March 10, 2017 at 4:38 pm EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Colombia city seeks to promote diversity, LGBT acceptance

Medellín City Hall (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

MEDELLIN, Colombia — The director of Medellín’s Office of Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights on Thursday said diversity is an integral part of the Colombian city’s public policy.

“Medellín is a city that has understood diversity,” Luis Bernardo Vélez told the Washington Blade during an interview at his office in Medellín City Hall.

Vélez, who was a member of the Medellín City Council from 2004-2015, noted the city is “conservative” with “very traditional” political parties.

Former President Álvaro Uribe, who was among those who spearheaded the opposition to the LGBT-inclusive peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that voters narrowly rejected last October, is from Medellín.

Luis Bernardo Vélez, gay news, Washington Blade

Medellín Secretary of Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights Luis Bernardo Vélez (Photo courtesy of Alejandra Gómez)

Vélez told the Blade he led efforts to add LGBT, intersex and diversity-related issues to the city’s public policy when he was a council member. He stressed Medellín has become more LGBT and intersex-friendly in recent years as a result.

The Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity, which the city opened in 2008, hosts cultural events and offers a variety of legal and psychological services to Medellín’s LGBT residents and their families. It also provides a space in which LGBT and intersex advocacy groups can meet.

“The site was born out of a recognition of the diversity in the city and participation of this community,” said Vélez.

The city has established “sexual diversity roundtables” — which provide a forum for LGBT and intersex people to discuss discrimination and other issues — in 15 of Medellín’s 21 neighborhoods.

En Plural, a project the Office of Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights coordinates with the University of Antioquia that seeks to promote acceptance of Medellín’s LGBT and intersex community, launched last September. It has received the equivalent of $167,320 from Vélez’s office.

A Pride parade takes place in Medellín year.

Policy objectives include fighting discrimination, changing stereotypes

Vélez told the Blade his office primarily focuses on three areas: Changing stereotypes of Medellín’s LGBT residents, providing employment and other opportunities to them and reducing discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors that include religion, sex, disability, economic background and whether people are victims of conflict or live on the street.

“This is expressed in labor issues, in education issues, in issues like violence, participation,” he said. “[The question is] how do we successfully address the issue of discrimination among the city’s residents?”

Vélez said the Office of Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights works closely with the city’s government and officials to “reduce the levels of violence towards the community” and homophobia and lesbophobia. He also told the Blade an official within the Metropolitan Police of the Aburrá Valley, in which Medellín is located, specializes in LGBT and intersex rights.

“It is a city that is very conservative,” said Vélez. “But we have a public policy. We have agreements. We have sexual diversity.”

Rates of anti-LGBT discrimination in Medellín ‘very high’

Colombian lawmakers in 2011 passed a bill that added sexual orientation to the country’s nondiscrimination law.

Angélica Lozano, who is bisexual, in 2014 became the first openly LGBT person elected to the Colombian Congress. She confirmed her plans to run for the country’s Senate on Tuesday during an exclusive interview with the Blade in the Colombian capital of Bogotá.

Transgender Colombians since June 2015 have been able to legally change their name and gender on identification cards and other government documents without surgery. Same-sex couples have been able to legally marry in the country since April 2016.

The U.N. Human Rights Council in 2014 approved a resolution against anti-LGBT violence and discrimination that Colombia, Chile, Uruguay and Brazil introduced.

Colombia is among the Latin American countries that sought to remove language from a resolution that sought to suspend Vitit Muntarbhorn, who is the U.N.’s first-ever LGBT watchdog. Efforts to remove him from the position late last year ultimately failed.

Veléz acknowledged rates of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity remain “very high” in Medellín in spite of these advances.

“What we want to advance is that I not only accept my neighbor, but I won’t discriminate against him and I will give him opportunities,” he said, referring to Medellín’s residents.

Vélez added trans people are particularly susceptible to violence and poverty that stems from a lack of education and employment opportunities.

“They are the community that is victimized twice, is violated twice, is without opportunities,” he told the Blade.

He told the Blade that many trans people in Medellín are either sex workers or hairdressers — putas and peluqueras in Spanish — because they cannot find other jobs. Veléz said providing additional employment and educational opportunities for the city’s LGBT community is the Office of Social Inclusion, Family and Human Rights’ biggest challenge.

“What we want to say is (you don’t have to be) either a prostitute or a hairdresser,” said Vélez, referring specifically to the city’s trans residents. “We want you to have another career option.”

Peace agreement ‘opportunity’ to promote social inclusion

Vélez told the Blade the second peace agreement between the government and the FARC that lawmakers ratified last November is “an opportunity to develop the issue of social inclusion in the” areas that were previously under guerrilla control.

Reconciliation is part of the agreement that the government has begun to implement.

Vélez said there is no such process in place in Medellín.

“People were expelled from (the FARC) territories for many reasons: They were LGBTI or were a guerrilla fighter or because they are a woman who works as a prostitute,” he told the Blade, noting drug addicts were also targeted. “There is no process of reconciliation.”

The government of Medellín, Colombia, operates the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity near the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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