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16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence

LGBT Community the Forgotten Targets of Colombia’s Civil War

During the half century of armed conflict between the government and guerrilla fighters, many members of Colombia’s LGBT community were victims of violence and sexual assault. Now the government is dragging its feet on their demands for reparations.

Written by Sarah Hayley Barrett Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
As of July 2017, at least 2,243 of the Colombians who have registered with the government for assistance identify as LGBT, but activists say the real number is much higher and that not enough LGBT people know about their rights to reparations. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP/Getty Images

QUIBDO, Colombia  When Aura Hinestroza talks about her life, she divides it into two distinct chapters: Who she was before she was raped, and who she is now.

“The Aura who was happy, and the Aura who came after,” she says. “It stayed in my heart, in my soul and it marked me, it marked me too much.”

The incident happened in 2000, when Hinestroza was 34 and working as a journalist in Quibdó, the capital of the rural department of Chocó, Colombia. She got a lead about a group of rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in the area and her source said he could bring her to them. When she got there, the guerrilla fighters raped her and left her for dead.

“I couldn’t sleep because when I slept, I would enter into that scene again. Every time I close my eyes I’m there … I wake up screaming.”

A few years earlier, Hinestroza had come out as a lesbian. She believes this is why she was targeted. In the aftermath of the attack, Hinestroza fell into drug abuse. She lost her job and sank into a deep depression.

Targeted for Being Gay

Despite gains in rights and protections for the LGBT community over the past few decades, Colombia is still a place where LGBT people are doubly victimized, both for their sexuality and as targets in a half-century armed conflict that continues even after a peace deal was signed last year. While FARC has agreed to disarm, others groups such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and paramilitaries are fighting to fill the void and take over FARC’s territories and mining operations.

Throughout the conflict, LGBT people have struggled to get the help due to them and the justice they deserve. Out of the 8.5 million conflict survivors who have registered with the government for assistance and reparations, at least 2,243 identify as LGBT. But activists say the real number is much higher, and that Colombia’s history of institutional violence toward the LGBT community makes many too afraid to register.

In 2005, Colombia began the process of demobilizing armed fighters and giving ex-paramilitaries lesser sentences for handing in their weapons and confessing their crimes. In 12 years of prosecuting former paramilitary fighters – up to 10 percent of the 30,000 demobilized fighters have been through the justice system so far – the courts have only ever handed down one sentence for crimes against LGBT people.

Fighting to Move Forward

Hinestroza, now 51, was in her 20s and living with the father of her first child when she first began to question her sexuality. This enraged her boyfriend, and one night he raped her in anger. She left him and went to live with friends, already pregnant with her second child.

Located in the heart of illegal mining country and practically cut off from the rest of Colombia except by plane, Quibdo, the capital of the rural department of Choco, was one of the hardest hit regions of the 50-year conflict between the government and rebel groups. (LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)

Shunned by her family, Hinestroza turned to the LGBT community for help in getting her life back together. That was when she met Manolo Rosero and his friends, a group of drag queens credited with turning Quibdo into a refuge for LGBT people in a country that at the time – the 1980s and ’90s – was rife with homophobia.

The drag queens called themselves La Locomia Chocoana and performed at local bars and clubs during the ’90s, becoming so well-known that tourists came to Quibdo just to see them dance. Thanks to their presence and popularity, says Hinestroza, they normalized gay people. These days, people in Colombia’s LGBT community say “there’s no homophobia in Quibdo” – by which they mean, in Quibdo you’re not going to get shot in the street just for being gay.

Rosero and the other queens of La Locomia Chocoana supported Hinestroza as she discovered her sexuality, and soon she felt safe enough to come out as a lesbian. After the rape, they held her hand while she overcame the trauma. “Manolo was my father, my mother, my brother, my friend, my everything, everything, everything,” Hinestroza says.

Rosero died in 2011, but his friendship had given Hinestroza the strength to finally demand what she is owed. Three years ago, she and at least two dozen other people from Colombia’s LGBT community signed declarations of victimization with La Unidad de Víctimas, the governmental organization charged with helping those affected by the armed conflict. After registering, they applied for reparations from the FARC and other groups. But so far, Hinestroza has seen no money and received no help from the government.

La Unidad de Victimas says it is doing its part to help the LGBT community get monetary assistance, legal support and psychological care. Sandra Angel, who is part of the organization’s advisory team on gender issues, says the government created her team in 2012 to identify LGBT victims of the conflict and the crimes they suffered. The team has also trained government workers on how to talk to LGBT people who may be traumatized and hires psychologists to help with counseling for LGBT victims.

While Angel agrees that there is still institutional prejudice against LGBT people – “In Colombia, there are still many breaches of discrimination,” she says – she notes that LGBT people have many of the same rights as the rest of the population, including the right to marry and adopt.

“The court has made itself clear, especially when it comes to economic rights, constitutional rights … that LGBT people are subject to special constitutional protections.”

But Alejandro Lanz, cofounder and executive director at Temblores ONG, a non-governmental organization dedicated to social justice, human rights and queer issues, says the government needs to do much more. Before founding Temblores, Lanz was director of the NGO Parces and helped the organization conduct a survey in 2016 of transgender sex workers. It found many of them were victims of the armed conflict, suffering violence or sexual assault, and that 89 percent of the people surveyed were displaced, either by illegal armed groups or by the government.

“Not one of them had the information on how to get reparations,” Lanz says. “They didn’t even know that they had the legal and constitutional right to demand reparations from La Unidad de Victimas as victims of the armed conflict.” Others knew, but were too frightened of the authorities to register for reparations – 74 percent of the trans women surveyed reported having been physically assaulted by the police at least once in their lives.

The study recommends that the state improve police relations with the LGBT community, combat stigma, help trans women get the reparations they deserve and conduct workshops for the LGBT community to make them better aware of their rights.

But Hinestroza doesn’t think that will make much difference. She knows her rights and she says that hasn’t helped her.

“I’m still fighting to try to move forward,” she says. “I’m a victim of the armed conflict and … supposedly there are reparations and services for people like me, but until now I haven’t seen anything.”

The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Sarah Hayley Barrett’s reporting from Colombia as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

This is part of a series of articles to mark the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the 2016 survey of transgender sex workers was carried out by Parces, not Temblores.

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