Sexual minorities in Colombia face a strange disconnect between the country’s laws, which are among the world’s most progressive in guaranteeing their rights, and the reality of homophobia faced by the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community. Recent news and polls show that Colombian society remains intolerant of sexual diversity, despite the recent hailing in American press of the country as a “gay travel hotspot.”
The state does not always enforce in reality the rights it guarantees to homosexuals in theory. As NGO Colombia Diversa told Colombia Reports, there is a general lack of state effort to apply laws such as that giving homosexual couples access to the same rights as married couples (except for adoption). Some homosexuals are able to take advantage of their full legal rights, but Colombia Diversa observes that many civil servants are obstructive, finding excuses to avoid performing the “factual matrimonial union” ceremonies for gay couples. This reality undermines the respect for sexual diversity and protection against sexual discrimination guaranteed to LGBT groups by law, thus leading many homosexuals to doubt the authorities’ commitment to safeguarding gay rights. Colombia Diversa recently expressed its concern about the fact that Prosecutor General Alejandro Ordoñez has been enabled by the Constitutional Court to legislate over same sex marital unions, on the grounds that his religious and personal views prevent him from being “neutral and objective” about gay rights.
Nevertheless, recent efforts by certain institutions to take into account the interests of the LGBT community should be acknowledged. Last week, national police Brigadier General Jose Roberto Leon came to Medellin, Colombia’s second city, to talk to LGBT representatives about the security of their community and its relationship with the police. The official announced that the temporary administrative order on special protection for the members of the community has been made permanent. At this meeting, the police agreed about the need for further training on how to deal with the minority group. LGBT representatives said that better communication and more training was necessary, to get rid of mutual distrust between their community and the police, who have been enemies for years. They said that homosexuals are sometimes reluctant to call the police for assistance when they are the victims of crime, and reported recent cases where police have supported homophobic aggressors or failed to intervene in favor of LGBT victims of crime.
Though, at least in Colombia’s cities, homosexuals and transsexuals can be open about their identity, the country remains dangerous for them. On April 16, a group of young LGBT friends were attacked by homophobic skinheads in a Medellin public park, according to a press release from the city’s Ombudsman’s Office. The statement called for reinforced security in places where LGBT people socialize. LGBT individuals living in the poorer parts of Medellin also complain about pressure placed on them by illegally armed groups. Obviously homosexuals, transvestites or transsexuals are not the main victims of these violent gangs, but these minorities are clearly in the line of sight of gangs, paramilitaries and guerrillas, as shown by the publishing of pamphlets in various regions of Colombia calling for “social cleansing,” meaning the physical elimination of “marginals”, including junkies, prostitutes and homosexuals.
Homophobia remains rife among the general population; on April 15, El Tiempo published the results of a poll conducted by Bogota Mayor’s Office, which shows that the group that Bogotans consider to be the most undesirable neighbors are homosexuals, with 24% of the people questioned saying that would not want gay neighbors. The next most undesirable groups were politicians and displaced people. We can assume that most people expressing bigoted attitudes in the poll didn’t carry out any overt acts of intolerance against the LGBT community, however, and would not find a gay neighbor as intolerable in practice as they claim. Perhaps more worrying is the poll’s finding that over 60% would not want their children to have a homosexual teacher.
Homophobia in Colombia is driven in part by the country’s deep Catholic faith. A top cardinal, for example, recently asserted that there was a link between homosexuality and pedophilia, leading to a demonstration by the Bogota’s LGBT community on April 18.
Contact between homosexuals and young people is at the heart of an ongoing heated debate in Colombia. Colombia Diversa campaigns for the right of homosexuals to adopt children, a right already given by many countries around the world, including two Latin-American countries: Uruguay and Brazil. The NGO argues that the right to adoption would increase the security of children who are adopted, since they then would legally have as guardians both members of the couple. This is a good point, as depriving one of the partners of an homosexual couple of the right to adopt does not prevent children from being raised by the two.
The debate over adoption, as well as the Bogota poll, show that sexual diversity continues to be a cause of mistrust and discrimination in social, professional and public life. On the political battlefield, openly gay figures are sometimes accused on dubious grounds of incompetence or of prioritizing their community’s narrow interests, in order to create enmity towards homosexual politicians. A noteworthy case was reported by Colombian Magazine Semana in February, when Blanca Ines Duran, the openly lesbian mayor of a part of Bogota called Chapinero, was accused by a political opponent of being responsible for an increase in “delinquency” in the town. She has also received death threats on the basis of her sexuality.
There is a risk that in Colombia’s cut-throat political scene, candidates will use anything to get ahead, even the fact of their status as a sexual minority. And if in politics sexual orientation is used to play one part of the population against the other, the presence of openly homosexual politicians also demonstrates how a scapegoat, the LGBT community, has turned into a powerful social force in recent years. Even the right-wing candidate for the upcoming presidential election, Juan Manuel Santos, is now pursuing the LGBT vote, according to media source Minuto 30. He is making the effort because the traditional support of the community for center-left party Polo Democratico Alternativo is rather uncertain, in spite of this party’s efforts to federate homosexuals into a “Polo de Rosa” (Pink Pole). Politically, the LGBT community is traditionally skeptical of the established parties, having being persecuted by the authorities for years, with homosexuality only decriminalized in 1980. The interests of the group are also fundamentally divided between rich and poor. However, a new force has appeared for the LGBT vote to coalesce around, in the form of rising star Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus. The center-right candidate may be the most credible defender of the right to sexual diversity, according media source Dos Manzanas. Like all Colombia’s skeptics, the LGBT community has a chance this May to throw a curve ball by voting en masse for the Green candidate, finally flexing its electoral muscles as a powerful interest group.