My journey: 30 years of LGBT and human rights activism in Colombia – Part 1

February 17, 2012

Posted by Erika Paez- Manjarres

Senior Programme Officer: Latin America & Caribbean

I’m starting a new blog to try to instigate discussion about LGBT and Human Rights.

I would like to start this blog by sharing with you the paper I presented at the International conference on LESBIAN LIVES ‘Masquerades’(17th- 18th February 2012), University College Dublin (UCD John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies).  (It is important to clarify that I was not representing the Alliance at the conference). You can download the full paper as a PDF here, which contains a bibliography.

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog and I look forward to reading any comments you may have!

I have lived with the complexity of human rights activism in Colombia for the last 30 years. This paper is an attempt to understand and explain how the human rights movement has developed in Colombia (a country that has suffered more than 50 years of internal armed conflict). Rather than explaining the human rights situation in Colombia I want to focus on my experience as a human rights activist exiled in the UK, on the process of coming out as a lesbian, first in the UK and eventually in Colombia, and on the circles I have moved in as an activist. Finally, in the second part of this blog I explore a set of questions that will form a part of my PhD research.

The journey begins

My journey started in Colombia in the 1980s when I worked with poor children in a shanty town outside Bogota while attending a secondary school run by progressive nuns influenced by Liberation Theology. I wrote the dissertation for my law degree (on human rights in Colombia) while working with the country’s first firm dedicated to the defence of human rights– which produced the information that formed the basis of Amnesty International’s pioneering reports on the country.  Later, in 1988, I headed up the Human Rights and International Relations Office of the newly-formed left wing party the Union Patriotica (UP).  The UP was initially formed in 1985 as the political expression of the guerrilla movement the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during peace negotiations with the government. It was  later joined by human rights activists – such as me – and by other left wing activists.

My initial involvement with human rights and left wing activism focused almost exclusively on Civil and Political Rights at a time when Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – including Women’s and Sexual and Reproductive rights – were barely on the human rights agenda. My dissertation had mentioned Economic, Social and Cultural Rights but lacked any women’s rights or gender analysis (my comrades and I used to say that we could work on women’s rights after the revolution).

This focus of human rights activists during the 1980s on civil and political rights was a ‘classic’ response to repression that was primarily carried out by the state. But as the conflict developed and its economic and social aspects became clearer, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights had to be included.  Parallel to this, the indigenous and black movements were growing stronger, a fact recognised in the 1991 Constitution, which introduced the cultural and identity rights that eventually became a door to introduce LGBT or gender identity and sexual diversity rights in Colombia.  The 1991 Constitution is, therefore, a landmark in terms of the recognition, consolidation (and institutionalisation) of New Social Movements in Colombia – that have increasingly influenced the human rights agenda in the country over the last 20 years.

A political exile: coming to the UK

In 1989 I had to leave the country because of my work with the UP (more than 1,000 of whose leaders were killed between 1985 and 1989).  Before leaving the country I had experienced domestic violence at the hands of my then left wing activist partner, was raped, tortured, and spent a short period of time in prison.  Even after these experiences my approach to human rights activism continued to concentrate on civil and political rights.

In exile, while living in a Refugee Centre in London, I started to work with other refugee women.  This was the first time I had focused on working with women and realised such activities were recognised as a vital part of human rights activism (something unimaginable on the left or in human rights work in Colombia at that time).

A survivor, not a victim

Additionally, on arrival in the UK, and when granted refugee status, I received several labels:  I was a victim, a refugee woman, a second language refugee woman, a second language refugee woman from a developing country.  It is possible that the fact I saw myself as (or that ‘they’ made me feel like) a victim, finally allowed me to understand the effects of being a woman, and how – as a woman – my human rights were violated. I was able rapidly to retrieve the status of survivor rather than victim.  It is also possible that because I was feeling safe in the UK, I was able to allow myself to become the real me, something that later contributed to my process of coming out as a lesbian.

Soon afterwards, I joined London University and started my postgraduate courses at the Women’s Studies faculty (Human Rights and Education and MSc Politics of Rights). In this period the move to include women’s rights in the human rights agenda became stronger. Simultaneously I was working (particularly with the Latin American community) in women-only organizations and in a women’s refuge with victims of violence, consolidating my understanding of gender issues. Other human rights activism for different minority groups also came to my attention, particularly issues around LGBT groups. These experiences helped me to begin  to define my sexual identity: another aspect of my life that was probably denied or postponed because of the ‘revolutionary’ idealism I had in my teens and twenties, while living in Colombia and working as a human rights activist.

Homecoming: back to Colombia

Returning to Colombia in 1997, it was clear that I wanted to continue my activism. But this time I was able to do it in a safer way, protected by my new citizenship, a British passport and the support of an International NGO. I got involved in work with internally displaced people, and later focused all my attention on working on the Children and Conflict Programme with Save the Children and on my book about Girls in Armed Conflict in Colombia (Paez-Manjarres 2002).

This work and research allowed me to carry out a gender analysis of the armed conflict in Colombia and to focus on the situation of girls from minority groups.  At the same time I was also able to observe the first steps in the growth and consolidation of the LGBT movement.  Initiatives like Planeta Paz, which brought together key representatives from different social movements working on conflict resolution, included for the first time LGBT representatives. This was probably the first time that sexual diversity had been linked to the social and political conflicts that have dominated Colombian society during the last 50 years.

LGBT movement finally acknowledged

However, at this stage, at the beginning of the 21st Century, it could not be said that LGBT activists were coordinating or liaising with human rights movements, and vice versa.  For instance, the main international reports did not take violations against this group into account.  Two topics that did appear on the agenda at the end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s was that of women and armed conflict and gender- based violence. However, the focus was primarily on violence against heterosexual women, rather acts associated with sexuality or gender identity.  I have been examining the topic of gender- based violence and LGBT groups recently (looking in particular but not exclusively at how gender- based violence affects responses to HIV/AIDS); it will comprise a core part of my future doctoral research.

Later (2004), after returning to the UK, I joined WOMANKIND, where I was able to focus on women’s empowerment projects, and gender- based violence.  It was when I went to the Women’s Human Rights Activists International Conference in Sri Lanka in 2005 that I realised how the LGBT movement was finally being acknowledged as a key part of human rights activism.  LGBT representatives were also invited to participate in this event.  It was acknowledged that both heterosexual women and LGBT community members should be recognised as human rights activists, and that there were linkages between the women’s and the LGBT movements, particularly in the area of gender-based violence.

Working at the Alliance

In 2006, I started to work at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, with the Latin America team.  The Alliance employs a stigma and discrimination approach and more recently has adopted a more human rights –HIV focus.  The approach is explained by the fact the countries where I work face concentrated epidemics.  It has been recognised that one way to avoid generalised epidemics in these countries is through working with and empowering the most affected population, among them gay men, other men who have sex with men, and transgender women.

This is where most of my work has been focused over the last few years. It has also coincided with me coming out as a lesbian at work. Over the last five years I have observed the growing visibility of the LGBT movement and its different manifestations within Latin American countries. Issues such as civil partnership, gay marriage, non-gender identity, sexual orientation and discriminatory access to services have been discussed and in some cases recognised by legislatures in different countries of the region.  Additionally, and more recently, LGBT people have become more pro-active as human rights activists.

LGBT: growing visibility, growing violence

It appears that this increased recognition of LGBT rights and the growing visibility of LGBT people as human rights activists and members of a movement have led to increased levels of violence against the LGBT populations in Colombia.  In recent years, well know activists have had to leave the country because of their gay activism;  they are listed among the targeted groups that right wing paramilitaries have identified as a threat to society, alongside trade unionists and other human rights activists.  Since 2005 the organisation Colombia Diversa has published biannual a reports (pioneering in Latin America) on human rights violations against LGBT people in Colombia.  The reports compile data on the systematic violations perpetrated against LGBT people in the country.

The murder of Wanda Fox, 2009

It is in this context that Wanda Fox, a transgender woman human rights activist with whom I worked as part of the programme I was coordinating in Colombia, was killed in 2009. She was killed while doing her work as a human rights activist.  She was working on promoting gender identity rights for transgender women with other transgender women and local authorities, as well as promoting the image of transgender women in the marginalized community where she lived.  She believed that her community (predominantly very low income families, sex workers and the homeless) saw transgender women not only as sex workers but as playing a role to benefit the community. Not only did she believe they would tackle discrimination but that they had the potential for change.  It is possible that this politicisation and desire to change the status quo could not be tolerated in a society that seems still to have a long way to go in assimilating changes in equal opportunities or anti discriminatory laws in Colombia.

You can read Part 2 of this blog here. In it I explore a set of questions on LGBT rights and human rights in Colombia that will form a part of my PhD research.

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