October 21, 2016 at 10:34 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Colombia ambassador downplays anti-LGBT opposition to peace deal

Juan Carlos Pinzón, Colombia, gay news, Washington Blade

Colombian Ambassador to the U.S. Juan Carlos Pinzón speaks at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Dupont Circle on Oct. 21, 2016. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Colombia’s ambassador to the U.S. on Friday downplayed the suggestion that opposition to LGBT rights factored into the narrow rejection of a peace deal between his government and a leftist guerrilla group.

Juan Carlos Pinzón said in response to the Washington Blade’s question during an event the Americas Society and the Council of the Americas held at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Dupont Circle that there “was a discussion” before the Oct. 2 referendum around a proposal to fight anti-discrimination in the country’s schools.

A Colombian newspaper on Aug. 8 published the draft of a handbook from the country’s Education Ministry that contained guidance on how teachers and school administrators can respond to LGBT-specific issues. One chapter was titled, “A school that guarantees rights: Updating coexistence manuals from non-hegemonic sexual orientations and gender identities.”

Colombia’s highest court in 2015 ruled schools must develop policies that combat discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Sergio Urrego, a 16-year-old student, took his own life at a shopping mall in the Colombian capital of Bogotá in 2014. His mother, Alba Reyes, alleged in a lawsuit that administrators of her son’s high school discriminated against him after his teacher saw a picture on his cell phone of him kissing his boyfriend.

Former President Álvaro Uribe, who led the opposition against the peace process, was among those who sharply criticized Education Minister Gina Parody, who is a lesbian, over the proposed handbook. Former Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez, who challenged efforts to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples in Colombia, also criticized her.

Tens of thousands of people across Colombia took part in marches against the proposed handbook on Aug. 10.

The protests took place two weeks before the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia finalized the details of the peace agreement that sought to end Latin America’s longest-running war.

The deal — which President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC Commander Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño signed in the Colombian city of Cartagena on Sept. 26 — specifically acknowledges the conflict’s LGBT victims. It also notes the “fundamental rights” of LGBT Colombians and other vulnerable groups and calls for their inclusion in the South American country’s political process.

Colombia Diversa and Caribe Afirmativo — two Colombian LGBT advocacy groups — took part in the peace talks that began in Havana in 2012.

Santos asked Parody to run the campaign in support of the peace deal ahead of this month’s referendum. The Colombian Education Ministry has not released the handbook.

“They said the peace deal’s focus on gender is a tool of the government to promote the LGBT agenda,” Caribe Afirmativo Director Wilson Castañeda told the Washington Blade on Friday from the city of Barranquilla, referring to the evangelical groups and others who campaigned against the proposed handbook.

Reports also emerged before Santos and Londoño finalized the deal that religious and conservative groups told the Colombian government they would support it if they abandoned efforts to extend adoption rights to gays and lesbians. Uribe in his statement on the referendum results referenced “the need to stimulate family values without putting them at risk.”

“We demonstrated the power that we have in the pro-family marches,” said an evangelical pastor in an op-ed the Colombian political blog Las2Orillas published on Wednesday. “We were able to remove Gina Parody from the Education Ministry and ensure the No campaign would win in the referendum.”

Voters rejected the peace deal by a 50.2-49.7 percent margin.

“The Colombian public is becoming aware through journalists’ investigative reporting and also the speeches of leaders of the opposition to the peace agreement of the extensive involvement of evangelical churches as well as conservative Catholics,” Hunter T. Carter of the New York City Bar Association, who lives part-time in the city of Medellín with his Colombian husband, told the Blade on Friday. “They are using every opportunity to scare the public with false claims that families are under attack by LGBT people.”

Javier Corrales, a professor at Amherst College who is an expert on Latin American issues, told the Blade that many Colombians who voted against the peace agreement “were not even aware of the homophobic campaign” against it.

He said that Uribe used the “homophobia card” when he spoke to evangelicals before the referendum. Corrales the former Colombian president told other groups that that the deal would allow FARC members who admitted their crimes during the conflict to not serve any prison times.

“Uribe was very smart,” Corrales told the Blade. “He had different messages for different constituencies.”

“We should not underestimate the impact that religious groups will continue to have in Colombia,” he added.

LGBT rights ‘very advanced’ in Colombia

Pinzón pointed out to the Blade that rulings from Colombia’s highest court on LGBT-specific issues “are very advanced” compared to other Latin American countries.

Gays and lesbians began to legally marry in Colombia in May after the court said they have a constitutional right to do so.

It ruled last November that same-sex couples can legally adopt children. The court in 2014 said gays and lesbians can legally adopt the children of their same-sex partner.

The Colombian government announced in June 2015 that transgender people can legally change their name and gender on identification cards and other documents without surgery. Colombia has also championed LGBT rights at the U.N., which includes co-sponsoring a resolution this summer that created the organization’s first-ever LGBT watchdog.

Anti-LGBT discrimination and violence remain commonplace in Colombia in spite of these advances.

“It’s (important) not to overestimate or to underestimate the situation,” said Pinzón, responding to the Blade’s question about whether opposition to LGBT rights factored into the referendum results. “It needs to be seen from a broader perspective.”

The cease-fire between the Colombian government and the FARC remains in place despite the referendum results.

The Washington Post reported formal peace talks between Colombia and the National Liberation Army, another rebel group, are scheduled to begin in Ecuador on Oct. 27. Castañeda, who will take part in the negotiations, told the Blade that Santos has assured Caribe Afirmativo and other advocacy groups they will be part of any deal.

“The LGBT movement is not fighting against the churches,” said Castañeda.

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

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