Gary Paterson, Tim Stevenson, and Jim Hodgson in Bogotá, March 2014

Gary Paterson, Tim Stevenson, and Jim Hodgson in Bogotá, March 2014

Almost two years ago, I had the privilege of accompanying the United Church’s then-Moderator Gary Paterson and his husband Tim Stevenson on a two-week visit to Colombia and Cuba. Part of what we did was to respond to United Church partners who said they were ready to engage us in dialogue about sexual orientation and gender identity.

During the first two weeks of November, I retraced our steps and heard some stories of the impact of that visit—and took some new steps as well.

All that happened before these visits was important:

  • the process of change in the United Church that led to its stance in favour of inclusion in 1988 and more recent work on equal marriage and full inclusion of trans people
  • development of Gender Justice and Partnership Guidelines in  1998, and
  • production in 2010 of Moving Toward Full Inclusion  (and its Spanish translation in 2014), a resource for dialogue with partners on sexual orientation and gender identity issues.

Debate on human sexuality continues in many other churches around the world, and slowly, space is won.

In Bogotá, one of the outcomes of our previous visit is the creation of an ecumenical group on LGBTI inclusion called Jesús Arcoiris (Rainbow Jesus). The group includes people from as many as 17 different Christian traditions. Their regular meetings open space for long-delayed conversations and strengthen the voices of LGBTI people who chose to remain in their churches. Meetings are hosted by the Latin American Centre for Popular Communication (CEPALC).

During my visit to CEPALC on Nov. 9, I joined a 90-minutes panel discussion on its internet-based “Encuentro Radio” program. Together with Félix Posadas, Amparo Beltrán and Yesid Fernández—and people who called in—we were able to decipher LGBTTIQQ2SA, examine biblical texts, and join debates over current issues like peace, human rights, same-sex marriage and adoption.

Participants in the Medellín consultation

Participants in the Medellín consultation

In Medellín, I had been invited to lead about 20 leaders of the Colombian Methodist Church (ICM) in a two-day workshop on inclusion. For several years, the church has had a non-discrimination policy that protects sexual minorities, but the sense among leaders is it that it would be better to have a more positive, welcoming position.

The group reflected the church: a diversity of ethnicities from all parts of the country; a handful of “out” (and very articulate) gay men and one lesbian; several pastors and lay leaders; two top-notch theologians; and two or three people who were very new to the conversation but motivated to be there because of friendships or family relationships.

Using the Bible to interpret the Bible

After working to decode the LGBTTIQQ2SA alphabet, adding human faces and stories, examining the Biblical texts (“using the Bible to interpret the Bible,” as Gary suggested last year), and talking about human rights (protection for minorities against the whims of the majority), we achieved consensus on next steps: a report to the bishop and ICM board, and plans for two regional forums next year. I will stay in touch with the conversation.

Days earlier in Cuba, I continued conversations with all of the partners, and with a LGBTI group in Matanzas called Abriendo Brechas (Opening Spaces). The group has recently decided to affiliate itself with the Metropolitan Community Church.

In that conversation and in others, it became more apparent to me that trans people struggle for inclusion. (Not that we’re much further ahead in Canada, however.) Trans people, particularly trans women, find themselves ostracized during early adolescence, frequently leaving school and ending up working as prostitutes in the tourist zones (like Varadero, just a few kilometres east of Matanzas).


Mariela Castro (right) with Jim Hodgson

CENESEX (the National Centre for Sexuality Studies, led by Mariela Castro), together with LGBTI organizations, work to address issues of equality and inclusion, but social stigma remains high in Cuba and Canada. Just in February, Canada’s Senate gutted a law that would have extended human rights protection to trans people.

Mariela was in Toronto and Mississauga recently. Overcoming such injustice is why solidarity across borders is so important.

In Cárdenas, I had a long talk with Alberto Abreu Arcía, a gay Afro-Cuban who is a writer and academic. His memories of the pre-mid-80s time of repression of LGBTI people is sharp. That repression has ended, and a sort of “official space” has opened through the leadership of CENESEX.

But at the grassroots, particularly in inter-actions with local police, LGBTI people are still blocked from meeting each other. “If we hang out in parks, it’s because there is no other open space,” Alberto said.

Our conversation ranged widely through current events and literature (the books of novelist Reinaldo Arenas, who left Cuba in the Mariel boats in 1980 and died from AIDS-related causes in New York 10 years later) and film (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Fresa y Chocolate). “These are specific representations of gay life in Cuba that are well-known outside Cuba” but, in Alberto’s view, “do not represent the variety of life in diverse currents, identities and classes.”

He maintains a blog, Afromodernidades, that he uses to explore themes of identity and power. When necessary, he also denounces specific abuses, such as a violent attack against a young man (“gay, ugly and poor,” it was said of the victim) in Cárdenas, and the harassment by police in Varadero of gay people in public parks. He spoke of the opening of a disco in Havana that at first seemed like a new gay space, but quickly revealed itself to be an elite space closed to the poor and to most Afro-Cubans.

Work is also needed (not just in Cuba) to examine power and the fault lines within and among the various groups lumped together under the alphabetic LGBTI: gender, race, class, and incomprehension by many ‘LGB’ of the ‘T’ (trans) and the ‘I’ (intersex).


Colombian participant in Toronto's Pride parade, June 2015

Colombian participant in Toronto’s Pride parade, June 2015

At a Pride parade, with all the fabulous costumes and music, it’s easy to forget the life and death struggles that continue for people whose sexual orientation or gender identity doesn’t fit notions of “normal” held by people with more power. We still have to overcome high rates of suicide, HIV and AIDS, violence, and defend human rights everywhere.

It’s hard to take in 50 years of war all at once, much less comprehend the individual stories of eight million direct victims. (I think just about everyone I know in Colombia has lost a sibling or a child or a parent, or had a relative kidnapped.)

From among all those stories—now being told—some are about crimes against LGBTI people. Here, I will tell you of just one case. (Tomorrow, I will tell you about some efforts by church people toward inclusion and respect.)

On May 10 and 11, 2003, 16 young gay men and trans women were forced to participate in a boxing tournament for the entertainment of members of the AUC paramilitary death squad.

The incident is one of scores of stories summarized in ¡Basta Ya!—the 2013 general report  of Colombia’s National Centre of Historical Memory (pp.322-23). The title of this post is drawn from the LGBTI section heading in ¡Basta Ya! A longer version of the same story is included in an earlier report on gender issues, Women and War: Victims and Resistance in the Caribbean Region of Colombia (pp.67-69).

The area of Colombia’s Caribbean coast known as Montes de María includes parts of the departments of Sucre and Bolívar. At the northern tip of Sucre is the municipality of San Onofre. I came to know the area over the past decade through the United Church of Canada’s partnership with the Colombian Methodist Church. I have written about the struggle by residents to recover land that had been taken from them by the paramilitaries.

san onofre mapSan Onofre is known, among other things, for being the home of Colombia’s best boxers: three world champions and one Central American champion came from this municipality.

But the boxing tournament organized by one of the local AUC commanders, Marco Tulio Pérez Guzmán, known as El Oso (the Bear), on San Onofre’s Alto de Julio beach in May 2003 gave new meaning to this tradition.

Residents of the municipality were made aware of the event when paramilitaries hand-delivered a flyer to their homes, obliging them to purchase a ticket worth 20,000 pesos (about $10) that would, according to the armed men, finance a boxing event to be carried out in Alto de Julio.

Days later, a gay resident of San Onofre (who others said had links to the commanders of the AUC’s Heroes of Montes de María Bloc) was told to convene young gay men, transvestites and trans women from the municipality who would participate in the tournament.

Some of them, fearing for their lives, left San Onofre before they could be taken to the fight. Nevertheless, about 16 young people were driven to Alto de Julio in the paramilitaries’ armoured vehicles.

Witness statements

According to witness statements taken in November 2010, the event had been conceived with the objective of paying homage to the regional commander of the paramilitary bloc, Rodrigo Antonio Mercado Peludo, known as Cadena (Chain)—although Cadena never appeared.

The event lasted two days. All of the contenders were dressed in boxing shorts, robes and boxing gloves. In a specially-installed boxing ring, approximately 14 fights took place.

One of the witnesses (identified as an adult male) of Alto de Julio remembered the boxing tournament this way:

“The event lasted two days, Saturday and Sunday. There were various activities: party, boxing match and rooster fight. The maricas had to fight…. They had gloves, shorts and everything. The winners got nothing. All anyone got were hits to the face…. The homosexuals were brought as a joke, to make fun of them. They didn’t bring professional fighters, but rather maricas…. People really laughed to see them fight.”

A woman who had been “invited” to the event tells the following:

“They made a huge party. They set up a ring, but all of the boxers were gay…. You know that by putting people in there to box who are gay, that generates a lot of laughter for everyone. They dressed them in gowns, with gloves, and made a show of it, as if they were women who were slapping each other…. So that made people laugh.”

Of the gay men who were forced to participate in the boxing tournament, one was murdered by the paramilitaries in the urban part of San Onofre a few months after the event. Others left San Onofre after the event, joining more than five million Colombians displaced by violence. But some are said to be still living in the zone.

Sadly, gay men and trans women are still victims of violence in San Onofre. On June 14, 2013, Yeison Pérez Mercado (known as Natali) was stabbed to death. But that incident at least resulted in a community meeting about security issues. (But I know from other sources that the region is still dominated by former, now supposedly demobilized, paramilitaries, so for me it is hard to imagine real change any time soon.)

Many good people in Colombia are working to document what happened so as to ensure such crimes never happen again. Leaders like human rights lawyer Germán Rincón Perfetti and organizations like Colombia Diversa make sure that life for LGBTI people really do get better.

My next blogpost will be about efforts among some of Colombia’s churches to be more welcoming of sexual diversity.

Participants in the recent Encounter of the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz

Participants in the recent Encounter of the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz

The thing about peace-making is that you always have to talk with your enemies. The road ahead for Colombians will not be an easy one.

Let’s say the FARC guerrilla army and the government reach an accord. There will almost certainly be a referendum, and the failure of the peace referendum in Guatemala two decades ago is on the minds of many. The peace accords will require strong support from within and outside Colombia. Proposals for civilian observation (veedurías) of implementation of the accords help to build that support.

But then let’s say the referendum succeeds, the transitional justice arrangement has credibility, the FARC fighters demobilize successfully, agreement is reached with the other rebel army, the ELN, and land reform is successfully initiated….

Colombia still has the problems of:

  • the paramilitaries (who, depending on your perspective, are the same as or strongly connected to, the bandas criminales, of which there are said to be 338 different groups);
  • the five-million-plus internally-displaced people, many of whom want their land back;
  • "Homage to our martyrs"

    “Homage to our martyrs”

    the massive gap between the wealth of a tiny minority and the poverty of the majority (Thomas Piketty (Capital, p.327) says the richest one-per-cent received 20 per cent of national income from 1990 to 2010), a gap that translates into a difference in power that has always limited the practice of democracy in Colombia where 630 people have fortunes greater than US$30 million;

  • the likelihood that President Juan Manuel Santos will be succeeded in 2018 by his vice-president, Germán Vargas Lleras, who has never favoured the peace process; and
  • and, to be realistic, someone will still be in control of the coca and the gold and the oil.

I asked a journalist friend what the elite would be willing to pay to have peace in the land. “They want cheap peace,” was the reply. If Santos can get some sort of peace deal without really changing anything, they’ll go for it.

Otherwise, history shows that the rich would rather continue to make everyone pay for endless war: 500,000 soldiers; a military budget of $12.1 billion (equivalent to 3.5% of GDP, compared to Brazil’s 1.7% or Mexico’s 0.7%). The pressure on the elite, from within and outside, has to become enormous, but so far, the elite have been rewarded with free trade deals and foreign investment.

What to do?

I have shared my recommendations related to the peace process with other Canadian NGOs and with Global Affairs Canada:

"Where are the disappeared?"

“Where are the disappeared?”

To the international community:

  • Support the peace process energetically
  • Launch an international campaign for a bilateral (or multilateral, so as to include the ELN) ceasefire

To the Canadian government:

  • Support the peace process: engage with the dialogue table in Havana; engage with civil society organizations in Colombia (including with ODA funds); look for ways to support the civilian veedurías so that their activities may be carried out in ways that are both secure and effective.
  • Make effective the annual human rights reporting process that is mandated by the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement.
  • Regulate activities of Canadian resource extraction companies operating in Colombia.

To international civil society and NGOs:

  • Support the creation of the civilian observation processes (veedurías)
  • Continue to support the call for participation of Colombian civil society and popular movements in the peace process, through tables of peace called “Mesa Social para la Paz.”
  • Call for release of political prisoners
  • Question how aid funds are prioritized in Colombia. There has been a tendency to shift aid away from NGOs and social movements in favour of larger multilateral institutions. Someone said to me that the UN Development Program is not the best expression of Colombian civil society, and it’s not likely to be of much assistance in Sucre or Cauca…

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