Colombia’s LGBTI Community Claims Its Space in Country’s Search for Truth


During the armed conflict in Colombia, the voices of many communities and minorities have been silenced by violence. Some of the most marginalized of these are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual individuals (LGBTI), who have been the target of grave human rights abuses, perpetrated by all armed factions in the country’s 50 year-long conflict.

Homicide, sexual violence, and forced displacement are some of the violations that the LGBTI community has suffered – and continue to suffer– in Colombia, yet crimes based on gender identity and sexual orientation are not adequately investigated or analyzed in the country.

ICTJ, in alliance with organizations Corporación Caribe Afirmativo, Colombia Diversa and Santa María Fundación—and with the support of the Canadian Embassy—organized three meetings with activists and victims of the conflict to learn more about the needs of the LGBTI community, and to consider how transitional justice measures—especially non-judicial approaches—can contribute towards protecting their rights. These events were held in Cali, Riohacha and Bogotá during the months of March and April, and gathered testimonies of those affected by conflict in different regions.

The fundamental commonalities of LGBTI experiences helped participants recognize over-arching patterns of violations against them. By demonstrating that they are victims of widespread, targeted crimes, these advocates are working to make their demands for truth and justice a reality in post-conflict Colombia.

Targets of Systematic Violence

“It is clear that violence against the LGBTI population follows a pattern of structural discrimination and social exclusion, which is exacerbated by the armed conflict and the social control that armed groups are seeking to exert in the territories,” explained María Camila Moreno, director of ICTJ’s program in Colombia. “All armed actors are biased against LGBTI individuals.”

The testimonies gathered at the workshops suggest that while all armed actors involved in the conflict have engaged in systematic and structural violence against LGBTI people—namely the FARC, the paramilitaries and Colombia’s military—by in large the main perpetrators of these abuses are law enforcement bodies.    
"Significant sectors of society do not recognize LGBTI people’s rights, and some even tend to see the frequent violence against this community as even justified.”

This is especially true for transgender women, who have submitted the most reports citing police discrimination.

The armed conflict has also contributed to the normalization of violence against LGBTI people in Colombia, because significant sectors of society do not recognize LGBTI people’s rights, and some even tend to see the frequent violence against this community as even justified.

“A truth-seeking process, one that sheds light on the systematic nature of these violations based on gender identity, would help address intolerance and violence,” added Moreno. “Today, within the framework of the peace process, we have the opportunity to make this type of violence visible, and to have a process of truth-seeking and memorialization that empowers these communities, legitimizes their rights and allows them to reclaim their dignity.”

Mauricio Albarracín, Director of Colombia Diversa, highlighted that unlike the economic root causes of conflict, the cultural root causes have not yet been investigated. The marginalization of LGBTI people precedes the conflict, argued Albarracín. These meetings, he added, were an opportunity to consider “cultural root causes” that maintain, sustain, and perpetuate the conflict.

“It is worthwhile to take a chance on peace, to overcome the idea of a society of victims,” he said. “We are a country of political actors, and a country that needs everyone’s efforts in order to accomplish structural transformation.”

The Director of Caribe Afirmativo, Wilson Castañeda, observed that the meetings contributed to dialogue about possible peace initiatives originated in the sub-regions. He added: “It is important to design methodologies that allow us to think and build platforms for the recollection of memories. In this way, we will be able to identify conflicted-related harms and examine the impact.”

Observing Global Responses to LBGTI Violence

In Bogotá, the Director of ICTJ’s Gender Justice program Kelli Muddell talked with Colombian LGBTI activists and victims about how human rights violations based on sexual orientation have been addressed in other post-conflict countries.

The investigation of abuses suffered by LGBTI communities is still a pending task for transitional justice, Muddell stressed. One of the main problems is that these violations are considered part of “ordinary violence,” instead of being recognized as an intentional strategy implemented in the context of conflict.

Muddell underscored that crimes based on sexual orientation have been documented in different contexts of conflict or repression: from Germany during the Holocaust, South Africa during Apartheid, and Peru during its armed conflict. However, Muddell insisted that there is still much to be done to investigate and expose these criminal patterns.

The investigation of abuses suffered by LGBTI communities is still a pending task for transitional justice.
    “Political and institutional actors should be aware that ordinary violence and conflict-related violence cannot be separated,” said Muddell. “Conflict leads to the normalization of violence, and this violence has an impact on everyday life.”

In contrast to many women’s organizations, which have reached significant success regarding the acknowledgment of gender-based violations in several countries, this has not yet been the case for LGBTI communities.

Muddell stressed the importance of acknowledging these violations both in truth-seeking and institutional reform processes in order to achieve real impact.

“South Africa has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world in terms of LGBTI rights; however, this has not translated into the relevant institutions, which continue to act with impunity,” said Muddell.

“One of the main complaints made by South African victims is that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did not investigate the systematic nature of the violations committed under Apartheid. Consequently, everyday violence has not disappeared: instead, it has transformed into what is known as ordinary violence. An example of this is police abuse.”

In the Colombian case, Muddell highlights the fact that the organizations fighting for LGBTI rights continue to articulate their demands, and make the public aware of their experiences.

“It is important to include these LGBTI collectives in transitional justice processes from the beginning in order for their demands to be acknowledged. In this way, they can contribute to real social change,” she said.

PHOTO: Demonstration during the 9th March for Sexual Diversity in the Pacific Region, July 6, 2014, Colombia Manifestantes durante la Novena Marcha de la Diversidad Sexual y de Género Región Pacífico, el 6 de julio de 2014 en Colombia. (Natalio Pinto/Flickr)