BARRANQUILLAIn this carnival city on the Carribbean coast, police are clearing the way for Diana Ardila Kopp, a tattooed, 34-year-old transgender woman, and this year's Gay Carnival Queen. On February 3, she led the Guacherna gay (gay parade), one of events preceding Barranquilla's world-renowned carnival.

Gay festivities used to be secret here. Police officers would chase dolled up "artists" down the street for offending public morals, but now they were busy assuring their safety. The queen kicks off the parade in the district of Curramba, dancing in 10-centimeter heels to the rhythm of drums, followed by a train of festive characters like the micos (with monkey masks), the "Venetians," harlequin-like monocucos or negritas puloy (Afro-Caribbean dolls).

A co-founder of the Gay Carnival, Jairo Polo Altamar, recalls that in 1984 when the first edition took place, someone set off a blackout to intimidate them. After "so many years, the people of Barranquilla understood we are equal to them, and what we do is artistic," says Polo, father of three, grandfather of two and husband of Fabián Gómez.

Crowd at the Barranquilla carnival — Photo: Carnaval de Barranquilla Facebook page

The first challenge for the group of friends that built the Gay Carnival was to convince members of the LGBT community to find the courage to come onto the streets and show themselves as they are. Previously the festival had been held discreetly in one of Barranquilla's nightclubs. Initially just 20 heeded the call, facing down ridicule and harassment from police who told them, with the departmental booklet on public conduct in hand, that their provocative behavior threatened security. It is another story today, with some 2,000 parading and the law on their side.

I am happily improper.

On November 29, the city council declared the Guacherna gay parade and six other activities of the Gay Carnival, part of the city's Cultural Heritage. Caribe Afirmativo, a cultural and gay rights association, said the designation was an explicit defense of LGBT rights.

For Carnival Queen Diana Ardila, the parade lets many, especially transsexuals: "take to the streets trying to shout at society that they existed and were not moving."

Ardila has tattoos, plays professional basketball, believes in Cuban Santería and speaks in explicit political terms. She is far from the clichés of a beauty queen. "I accepted this regal position because I want to promote the rights of the LGBT population," she says. "My life doesn't focus on making others happy or reproducing patriarchal conducts. No. I am happily improper because I am looking for my own happiness."

Diana Ardila Kopp — Photo: Facebook page

Initially she wanted to study psychology and became a hairdresser to pay for it, then a civil servant at the Bogotá municipal planning office under the socialist mayor Gustavo Petro. That was the most positive and useful of her work experiences and she spent time working with different sectors of the city's population. It took her colleagues six months to understand they had equal rights, that she was there because of personal competence not quotas, that they could acknowledge her when sharing the elevator — and that she was free to use the ladies' room.

She is sorry discrimination has obstructed transgender women's access to education. "Many of us have to become sex workers," says Ardila. "It is a way of speeding up the transition process and paying the surgeries. We cannot demonize this because each person is free to choose how he or she earns money, but they cannot restrict us. We want opportunities, to train academically and improve our quality of life, and the government must provide us with the means as it would to any Colombian."

One of the parade troupes is the Caimanas, who decided to celebrate a transgender reading of the traditional Ciénaga caiman (said to have swallowed a local girl). In their version, the little girl Tomasita dances with a transsexual caiman dressed in a skirt. Their rhythmic progression continued for a full hour toward Siete Bocas, a city square. It was there that Diana Ardila was crowned queen, and vowed to keep bringing politics to the party.

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