minds. They don’t see that bigotry is learned, not sex orientation but few people are educated enough to understand the different issues of sexual diversity let alone the complexities of homosexuality. “Most people simply accept the general stigma against LGBTs without much thought since it doesn’t apply to them so homophobia is carried from generation to generation with little change making CDs work difficult and endless. People don’t want to learn new ideas or go against mass thinking. Even thoughtful people who don’t agree with popular thought do not speak up because they fear the stigma may be applied to them,” noted activist Jose Canon: “it even influenced their attitudes about the peace treaty to end the civil war; right wing groups, Catholics and Christians voted against the peace accord.”…they ignorantly imagined that the accord was “trying to promote homosexuality.”
Luis Fernández, an armed-conflict researcher at Colombia Diversa said, “Some people even went as far as saying that the government wanted to impose a homosexual dictatorship, whatever that means.… of course it was not remotely true; the document simply promoted the implementation of institutions that would protect the rights of LGBT Colombians, among other marginalized and discriminated minorities.”
But, according to Luis, many voters opposed the inclusion of LGBT rights in the peace accord because Colombia is still a conservative society and the majority of Colombians minimize or ignore the scope of abuses that the LGBT population endured during the conflict. Gay, bisexual and transgender Colombians faced displacement, threats, sexual abuse, torture and homicide, according to a 2015 report by the Center of Historic Memory, (http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/en/about-the-national-center-about-the-national-center) one of the few organizations that has researched the subject.
It depends on whom you ask about LGBT rights and progress in the country and how they interpret the evidence. “We are liberal,” insists Marcela Sanchez, director of Colombia Diversa. “Please don’t say Colombia isn’t liberal!” Nevertheless recent polls estimate that two-thirds of Colombians oppose same-sex marriage, “but that is less opposition than in many Latin American countries, including neighboring Ecuador,” Sanchez insisted. Support for same-sex marriage is highest in Bogota, the nation’s secular capital, where, in a 2010 poll conducted by local newspaper El Tiempo, 63 percent of residents endorsed the right of same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies. “Support for LGBT rights is spreading across the country” is one interpretation of the data. Yet, the estimated 80 percent of Colombians who are Catholic are not highly welcoming of such input. Noted another observer, “the struggle continues. A recent study by Bogota’s municipal government found that 54 percent of LGBT residents say they have experienced discrimination. That number jumps to 73 percent among transgender people.”
Jaime Ricardo Cadavid, the co-founder of the Collective Prisma in Bogota, a pioneering organization in the promotion of respect for sexual diversity has said that “the sight of two men kissing or holding hands in public is still more likely to upset public sentiments… The love is forbidden here, but the violence isn’t,” he said. Colombia was tormented by conflict for decades so fear and mistrust are still in the air.
However, optimistically he predicts “The gay Colombia movement has an opportunity to show our society that we can build a better society when we respect diversity.” Opposition has been more vocal and robust among the nation’s evangelical Christian community who insisted a brief before the Constitutional Court that “homosexuality is a choice and that the court’s justices should not (following the erroneous words of American anti-gay fundamentalists) “fall into judicial activism” by issuing a decision for the country that does not honor the beliefs [backward prejudices] of “the moral majority of Colombians.” Discrimination is never moral.
Interview With Jose Canon
The publication ‘Latin Dispatch’ posted an interview with Jose Cañón,, an LGBT activist for the Green Alliance Party, written by Monica Espita in 2017.
Entitled “Escaping a Homophobic War in Colombia” Canon described the danger he and his family faced when he tried to oppose the infiltration of another mafia-like gang trying to take over illegal businesses in the country. (http://latindispatch.com/2017/04/15/escaping-a-homophobic-war-in-colombia/)
“There are still dangers for LGBT people,” he said. “There is a largely invisible war against gays, a residual hostility from the country’s decades-long brutal conflict.” On the surface, Colombia appears to be a progressive leader of the gay rights movement, having extended legal rights to same-sex couples and transgender people. “In 2007, the court recognized that LGBT Colombians had a right to own and inherit property. Less than two years later, it granted residency and nationality rights, housing subsidies and protection from domestic violence to same-sex couples. Last year, the court has also legalized equal marriage and adoption.”
“However for many Colombians who are gay, these rights have a hollow meaning because of deep-rooted prejudice that often resulted in violence. Cañón, an LGBT activist for the Green Alliance Party, was used to constant insults and bullying from “Bloque Capital” (Capital Block—a sort of mafia) when he started his activism job in 2007. But he had never been threatened at gunpoint before, he said. “Bloque Capital wanted to cleanse society of homosexuality—LGBT Colombians have also been actively persecuted by armed groups that evolved from Colombia’s 52-year-long conflict. Gay, bisexual and transgender people are four times more likely than the rest of the population to be threatened and abused by both legal and illegal armed forces,” according to the Victims’ Unit, a state institution that keeps track of the armed conflict victims…”
Another voice, from Luis Fernández, an armed conflict researcher at Colombia Diversa spoke:“Many of the people who voted against last year’s peace treaty with FARC think that the accord was trying to promote homosexuality. Some people even went so far as saying that the government wanted to impose a homosexual dictatorship, whatever that means.… many voters opposed the inclusion of LGBT rights in the peace treaty because Colombia is still a very conservative society and the majority of Colombians ignore the scope of abuses that the LGBT population has endured during the conflict. Gay, bisexual and transgender Colombians have faced displacement, threats, sexual abuse, torture and homicide, according to a 2015 report by the Center of Historic Memory, one of the few organizations that has researched the subject…” abuse and threats. (http://latindispatch.com/2017/04/15/escaping-a-homophobic-war-in-colombia/)
Effects of War
Daniela from Colombia Diversa said that 50 years of bloody civil warfare (including murderous drugs battles and dirty politics), began in the mid-1960s and contributed to the prejudice against gays today. For years criminal behavior was distorted into normal behavior. Rape, theft, torture were common including excessive brutality against gays (sex organs of gay males were routinely cut off). Cruelty against gays was wrapped in socially tolerated machismo. In war, hate crimes are perversely rationalized, especially in rural areas where there are no enforcement of justice and equality or fairness. Marauding gangs of armed rebels and military vigilantes acted without control or authority against people considered enemies. So any peace process reasoning got mixed up with sexual/gender politics. Gays became tokens in the mix of war, politics and crime. “LGBT Colombians were actively persecuted by armed groups involved in the conflict. According to the Victims’ Unit, a state institution that keeps track of the armed conflict victims said ”gangs like Bloque Capital distributed pamphlets that promised to cleanse the country from ‘undesired members of society,’ including drug addicts, criminals and members of the LGBT community”, Fernandez said.
Even after the peace treaty, among police and military personnel “gays are scorned, punished and beaten” reported Jose canon (http://latindispatch.com/2017/04/15/escaping-a-homophobic-war-in-colombia/). “Repressive torture and humiliation practices like the “baño de María” (a bloody torture ritual) were allowed by the authorities until 1999, until the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that sexual orientation was a fundamental part of the right to self-expression and therefore could no longer be forbidden in the military and the police. Despite this ruling, homophobia was and is still widespread within these organizations.”
FARC abuses against LGBT people: (http://latindispatch.com/2017/04/15/escaping-a-homophobic-war-in-colombia/)
“During the war because LGBT people were stigmatized as likely carriers of HIV, the FARC and forced all men and women older than 12 to get tested for the virus. Those who tested positive, the majority of whom were LGBT, were forced to leave the demilitarized (neutral war )zone.” FARC forcefully displaced gay men and transgender women because they were seen as weak and feminine and therefore useless as potential fighters. But in some cases, they allowed them to stay in exchange for sexual favors or to work as collaborators planning kidnappings, growing coca and committing extortion.
“Although homosexuality was explicitly prohibited in the ranks of the FARC, absurdly lesbian women were often forced to enlist because they were perceived as tough and masculine — traits the FARC looks for in its soldiers. But once they became part of the guerrilla group they were not allowed to acknowledge their sexual orientation,” said Fernández.
It is impossible to know how many LGBT victims of the armed conflict there are partly because the National Protection Unit, the public organization in charge of protecting vulnerable populations, doesn’t recognize LGBT people. (It does include journalists, human rights activists and indigenous people.)
Nevertheless the peace accord signed in September 2016 explicitly recognized that LGBT people have been victimized throughout the conflict. “But what Colombians weren’t expecting was that this recognition would spark a fierce debate over morality, the constitution and the country’s religious traditions. Large protests arose demanding resignation of the openly gay Education Minister (she refused). Instead she distributed a handbook recommending tolerance despite social media’s exaggerated false hysterical claims of her engaging in gay sex, exposing children to immoral behavior and promoting homosexuality. Most vocal protests we led by religious groups saying homosexuality was against their beliefs.
Sexuality as an Anti -War Issue
The first peace accord failed to pass in no small part because of the hot button issue of gay marriage but a new more inclusive accord was approved by FARC and Congress several months later that ruled against the stigmatization of vulnerable groups including Afro-Colombians, indigenous populations, people with disabilities, members of the LGBT community and religious minorities. “No social group has the right to use the 310-page document as a platform to discriminate or limit the rights of other social groups… The new accord is even better for the rights of minorities,” political leader Albarracín said. “Instead of eliminating protections, it added safeguards to prevent the violation of the democratic system that we have in place.”
Opponents pushed back saying “the agenda that the LGBT movement is promoting cannot be imposed on the Colombian people”. But this completely ignored the fundamental truth of human sexual orientation that it is not chosen belief or political position; it is intrinsically inborn like hair color. How can anyone discriminate against something as fundamental as left or right-handedness? “A culture must be progressive or move backwards,” urged the government. “Irrational beliefs must be restrained by the truth of human sexual diversity, which in the past was perverted and falsified by magical minded myths and distortions of biblical interpretation and human minds centuries ago.” There is nothing from Jesus about human sexual orientation but there is about treating different others as family.
Opponents insist their intention is to protect the family and save Colombian children from ‘gender ideology’ that the government and the Constitutional Court are trying to impose. But for LGBT rights advocates like Green Party Senator Claudia López, “the referendum opponents’ proposals are just a political effort to legitimize discrimination.” López, who is openly lesbian, is also one of the possible candidates for the 2018 presidential election.
The number of attacks against LGBT individuals by armed organizations has skyrocketed since 2007. ”Officers at the border with Mexico used to determine if new arrivals seeking asylum had credible fear of persecution in Colombia. “But they have been so overworked in the last few years that they have delegated that responsibility to asylum offices all over the country, which has resulted in an overall slowdown of the process…”
Gina Parody is a popular lesbian politician and senator. She was the victim of a homophobic scandal when she was the Minister of Education: she had a plan for teachers to receive a book with instructions on how to help and support young teenagers dealing with gay issues, but in a very proper professional way. Sadly the books were hijacked and the initial content was removed and replaced with gay porn! These tampered books were then delivered to the schools, which made it seem like she was trying to push a gay agenda to convert the children.
Brigitte Baptiste, a famous transgender woman, is also a biologist and renowned expert on biodiversity exposed the book scandal. Another famous gay alleged Colombian celebrity is Eurosong winner Conchita Wurst. Although the singer is Austrian, her public persona is of a lady born in the mountains of Colombia who married a French burlesque dancer. True or not she used her reputation to oppose bigotry and fraud.
Caribe Affirmativo (http://caribeafirmativo.lgbt/) is human rights organization based in in Barranquilla, the northernmost province of Colombia. The city is known for its enormous Carnival, which brings together flamboyantly costumed performers, elaborate floats and cumbia music. Tragically, their former leader Rolando Perez was assassinated 11 years ago (http://caribeafirmativo.lgbt/; http://caribeafirmativo.lgbt/2018/02/22/memoria-rolando-perez-11-anos-impunidad/) and his murder has still not yet been solved. Possibly he was the victim of the Bloque Colombia mafia, or a sympathizer, for his outspoken demands for LGBT equality. Bloque has long sought to see homosexuality disappear from Colombia society. Wilson Castañeda is the current director of Caribe Affirma.
Pérez was murdered on February 23, 2007 in the apartment where he lived in the city of Cartagena. He was passionate about social causes and an excellent teacher. After his death close friends decided to create Caribe Affirmativo, as a social organization that defends the human rights of LGBTI people. Since then, the organization has accompanied and assisted LGBTI people who are victims of violence and their families in their criminal proceedings. Likewise, it has developed comprehensive training initiatives with public prosecutor, judicial police and police officers with a view to eradicating the prejudices that may affect the proper conduct of investigations and strengthening the implementation of methodologies with a differential approach to identify cases of violence prejudice and treat them properly.
Today, in memory of Rolando, Caribbean Affirmativo reiterates its call to the authorities to ensure the investigation and prosecution of crimes against LGBTI persons, always analyzing whether the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity has to do with the motive of the crime. Rolando’s case represents hundreds of other cases in which impunity reigns and where the actions of the authorities have been guided by unspoken prejudices. Caribe Afirmativo works to see that all legal channels are used to investigate suspicious homophobic crimes to obtain justice.
Everyone has a cell phone in Colombia virtually.. Social media has become a weapon to be used in favor of as well as against an individual such as posting fake news to harm their reputation or family affiliation. Gender ID politics can get mixed up with machismo and homophobia to create emotionally unstable relationships for individuals or families. Such social influence can also get mixed in with governmental politics, gay rights, public marches and distorted anti-gay electoral campaign rhetoric. Verbal abuse and victimization of LGBT people is an easy and cheap form of fake news because it has an emotional/hysterical value ; blaming gays as a cause of any conveniently targeted issue such as crime, religious deterioration, immorality, social deterioration… especially during political campaigns where parties use exaggerated accusations against one another. Social media is a weapon and a blessing.
American Tourists’ Comments
An American gay travel writer duo called Nomadic Boys (https://nomadicboys.com/gay-life-in-colombia/) visited Colombia in 2017 and observed “Colombians are so mixed and diverse. There is no one “type” of feature or skin color here. As a result there is not much racism, which has led to society being more tolerant and accepting of one another, despite it being so staunchly Catholic. However they cautioned “there is still a lot of “machismo culture”, particularly by the coast.” Their idea of tolerance—from their tourist perspective—was based on the passage of gay marriage and laws against intolerance. Their report is not wholly accurate since they were only in the country for a short time.
I include other miscellaneous observations they wrote: ”Another reason is that Colombia is kinda like the backyard of the USA because we have a lot of trade and tourism with them. So whatever happens in the States, is heavily influenced here. During the Obama years, there was a lot of progressive change for the LGBTQ community in the USA, which positively impacted on us, culminating in our equal marriage laws being passed in 2016.”… “everyone uses gay dating apps like ManHunt and Grindr.”… we love the gay scene of Bogota, especially Theatron club. It’s huge – a paradise for the gay boys. WE also love the gay scene of Medellin, which has a fun gay club called Viva. There is a small gay scene here in Cartagena with bars like D8 and Le Petit. But by far the favorite event is a night out at Theatron, the mega disco club that can accommodate thousand of fans.”… “most cities of a certain size in Colombia will have a gay pride parade in June/July/August. The largest ones are in Bogota and Medellin. The gay pride of Cartagena coincides with the “Circuit” style festival called “Rumours”….” annual carnival in Barranquilla in February. As part of this there is one day for the LGBTQ community, which is always the most colorful and popular. It takes over the entire city, everyone joins in, dresses up for it and partying…”
“Some slang words include “pojito” (twink), “flete” (sugar daddy) and words for big dick include “vergota” and “cola”. A “cigaronnes” is a guy who leads a very heterosexual life, but loves having sex with other men: he likes to go to gay clubs, fool around with trans girls and even gay guys, but would never establish any emotional relationship with them. Just sex…Finally, “peladis” is a fun slang word used in the coastal areas— an average guy who doesn’t have any decent qualities and you’re too ashamed to introduce him to your friends.