G20, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, LGBTQ

RIGHTS-COLOMBIA: Where Homophobia Totes a Gun

Mario Osava

BOGOTA, Dec 2 2008 (IPS) - Homosexuals can remain in the closet and not be noticed, but that is not an acceptable alternative for transgender people who suffer violence to a greater extent in Colombia, where armed combatants in the conflicts too often turn prejudice into murder.

“We are not interested in hiding our sexual preference,” and in this country “killing is easier” than in others, said Diana Navarro, the head of Corporación Opción, an organisation that works for the rights of prostitutes and transgender people, a term used in Colombia to refer to transvestites, transsexuals and cross-dressers.

“I am attacked for being black, transgender, a prostitute, and for speaking out,” the activist told IPS. Her complaints of abuses against her community made an impact at the International Seminar on Human Rights, Sexual Diversity and State Policies, held Nov. 26-27 in Bogotá.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community in Colombia faces state and social discrimination, as is common nearly everywhere in the world. But in their case it is aggravated by the conflicts between several armed groups which are all homophobic.

Homosexuals are particularly victimised by “social cleansing,” a Colombian tradition of eliminating undesirables, and as “false positives” – people killed by the armed forces to present as guerrillas killed in combat, said Navarro, who did not complete her university law course and is now studying participative social processes.

In 2006 and 2007, 67 Colombians were murdered because of their sexual orientation, according to Colombia Diversa, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) for LGBT rights. But this is a very partial figure, the result of “a first effort” that was limited to the big cities, the NGO’s lawyer Mauricio Noguera told IPS.

This is obviously an underestimate, because LGBT individuals are not specifically identified as such on any official document, said Navarro. In addition, fear of reprisals prevents people from coming forward and filing complaints, Noguera said.

In comparison, in Brazil where violence is part of day-to-day reality but there is no civil war, the Bahia Gay Group recorded an average of 125 LGBT murders a year from 2000 to 2005. (Brazil’s population is approximately 4.5 times that of Colombia.)

The armed conflict in Colombia “did not originate prejudice, but it exacerbates it and brings about more serious consequences,” the lawyer said.

In the areas under their control, illegal armed groups like the far-right paramilitaries or the left-wing guerrillas impose “normal” behaviour according to their beliefs, driving out prostitutes, drug addicts and homosexuals with threats that include murder if they resist, he said.

Such armed homophobia forces sexual minorities to hide their orientation in order to survive, or to migrate to the big cities where they can “blend in more easily,” Navarro said. The result is that they become concentrated in Bogotá and Medellín, which also have progressive local governments that have adopted policies recognising LGBT rights.

She estimates that the transgender population of Bogotá varies from 1,500 to 3,000, depending on the time of year. Their bold visibility represents “anarchy” in contrast with a “globalisation that would like to make people homogeneous,” so they are the first to be “expelled by the armed groups,” and the foremost victims of killings.

Cali, the third largest Colombian city, is known as a death zone for transgender people. Out of 21 LGBT murders there in 2006 and 2007, no less than 16 were of transgender persons, a disproportionate number for that tiny minority, according to Colombia Diversa.

The situation might improve after the end of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe’s current term, which ends in 2010, said Navarro, the only trangender member of the leadership of the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA), a leftist opposition party which includes an LGBT group, the Polo de Rosa (Pink Pole).

Another of Navarro’s forceful views is that Catholicism is at the root of the violence against sexual minorities. The strong influence the Catholic Church retains in Colombia, and its conservative hierarchy, do heighten pressures against LGBT people, other activists agree.

Coming to terms openly with one’s homosexuality in Colombia is a “heroic” act, said Carlos Gaviria, president of the PDA, speaking at the Seminar on Human Rights, Sexual Diversity and State Policies.

Rulings by the Constitutional Court, on which Gaviria used to sit as a judge, have set precedents that ensure the few rights that LGBT people have, in the areas of assets, health care and pensions.

A society can only be democratic if it is “plural” and allows people to be “authentic,” that is, that everyone can publicly present their true identity, including their sexual identity, said Gaviria. But this is not the case in Colombia, which is still a democracy “under construction,” added the politician, who was runner-up in the 2006 presidential elections.

Although homophobia is more lethal in Colombia because of the armed violence and impunity, the national LGBT movement is well integrated in the struggle for human rights, and the International Seminar, sponsored by the Bogotá mayor’s office, showed important progress is being made, said Bill Fairbairn of the Canadian NGO Horizons of Friendship, which supports sustainable development projects in Central America.

The Chapinero district in Bogotá, now dubbed “Chapigay,” is a sort of LGBT liberated zone, with several gay bars and discos, and homosexual couples and groups in the streets and squares all night long. The local mayor is openly lesbian.

Homophobia is widespread throughout the world, including Canada, where homosexuals can marry but “if they walk down the streets hand in hand, they are attacked or mocked,” Fairbairn, who in the 1980s and 1990s coordinated the South America programme of the Canadian Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA), told IPS.

While in that post, he reported extrajudicial executions of homosexuals and assisted in getting his country to grant asylum to people persecuted for their sexual preferences.

Mexican lawmaker David Sánchez Camacho of the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), another participant at the seminar, said the present Colombian government was “more conservative and authoritarian” in every way than that of his own country.

Mexico also has a conservative government, but it has promised public policies against discrimination based on sexual orientation and has shown openness on health issues such as the use of condoms, he said.

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