How Colombia's Fight for LGBT Equality Differs From Ours
By Sunnivie Brydum
Building bridges, not walls
Last summer, The Advocate hosted Marco Jaramillo, a Colombian journalist who launched one of the country’s most prominent LGBT multimedia outlets, EgoCity. Jaramillo was the first out journalist to take part in the International Center for Journalism’s multipart fellowship titled A Digital Path to Entrepreneurship and Innovation for Latin America, which brought experienced journalists from five different Latin American countries to the U.S. to work in 10 different newsrooms. After welcoming Jaramillo into its newsroom in May 2015, The Advocate was able to send its managing editor, Sunnivie Brydum, to Colombia for a two-week intensive exchange in newsrooms in Bogotá and Medellín last August.
As the first LGBT media outlet involved in the program — which is funded by the U.S. State Department — The Advocate sought to highlight the distinctions between the ongoing struggle for LGBT equality in the U.S. and in Colombia, a close political ally of the United States, which is still navigating a tenuous peace and reconciliation process after narco-fueled paramilitary violence plagued the country for decades.
Read on to hear from leading progressive journalists and activists in Colombia about how our struggles are distinct yet intertwined. Each person pictured was asked the same question: How does the fight for LGBT equality in Colombia differ from that in the U.S.?
Laura Villela contributed to this report. Original interviews conducted in Spanish have been translated manually here.
Marco Jaramillo, founder and director of LGBT Colombian multimedia outlet EgoCity:
"Regarding the differences in the fight for LGBT rights here in Colombia compared to what’s been done in the U.S., I think there are many similarities. Indeed, here in Colombia — and in Latin America — we are also fighting for equal marriage, for adoption rights, and for the possibility that we, with our same-sex partners, can have the same rights as heterosexual couples.
"But there is a difference that is important. I think that in Colombia, we are still missing from our government the same kind of commitment to LGBT equality [as the Obama administration has made]. So our governmental leaders can effectively make a decision to support these legal protections, by legalizing [marriage equality or nondiscrimination protections] ... But right now, our rights are not respected.
"The other important difference is that the church in Colombia still has a lot of power, and influences a lot of decisions made by Congress, the republic, and the government. For example, here in Colombia, the Christian movement is very strong, with many active members serving as representatives in Congress. This conservative religious movement therefore influences any governmental decision made in the country, which is one of the most difficult things when fighting for LGBT rights at the federal or provincial level.
"Finally, there is apathy on the part of the general society when it comes to the LGBT issue. Although there are not many cases of violent homophobia, casual homophobia is still commonplace, and many people simply aren’t willing to take the time to understand what’s really necessary to support us, and how it really feels to be part of the LGBT population.
"The LGBT population in Colombia, broadly, does not have confidence in the national government. I think that's basically the difference that sets us apart here in Colombia, compared to the United States. In the U.S., you have increased LGBT awareness from the government, which has a focus on inclusion. There is also a lot more societal awareness in general because the culture is more educated, democratic, and more just; diverse people are better integrated into society."
Andres Hernandez Godoy, journalist at Las Dos Orillas
“The question that you ask me is about the differences that exist for LGBTI people in Colombia and the United States. I think in Colombia, there are niches — or niches are beginning to be made — in a particular parts of society. What I mean is that in certain parts of the society, for example, on television, you find that there are many LGBTIs, or even in the art world. You know where there are niches, but those niches have not been carved out everywhere. [You don’t see a lot of out people] in business, or on the part of senior management.
“I still see that there is discrimination in these areas, but to put it another way, a person seeking public office can be gay, like our local mayor. He was elected, but still might face discrimination. For example, I remember in Chapinero, Bogota’s 'gayborhood,' it’s common to see people gathering at one of the many gay clubs. Chapinero is a neighborhood that has the nickname 'ChapiGay,' and it’s talked about as if it is where all the LGBTI people and groups in Bogotá are present.
“But apart from these groups, I think there is a long way to go to truly have equality among all people. I think this consideration should include LGBTI people, because here in Colombia, people who don’t fit into the idea of 'normal' are treated as less than. Why? Someone might say that I am 'normal,' but let me tell you. There are people who exist in that tension, those who are 'normal' and another person is 'gay.'
“And the 'abnormal' have to be gay, so do not call it 'normal,' because we’ve had many years of conservatives in Colombia. But it is still difficult, and I have heard phrases that are really astonishing; people saying 'I prefer that my daughter die than come out as gay.' That’s absurd!
“Well, everyone has a right to define their sexuality as it suits them. The congressmen have actually helped a lot in recent years to help open the path. There is a law for marriage equality that has not yet been approved, but there is a law here in Colombia that allows you to change the sex listed in your formal government records. So if you transition from male to female, you can still get married just the same. I think what they tried to create was a loophole in the law, so that could happen and people could acquire their rights. Because when a married person cannot hold an audience with other people, it’s complicated, and not so easy to go to court.
“So I think there are many things that are more closed off [here] than in the United States, and in many parts of Europe, too, it is completely open. But in Colombia, unfortunately if you see two people of the same sex giving one another a kiss, they may even be expelled from whether they are, whether it’s on public transport or a shopping center. And then they will say 'Yes, it’s a shame and we regret what happened.' But the damage has already been done, I know how I would feel if a person is kicked out for expressing [affection] with a kiss, but [we accept] a hug between two brothers — we consider that just as natural as an embrace between a father and a son.
“My dad and I give each other kisses; he’s my dad, there’s nothing wrong with that.
“And someone told me something about that, if I love a woman, but not as a father. But in other cultures, it’s not a problem for men to kiss. In Argentina and Spain, men kiss each other on the cheek, and nothing happens.
“But expressions of public affection cannot exist here, primarily in Colombia. Because if they do, they will not be allowed to remain. People will call the police and remove them from where they are. I think we have a long way to go when it comes to having the tolerance to accept each other — not only in the case of LGBTI people, but to respect the 'other' and recognize the 'other' anywhere. I recognize that my neighbor and I have some differences, whether they are LGBTI or not, but I recognize that difference. I think that is what we are just now learning in Colombia.”
Maria Elvira Bonilla Otoya, editor of citizen journalism outlet Los Dos Orillas
“You asked about the difference between the struggle for equal rights of LGBTI people in the United States and Colombia. I think in Colombia, we are far behind, as this is still a very closed society, except where we are beginning to walk a new path; but there are many prejudices. There is family and social prejudice, where people who signal they are LGBT are not given an opportunity, and apparently nothing said in the background remains there. It is very, very difficult for LGBT people achieve their limited rights.
"The road [to LGBT equality] in the United States is very long. I just visited, and it struck me how people were so eager to make a difference. At the same time, it was almost as if there were no differences, since there are bathrooms that are not for men and women, bur rather for everyone. And I believe this is a struggle that’s lasted many years, and has not been won freely.
“In Colombia, the struggle for equal rights started just five years ago or so, where, interestingly, the court and the magistrates lit the fires to create space for people to be open, more than the private sector, or labor, or the people themselves. I believe that there is still great prejudice against women who are lesbians, for example — even more than against men who are gay. In many things.
“In an earlier edition of our magazine [published in 2015], we did an article called 'Gays in Power,' and we tried to locate people — men and women — [to feature]. We found as many as 30 men willing to stand up, and say they are living out in world of fashion or as lawyers, but we could not find any women. Women face much more prejudice, and think that if anyone knows they are openly lesbian, or that they’re married to or living with a woman, they will have problems at work, so they prefer to keep quiet.”
Ignacio Gomez, award-winning journalist with TV network Noticias Uno in Bogotá
The Advocate: Have increased legal protections for LGBT Colombians, especially advances in transgender rights, decreased anti-LGBT discrimination here? Ignacio Gomez: There [continues to be] discrimination, all around. So, you ask, and it's difficult for us to explain how this woman cannot say that you are just too difficult. You are transgender and black. And even though there are legal frames and legal protections … the culture is very macho, is very discriminatory. Our culture very much likes to highlight differences between rich and poor people, black and white, and stuff like that. And in this way, also because of Catholicism, [discrimination] is very much [present here in Colombia]. So if you are trying to listen to the people in the streets, a lot of people think that this is like a crime to be gay. So [they think] you must be a crap person [if you are gay.]
In and around [Bogota’s gayborhood called] Chapinero, there was a gay radio station, Radio Diversa, that had been attacked just because they are gays. So in this way, you can be killed in a violent country like this.
Although violence has decreased amid the peace process, you're saying this is still a violent country? There is no peace process for gay people.
And what is your perception of what LGBT rights looks like in the United States? Colombia is also a very Americanized country. If United States approved marriage [equality], Colombia is going to do it in six months or less. So if America does that, it's OK.
Even in such a Catholic country? Yes, exactly. The government has said yes [to equal marriage]; the united coalition of government has said yes, so it's going to be a discussion, but it's going to be approached.
Edwar Eugenio Hernandez Vargas, Bogotá-based psychologist and historian specializing in LGBT issues
“There are two differences that appear to be crucial [in the fight for LGBT rights in the U.S. and Colombia].The first difference has to do with the fact that in Latin America, all [advocacy] work is focused on the government, at least in Colombia. We have embarked on the institutional transformation of the state, whereas the United States has generally operated more from the idea that equal rights are purchased. So that is the work of the private press, to market eternal rights as part of a general guarantee for all. This is a big difference.
“The second difference is that, to me, we are very much engaged in the process of law. This is what we call community-based [organizing], trying to generate, from specific people and specific institutions, all possibilities of action, while also keeping to my perspective. The United States is engaged in an exercise to transform the internal struggle, changing its own internal world according to the terms of LGBT activists. The example right now is marriage, which may not speak to my sensibilities, but can grow support for international people, which in turn puts pressure on the internal community. And [our goal is] to transform the internal, while we are here advancing the agenda of our community bases, to use that power to transform.”
Daniel Chacon, gender-nonconforming queer activist based in Bogotá
"Historically, there have been times when the fight for equality in the United States has permeated our struggles here in Colombia. As a matter of fact, [our Pride] march was held on June 28, because we were able to pick up on the same idea, at a worldwide level, that was fought for at the Stonewall Inn in New York.
"But I think there are some things that we can differentiate between the movements [in Colombia and the U.S.] For example, for the international analysis, we can look actual example on the issue of reconciliation of the armed conflict in Colombia. This has had a super important role, and made a great impact in our perspective and how we must think of social movements for LGBT people.
"Overall, I think there is not much shared with the United States, because I believe the matter is completely different. Historically, here in Colombia, there has been so much violence and so many murders of activists, including people who have made their sexual orientation or gender identity known, those who aren’t heteronormative, that you almost acclimate to the violence, and death in many cases. And so now, our social movement is building on the idea that we are finally in a post-conflict scenario, which can also help facilitate the transformation of these realities, not only in the city, but in many contexts.
"For example, there is a broad coalition of organizations in Colombia that have been working, over the last few years, on the issue of the armed conflict. … There isn’t anything like that history in the United states. Well, obviously [the U.S.] has not had an armed conflict for 50 years, but even long before that, there have been different characteristics [here] when we think about the LGBT world.
"In the United States, for example, the issue of marriage, adoption, and the issue of gender identity, are very specific things, drawn from other models that may not necessarily be relevant here in Colombia. But I feel that’s where these particular differences are most present. For example, as you can see from our people, the big issue here is victims who are working for the rest of the people. And we can also see that the particular culture here in Colombia has been supported by these armed groups, that systematically direct violence at the LGBT sectors of society, that make people disappear. And sure we have jailed some of us, but that offers little comfort, right?
"So I think our interest is not only in marriage, adoption, and gender identity, but also in what happened with our history, particularly in Colombia, with these people who are disappearing. Look at the case of Leon Zuleta, who theoretically planned to live in Spain, and other activists [who have vanished]. For example, Lawanda Fox, a trans woman who also did a lot of work on this issue in Colombia, who was also killed, and how does that change our perspective?
"Because I feel that, although the United States may have some particular issues and things working against activists, the ways in which [our activists] are persecuted, and even killed, are completely different. When they kill us here in Colombia, the State had a lot to do with these murders, supporting these paramilitary movements under the table a bit. Other groups have validated so much violence, and the lack of attention that the state paid to violence against LGBT social sectors has allowed that violence to go unchecked until very recently. It’s like, look at what violence has been done in Colombia, especially to the LGBT community.
"Colombia is also in another geographical position, with completely different characteristics [than the U.S.], which I think gives our struggle different nuances. For example, when we think about rural issues, I think it’s very different in the United States. Rural life in the U.S. has very different features, whereas our culture has had much more to do on that issue.
"And it’s not only culture, but also, for example in Colombia, we can see it with the Catholic religion systematically denying violence that has been taking for many years, while still condemning the LGBT population. As I understand, in the United States, the Catholic faith doesn’t have the same weight that it does here in Colombia. Here in Colombia, when we’re talking about a man, or about a priest, it’s not solely in a [religious] context.
"I think that there is also cultural variation in how religion is perceived, and how people express their freedom around that. There are some very large differences to be seen — for example, the struggle that we’re now having here, and the United States is also having, about movements starting in Christian and Catholic churches, Jewish [synagogues], all that.
"But I think it’s a different matter when it comes to the power that [churches] have over the decisions of the state. Then, I think, there are a few different variations, but there are also things we have together in common, which you cannot deny.
"But I think this is a more or less as a quick overview of some of the differences — at least the ones I consider important."
Manuel José Bermúdez Andrade, Journalist and professor at University of Antioquia in Medellín
“There is no ceiling when it comes to our right to reclaim democracy, but the issue, at least in the theoretical sense, is that the rule of law and the freedoms that come from it [in the U.S.] refer to liberties, and then once we reclaim those, there are actions to take.
“Our legal system here [in Colombia] is very weak and depends heavily on political positions and favors to change the law itself. But that has created the need for other strategies — other ways to get the government to rule by other routes, like [appealing to] human rights and the constitutional court. Or taking the time to change the hatred and seduce with language those politicians and leaders who have the power. Then we're not creating work in the ghettos [of our community], but rather broad fronts of freedom.
“In theory, these [approaches] may seem the same, but it's the administration and political model that can really make a difference in practice. This has been generated in such a way that in [the U.S.], the collective social organization is very strong, but here, we move less from the collective consciousness and more, perhaps, from the opinions — that is what has the authority and power.”
Hernando Muñoz Sanchez, professor and researcher, University of Antioquia.
“I think in the United States, there is a great tendency to embrace an openness of mind and have respect for difference. Even when people do not agree, they respect individuality and difference. That it is clear in many parts of everyday life, except, perhaps with respect to religion. To me it seems that culture dictates that people in the U.S. have basic respect for 'the other.'
“In Colombia, no. In Colombia, if your culture is different, then the response is, 'If you are not as I am, then you have to be eliminated, vanished; you will not be served; you cannot be.' I think it's a big part of the struggle for the transformation of our mentalities, to challenge positions that say “you have to be like I am.” It is not only not human, but it’s also not serving us well, to tell so many people they do not have space in this society. And I think the biggest struggle [in Colombia] is to transform these ways of thinking, and [cultivate] the respect for difference, so that all of us can see that we are the same kind of human, though we have differences in how we live our lives, who we are, and what we do. I think it's a very big struggle we have yet to have.
“Another struggle is against religious institutions in this country, where the separation between state and religion is not respected. But the state comes together, confused, then combined with religious beliefs, and that does not help. Because many senior public officials seem to legislate with religion. … They are not able to separate their elected position from their faith.
“The other element that I find very important is the issue of political positions that prioritize groups that have certain rights over those that do not. That is, if I'm straight, I'm better. If I am LGBT or I'm black or I am a woman or because I have other things, [I am not as valuable].
“This country is a highly motivated country, but it is also a country of double standards. It is like there is a class of people that have all the rights, maybe not economic [privilege], but rather they have many [legal] rights. And that is the great struggle also towards equality, looking to a time when we can see everyone is a human being. We have had I think many things in the media have helped advance this struggle, and have helped make progress in education. But it is one thing to have a law in place, and another thing to carry that law out in practice. So it seems we have to go in with the law under our arm, to first establish certain serious things — then be able to act ahead of that law.
“I think those are some issues that are important elements in the fight for LGBT equality here in Colombia and the differences from the U.S. I think there are situations, like in Houston or Arizona [or North Carolina], where something that may be similar to [our struggles], with the 'rednecks' who have highly conservative views. But I think [the U.S.] is a country that guarantees rights, and which has a president who is clearly supporting equal rights and setting a precedent that rights are respected; this moves the political atmosphere.
“Here in Colombia, it has just been in the the last two years that this president has said [something similar] publicly. Then it's all a fight with the existing system, for the possibility to have a clear, pro-equality political stance, versus [leaders saying] 'I’m not gay, I'm president.' [We want lawmakers to say] 'I am not gay, I'm a congressman, but I have respect for LGBT people.'”