April 23, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
Colombian LGBT rights advocates visit U.S.
Columbia, LGBT rights, gay news, Washington Blade

Colombian LGBT rights advocates are in the U.S. on a State Department-sponsored trip. (Photo courtesy of Wilson Castańeda)

Six Colombian LGBT rights advocates have visited D.C. and two other states this month as part of a State Department-sponsored trip to learn how activists, politicians and government officials in this country advance civil and human rights.

The group — which includes lawyer Viviana Baharquez Monsalve; Wilson de Jesús Castañeda Castro, director of Corporación Caribe Afirmativo in Cartagena; Juan Carlos Pietro García, director of the city of Bogotá’s Office of Sexual Diversity and Federico Ruíz Mora of the Santamaría Fundación in Cali — arrived in D.C. on April 14.

The advocates met with State Department officials, Lisa Mottet of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Human Rights Campaign and Victory Fund staffers, transgender activists and others while in the nation’s capital. They will have also traveled to Des Moines, Iowa, and San Diego before returning to Colombia on Wednesday.

Castañeda, whose group advocates on behalf of LGBT Colombians who live along the country’s Caribbean coastline, told the Washington Blade during an April 18 interview that he and his fellow activists highlighted their work on behalf of their gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans countrymen. He said they also wanted to learn about this country’s elections, documentation of hate crimes and anti-bullying efforts in schools while in the United States.

Ruíz, whose group advocates on behalf of trans women, discussed how the Colombian LGBT rights movement compares to that in the United States.

“Things are rather similar to those in our country, but there are clearly obvious differences,” he said.

The activists arrived in the United States less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases that challenge the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. Their trip also coincided with the ongoing debate over a bill that would extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Colombia.

The Colombian Senate had been scheduled to vote on the proposal on April 18 — the same day the activists spoke with the Blade, but it was postponed until Tuesday. Baharquez said it will prove “very, very difficult” to pass the same-sex marriage bill because of opposition from religious conservatives in the country’s Congress.

“There is little hope that something is going to pass,” she said.

Colombian senators in 2007 defeated a bill that would have allowed gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions.

The country’s Constitutional Court in three separate rulings it issued later that year and in 2008 extended property and inheritance rights, social security and pension benefits to same-sex couples. The tribunal in 2009 issued a ruling that said co-habitating gay and lesbian couples must receive the same rights that unmarried heterosexual couples receive under Colombian law.

The same court in 2011 ruled lawmakers must pass legislation within two years that extends the same benefits that heterosexuals receive through marriage to same-sex couples. If legislators fail to act on this mandate by June 20, gays and lesbians can legally register their unions.

Anti-trans violence remains endemic in Colombia

While attention remains focused on extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, violence against trans women remains rampant throughout the country.

A report from the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender Women (REDLACTRANS) notes 61 trans women in Colombia have been reported murdered between 2005-2011. The group further notes none of the alleged perpetrators have been prosecuted — Ruíz said authorities often exacerbate the problem.

“Colombia is the same as many Latin American countries and others around the world; the trans community is that which is the most affected,” he said as he discussed the issue. “This has to do with historic discrimination and exclusion accompanied by systematic acts of violence. This violence has to do with transphobic acts because of [the victim’s] gender identity.”

The advocates hope to launch a campaign in support of a trans rights bill that would, among other things, “guarantee a dignified life for trans women in Colombia.” Ruíz further described them as those who are “in a helpless situation against the constant violation of their human rights.”

Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in May 2012 signed a bill that allows people who have not undergone sex-reassignment surgery to legally change their gender without a doctor or judge’s approval. The law further mandates public and private health insurance plans to cover SRS, hormone therapy and other trans-specific treatments without additional premiums.

Castañeda told the Blade the campaign through which Argentine LGBT rights advocates secured passage of their country’s trans rights bill is “important to us.” He stressed, however, their own effort should take into account the “particularity of the situation” that trans Colombians currently face with regard to discrimination and violence.

Ruíz also responded to the Blade’s question about whether the ongoing same-sex marriage debate has overshadowed the need to extend legal protections based on gender identity and expression.

“It is an advance in the recognition of rights as a group,” he said, while noting some trans women don’t identify much with the issue of nuptials for gays and lesbians. “For the trans organizations, it will be much more important that gender identity is recognized as an identify for the purposes of rights.”

In addition to efforts in support of same-sex marriage and trans rights, the advocates said they will continue to seek LGBT inclusion in the ongoing peace profess between the Colombian government and armed rebels. They also hope to have a greater presence in the country’s political system.

The U.S. Agency for International Development earlier this month announced a public-private partnership designed to promote LGBT rights around the world. The Victory Institute and the Astraea Foundation will conduct the initiative’s first training in Bogotá, the Colombian capital, from May 30-June 2.

Bogotá City Councilor Angelica Lozano; Blanca Durán, mayor of the Colombian capital’s Chapinero district and Tatiana Piñeros, a trans woman whom Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro appointed last year to run the city’s social welfare agency are among those expected to attend.

“For those of us who have come to the United States, we identified and built upon best practices to know and use in our daily work,” Prieto said.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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