In Bogota, An LGBT Refuge For The Most Vulnerable

For those in the gay, lesbian and transgender community rejected by their own loved ones, a shelter in the Colombian capital offers comfort, but also practical support to build a new life.

Daniela at Bogota's LGBT shelter
Daniela at Bogota's LGBT shelter
Santiago Valenzuela

BOGOTA — Daniela, a transgender woman, has an "endemic fear" of all people.

She says she was beaten, attacked, even "starved," by both her brother and mother. At the age of 16, she ran away and began living on the street, which did little to improve her life.

"Rejection kept coming back. There was no getting away from it," says *Daniela, now 19. "Nobody accepted my decision to become a woman. My family excluded me and doesn't know where I am now."

There is an echo in the room as she speaks. She is at home now, in the city's first shelter for the gay community. "I was the first transsexual woman to arrive here," she says of the December day when she arrived crying, a wreck. "It was like a life boat."

On Nov. 27, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Bogotá city government's rights office opened this shelter for the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community. Two months later it had five residents.

The residents today are Daniela and Johnattan, both away from their hometowns and isolated from their aggressors. The idea, says shelter coordinator Sandra Montealegre, is "that they re-establish bonds and their rights are restored in the four to six months they are here. When they arrived, we established a life plan, helped them psychologically, with health, teaching and legal counseling." While it is by no means a jail, she says, "there are times for coming and going that must be respected. They can go out to work or study, though."

Johnattan arrives after 10 p.m. Employees found a job for him in less than a month. "They threw me out of the house," he says of his family, and "humiliated me in other places for being the way I am. Because I like men." After suffering discrimination at home and school, he decided to leave his hometown. "My mom abandoned me when I was seven," he says, now 23.

Montealegre says there are currently only two people in the house, because "society is not conscious of the pain" many LGBT people feel, often in contrast with the problem of battered women. "If a woman goes to the family police, they send her to a shelter, no problem. With LGBT people, the violence is somehow natural and unspoken."

Daniela says her transition to becoming a woman was difficult. "Though I wasn't discriminated against by people at school," staff and family were very hostile. "They bullied me all the time. Initially I thought I was gay, but ... I realized I wanted to be a transgender girl." She looks down at her painted fingernails. "I thought about killing myself, because I didn't know that what I wanted would have such a high cost: being abandoned, beaten, wounded and hungry."

People working at the shelter have discovered that the violence affecting victims causes them to lose their "affective networks," and so they often have no family or friends to count on, says Angélica Badillo, a social worker at the shelter. The psychological problem "comes from home," says Johnattan, "because my parents humilitated me. When my family began to beat me, I couldn't imagine greater opportunities."

International inspiration

Three women brought the shelter to life: Sandra Montealegre, Angélica Badillo and psychologist Laura Sofía Céspedes. They envisioned it to be like projects they found in three other cities, namely shelters in Washington D.C., New York and Nepal.

Casa Ruby in Washington D.C. provides lodging for the LGBT community, but also job possibilities, counseling and HIV testing. In September 2013, the Himalaya Rose House center was opened in Nepal, the first LGBT shelter in South Asia.

The Ali Forney Center in New York was founded in 2003, six years after the shooting death of Ali Forney, a 22-year-old homeless gay man. His mother abandoned him at the age of 13 when he told her was gay. This shelter, conceptually similar to the new Bogota shelter, now receives 100 people a day.

"At least today I think I can aspire to something greater than prostitution," Daniela says.

*The names of shelter residents were changed to protect their identities.

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