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In Northern Colombia, LGBT Rights Meet Indigenous Prejudice

'Alternative' sexuality is despised in the traditionalist, native or Afro-Caribbean communities of northern Colombia. The choices for gays and lesbians tend to be harsh: face down your family and neighbors, or leave.

Pride day has never been more important in Colombia
Pride day has never been more important in Colombia
Joseph Casañas

CARTAGENA — Prejudice "is an everyday thing," says Tania Duarte, a gay community leader in Cartagena, the historic port and resort on Colombia's Caribbean coast.

Her gait is firm and determined, as she steps on the hot pavement in Barranquilla, a nearby city where we spoke. She takes short steps as if preparing to march in protest, and live. It is Gay Pride day here, and she ditched her fears a long while back. This transgender woman studied philosophy at the University of Cartagena.

She's no victim, and is clear on things. She understands that belonging to the LGBT (gay, lesbian and transsexual) community in Cartagena where she was born 25 years ago, is "all screwed up... though my family doesn't understand much about all this, when they see news and find out they discriminated against or killed someone from the community, they worry because they know perfectly well it could have been me." In 2017, 109 members of the LGBT community were murdered.

The first Meeting of Afro-Caribbean and Indigenous LGBT leaders from the regions of La Guajira, Cartagena and Tumaco, organized by the NGO Caribe Afirmativo, identified 10 "invisible barriers' to this community's advancement. The most prevalent were racism and low educational levels.

Tania adjusts her dress and fixes her turban to avoid hair curls dangling over her face. Paradoxically, she says, "the Palenqueros and Raizals are the most racist ethnic groups," referring to local Afro-Caribbean communities. "We treat each other really badly, but that too is because of a lack of effective education models and of rigor in recognizing ourselves ethnically."

For the way she speaks and her clarity of expression, Tania has gradually become a spokeswoman for the LGBT population in Cartagena, capital of the Bolívar department, and that has its risks. Colombia is seeing a significant rise in homicides, threats and forced displacements, among other rights violations, directed at defenders of LGBT rights. In 2017, 60 threats were registered against LGBT persons, while Caribe Afirmativo counted a unprecedented increase over 2016-2017 from six to 26, of threats against LGBT rights defenders and their organizations. "I am not breaking any paradigms with my leadership," Tania says. "There are many trans women who have taken their path and thanks to them, regardless of what they did, whether they were hairdressers or sex workers, it is now easier for me to go out the house."

Within the Afro-Caribbean context, the LGBT identity is made invisible as many in black communities think "this' came from the white man and thus, does not happen among black people or if it does, it is due to interaction with whites who have sought to export their "deviations' to other communities.

Things have gradually improved, though Tania has a practical guide today for anyone wanting to approach the gay community. "When you're going to meet someone, don't ask tired old questions like "do you like men or women, do you do upstairs or downstairs?". We're more than that, more than just the kinky stuff. We have a life and want to talk about it. About our favorite food, cinema, books. Make an effort, we're more than a sexual orientation," she says.

The belief that homosexuality is a kind of curse.

David Rodríguez is a gay man born in Uribia, called the indigenous capital of Colombia. Many of the Wayuu, the native people of the Guajira peninsula and kinsmen of Rodríguez, live in this district, and it was not easy for him to live out his sexual orientation. He says "for indigenous people the homosexual or LGBT person generally does not exist. He is considered an aberration."

The belief locally is that homosexuality is a kind of punishment or curse. A demon is thought to live in a gay man and "must be driven out," says one Wayuu leader from Riohacha.

To "exorcize it," a potion is prepared from a local nettle (pringamoza) as prescribed by a spiritualist or medium. "They peal it, heat it in water and the person is bathed in it or given it to drink," says the Wayuu leader. "This helps the hormones rise up until the vocal chords are once again those of a man," he says.

David fled before trying the potion, taking refuge in Barranquilla. There, in spite of adversity, he set about studying law. "I began to work and to become independent," he recalled. "I showed my family that being is gay is normal."

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