Welcome to the second part of this blog article. I the first, I traced my journey as a civil and political human rights activist to an LGBT activist in Colombia. You can read it here.
This blog draws on my experience as a human rights activist in Colombia and following my exile. I present some areas that I think are important for future research and LGBT activism in Colombia. These include some reflections specific to Lesbian women in Colombia. There is a section for comments at the end of the page which I look forward to reading!
The Colombian context for LGBT activism
In Colombia, a country with serious human rights problems, there is a clear gap between official rhetoric and the legal framework and reality. As a consequence impunity levels are high. Other discontinuities exist too. For instance there are a number of widely recognised gay writers, who are able to participate in public debate and adopt critical positions on the armed conflict and the state responsibility. But Colombia ranks very high in the statistics for the number of transgender women killed because of transphobia.
Tracing the emergence of LGBT activism (how much progress has there actually been?)
Things have moved very fast in the last 10 years. For example 56 pro-LGBT regulations and laws have been published during the period, 3 major cities in Colombia now have LGBT policies, and all the major political parties have LGBT policies. However, the tendencies of the movement in Colombia, or how coherent it is, are still not clear.
The LGBT community only began to organise recently, in 2001, with the creation of Planeta Paz. The term LGBT was adopted from the international movement because it was clear a name was needed that would help identify them as populations working on identity and on sexual and gender diversity, but the learning curve has been steep as they have sought to catch up with other traditional and new social movements such as the trade union movement, civil and political human rights activists, indigenous groups, and even women’s rights groups that preceded them in playing a key role in terms of human rights, (armed) conflict resolution and justice.
The LGBT contribution to human rights in Colombia.
As in other places, the LGBT movement has a clear contribution to make in terms of identity: this is an interest that is common to each one of the four or more populations that integrate the LGBT movement. In this they have built on and extended the contribution of other new social movements such as the indigenous and black movements. Like the women’s movement they have helped demonstrate how gender and sexuality are key factors in institutions that are central to society (the family, the church, school) and therefore a key area for negotiation between the state and civil society.
Of particular importance to the Colombian context is the fact that gender and sexuality dynamics are linked to the roots of the armed conflict. Further research into these aspects will therefore eventually contribute to thinking on how to progress in the human rights agenda and peace building.
The ways in which gender and sexuality can be linked to the conflict in Colombia, are well illustrated in Sanchez Baute’s latest novel Libranos del Bien (Sanchez-Baute 2008). Sanchez Baute is the most prominent openly gay author in Colombia. He tries to explain the conflict from the perspective of a specific region (the Caribbean), and from his experience as a gay person in Colombia. I end this section by presenting quoting explains the LGBT Agenda for the Peace Process, produced by the LGBT Sector of Planeta Paz (quoted by Jose Fernando Serrano-Amaya). The statement reflects discussion about whether or not LGBT people have a special approach to peace building:
“‘Body, the first territory for peace’ is the name of a political agenda that is still in the process of being written by the Sector. This agenda briefly states what is considered to be particular about this approach. Instead of claiming that LGBT are citizens that experience the same conflict as other Colombians, the agenda highlights that there are several types of violence that affect LGBT people in particular but that are not recognised as being important in comparison with other kinds of violence stemming from the violent conflict. They argue that since discrimination, homophobia, and hate crimes mainly target the body it has to be the starting point for any peace proposal.”
Lesbian human rights activism, how far we can go with visibility?
Hate crime and intolerance, added to the fact that there are high levels of impunity, suggest that lesbians should seek to raise their profile in the regions is not the solution. We have seen that increasing visibility seems to have increased levels of attacks against other LGBT members. Does the increasing visibility of the LGBT movement fit the narrative presented above about the evolution of general or LGBT human rights discourse? It is clear that in the LGBT movement, with a few exceptions, gay men tend to be more visible than lesbians. This lack of lesbian leadership is more extreme in the regions. Asked about this, one of the most prominent LGBT leaders in the Caribbean region of Colombia confirmed that leaders tend to be gay middle class men who are not native to the region. He also said that lesbians seem not to be interested in taking on leadership roles, usually because they frequently remain in the closet but also because they have felt that their invisibility (“lesbians do not exist”) has allowed them to maintain their lesbianism relatively unaffected by violence. It is certainly my experience of violence against women that heterosexual women are permanently at risk; it seems lesbians do not wish to expose themselves to even more violence by coming out. How, then, might we promote a role for lesbians as human rights activists in regions where their security cannot be guaranteed? On the other hand, there is a lack of research on violence against lesbians. Reports focus principally on violence against gay men, sex workers and transgender women, who tend to be more exposed to “external” violence. But very little is known about the levels of violence against lesbians committed by their relatives and members of their close communities. Research in other countries has shown that lesbians tend to be more vulnerable to attack than heterosexual women in these scenarios.
A methodology that might help to improve our understanding of the situation of the lesbian movement in Colombia
Millie Thayer’s article, “Identity, Revolution and Democracy in Lesbian Movements in Central America: the Costa Rican and Nicaraguan Cases” illustrates very well the particularities and differences marking two countries from the same region, reminding us that all the countries in the region are different. Thayer also uses some of the methodologies proposed by new social movement writers, concluding that social movements are built, and collective identities constructed, by particular people in particular locations at particular moments of history and that the reasons for this can be found by looking beyond global structural shift or formal political institutions.
Observing the case of Costa Rica and Nicaragua I would argue that Colombia might be seen as a hybrid of both: a country with a strong history of human rights activism and conflict but also a country desperate to become, and be seen as, modern.
Lesbian groups and the HIV response
In the specific topic of LGBT and HIV I want also to add here what I think about the contribution to the HIV response made by lesbian groups and some women’s groups.
One important area relevant to the issue of lesbians as human rights activists is how to integrate with other movements and how this work might be recognised. Women’s human rights activists have supported LGBT rights and a large number of lesbian women in Latin America and the Caribbean have worked on HIV/AIDS. This is not because AIDS is an issue for lesbian women as such, but more as an expression of LGBT solidarity towards gay men and more recently towards Transgender women (the group most affected by HIV in the region).
There is still not enough recognition of what the lesbian and women’s movements and lesbian solidarity have contributed and might contribute to the future of other members of the LGBT community and to those who are affected by a lack of sexual and diversity rights, including those working on HIV/AIDS.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog and I look forward to reading any comments you may have!
This blog was first presented as a paper at the International conference on LESBIAN LIVES ‘Masquerades’(17th- 18th February 2012), University College Dublin (UCD John Hume Institute for Global Irish Studies). You can download the full paper as a PDF here, which contains a bibliography.