Op-ed: Colombia Is Our Movement in Motion
Toque Lésbico, a lesbian drumming group, in the 2012 LGBT Community March in Bogotá.
In Bogotá in May, a lesbian teenage couple kissed goodbye on a public bus and were met with more than just the usual eye-roll. Some passengers were so bothered that they brought it up with a police officer, who I watched tell the girls they were ignorant and to “get a room … this kind of behavior is not allowed in public.”
Cultural change is needed in Colombia as much if not more than legal change, as prejudices and ignorance continue to fuel violence and discrimination.
My recent internship at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission lead me to a summer internship with Bogotá-based Colombia Diversa – a group dedicated to improving the lives of LGBT people in Colombia and the 2010 recipient of the IGLHRC Felipa de Souza Award. While there, I researched cases of the murders of LGBT activists and police abuse of LGBT Colombians.
Today in Colombia, an average of three LGBT people per month are murdered. A climate of impunity exists around these homicides, which are often filed under “crimes of passion” (read: temporary insanity), and the cases are disproportionately stuck in the investigation stage or eventually archived without finding the person responsible.
The Colombian Congress has been very resistant to passing any legislation to advance LGBT equality. What the Colombian LGBT movement has gained so far in terms of recognition of rights has been through hard-fought legal battles in the Constitutional Court, with conservative elements pushing back every step of the way.
Since 2007 the Constitutional Court has significantly expanded the legal framework of rights for LGBT individuals. It granted equal rights to same-sex couples, including property and health coverage rights, and survivor pension benefits. Last year the court recognized the right of same-sex couples to form a family. While these advances are cause for celebration, Colombian activists recognize that legal advances only go so far in altering the lived experiences of LGBT people. It’s activists and everyday people who are changing the culture.
While in Colombia, I also participated in a more joyous Colombian LGBT activity: I was a trumpet player in Toque Lésbico, a lesbian drumming group in the 2012 LGBT Community March in Bogotá.The 16th annual LGBT Community March in Bogotá brought together an estimated 20,000 people to protest discrimination against youth in public spaces, and particularly the mistreatment of youth in schools based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The theme of the march, “No to School Bullying, No More Abuse,” is a topic of growing concern as studies reveal a high prevalence of bullying in schools. Tragically, bullying in the form of verbal and physical violence and discrimination extends far beyond the school grounds for Colombian LGBT people and into the arenas of employment, health, criminal justice, and political participation.
Colombian activists like Marcela Sánchez are working every day to change that. “The march is a space of reclaiming rights,” said Sánchez, founder and executive director of Colombia Diversa. “It’s a space for happiness and a ‘carnaval’ of visibility.” Impressively, she has been a part of the LGBT struggle for visibility and rights for decades, from the very first Bogotá pride march in 1996 where she was one of 30 people who hit the streets in rollerskates.
This year the scene was much different. In true Latin parade style, the dividing line between participant and spectator was nonexistent, as people flooded the streets and marched southward through the city in a celebratory, diverse, rainbow-colored current. Marcela takes pride in this remarkable growth of visibility in the LGBT movement in Colombia but notes that the path to change has been tortuous.
Bears march at Bogotá Pride.
This dangerous situation is further perpetuated by police abuse against LGBT people, and particularly transgender women, who are vulnerable to attacks by police officers who should be protecting them.
Colombian trans activist Laura Weins has dedicated herself to transgender rights for 14 years. Sadly, no group has been more disproportionately vulnerable to attacks, murders, and across-the-board discrimination in Colombia than transgender people. According to Weins, the most important right for trans people to achieve is simply freedom of movement.
For her, the march is about taking back spaces where many trans women fear to tread. “It’s a space to say that we can go out, we can make ourselves visible,” she said. “Take the spaces of this city that for many are unknown. It’s a way of saying we exist in these places. We’re also building the city, the city is also ours.”
The march was both a boisterous celebration and a resounding demand for rights still out of reach. In the 2012 pride march, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and allied Colombians took literal and symbolic steps toward equality and pushed forward toward a day when children can be themselves at school, trans women can safely enter into public spaces, and lesbian teenage couples will not receive the boot for kissing goodbye on a public bus.
KRISTEN THOMPSON is a master of international affairs student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs with a policy focus in human rights. She graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2006 with a degree in international development studies and history and most recently worked as a policy associate for Children’s Defense Fund-California. Thompson can be reached at [email protected]
See more Bogotá Pride images on the following pages.