September 29, 2018 at 2:15 pm EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Colombia mother fights bullying after gay son dies by suicide

Alba Lucía Reyes Arenas in Bogotá, Colombia, on Sept. 24, 2018. Her son, Sergio Urrego, took his own life in 2014 after administrators of his high school bullied him because he was gay. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Alba Lucía Reyes Arenas beams with pride when she talks about her son, Sergio Urrego.

She told the Washington Blade on Sept. 24 during an interview in the Colombian capital of Bogotá that he liked opera from “an early age” and he read his first book, “The Neverending Story,” when he was around 6 years old. Reyes said her son was an atheist who enjoyed art and politics.

Urrego was also a member of an anarchist student group.

“There are many things that I can tell you,” said Reyes. “For all moms, our children are very special, but Sergio was interested in things that were beyond his age since he was very little.”

Urrego was 16 when he took his own life on Aug. 4, 2014.

Administrators and a psychologist at Urrego’s Roman Catholic high school in Bogotá targeted him after a teacher saw a picture of him kissing his boyfriend on his cell phone.

The parents of Urrego’s boyfriend accused him of sexually abusing their son. Urrego was to have begun attending another school the day after his suicide.

Son’s death ‘filled me with anguish’

Reyes was in the Colombian city of Cali when she first learned something was wrong with her son.

She flew back to Bogotá and arrived at her home at around 9:30 p.m. Reyes said through tears the first thing she found was a note with “very big letters” from her son.

Reyes said she initially thought he had left it for her mother, but it was for her. Reyes told the Blade her son wrote, “I wasn’t able to go to school because there was a problem.”

“When I saw this note, I said something happened,” she said.

Reyes said she then went to her son’s bedroom and found books on his bed and a note that asked her to give them to his best friends. Reyes also found other notes that her son had written before his suicide.

“It was something that filled me with anguish,” she said. “It was painful.”

Colombian law now bans anti-gay discrimination in schools

Urrego’s death sparked outrage among LGBTI rights activists in Colombia.

Reyes filed a legal complaint against Urrego’s school on Sept. 11, 2014.

A Bogotá court a few weeks later ruled Urrego had been the victim of discrimination, but she did not receive any damages and the ruling did not order Colombia’s Ministry of Education to review the school’s policies.

Reyes appealed the decision to the Council of State, which considers appeals from administrative courts. Then-Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez — an outspoken opponent of LGBTI rights who President Iván Duque named as Colombia’s new ambassador to the Organization of American States last month — ruled against Reyes on grounds that schools had the right to ban “kisses and hugs.”

The school’s administrator, Amanda Azucena Castillo, resigned on Oct. 10, 2014. Colombia’s Constitutional Court on Aug. 21, 2015, overturned the Council of State’s decision and ruled in favor of Reyes on Dec. 11, 2015.

Schools in Colombia cannot discriminate against their students based on their sexual orientation. An amendment to the nondiscrimination law that bares Urrego’s name also requires Colombian schools to update their policies to ensure they are not anti-LGBTI.

‘He is always with me’

Reyes since her son’s death has become a vocal anti-bullying activist.

She was among the 31 LGBTI activists from around the world who attended the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Global Innovative Advocacy Summit that took place in D.C. in April.

Reyes in May traveled to Cuba and participated in events commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia the country’s National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) organized. CENESEX Director Mariela Castro, who is the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro, invited Reyes to take part in a panel that took place at CENESEX’s Havana headquarters.

Reyes this year officially launched Fundación Sergio Urrego, which seeks to end discrimination in Colombian schools and prevent suicide among those who suffer discrimination.

She told the Blade that suicide is the second most common cause of death among “our young people.” Reyes also noted statistics that indicate 192 people between the ages of 15-24 in Bogotá have taken their lives so far this year.

“It is something that is not talked about here,” she said. “There is no institution that is providing immediate attention to children who are in crisis.”

The foundation has responded to roughly 70 cases. It also holds workshops for children and parents in businesses and in other locations throughout the country.

“My goal is to prevent cases like Sergio’s from happening,” said Reyes.

Reyes in July spoke at a concert in Bogotá’s Bolívar Square during the city’s Pride celebrations. The foundation’s social media campaign with the hashtag “I celebrate who I am” — which sought to provide resources and reassurance to those who suffer discrimination — ended on Sept. 25.

“This campaign gives me strength to continue, to keep going,” said Reyes. “This type of campaign will help. This type of campaign will get into people’s hearts.”

Alba Lucía Reyes Arenas participates in a Pride march in Bogotá, Colombia, on July 1, 2018. Her son, Sergio Urrego, took his own life in 2014 after administrators of the high school he attended targeted him after a teacher saw a picture of him kissing his boyfriend. (Photo courtesy of Fundación Sergio Urrego)

Reyes ended the interview by saying her son would be proud of her and the work she is doing in his name.

“He would have been my little angel,” she said. “He is always with me.”

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

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