Monday, July 30, 2007

Colombia is moving forward on gay rights

It's not so odd to find a gay pride parade in a major city these days. What is odd is to have a conservative politician getting praise from a transsexual in a Wonder Woman costume.

But in Colombia, where Catholicism still reigns and a conservative president is serving an unprecedented second term, gay men and lesbians are closer to getting national legal rights than in any other Latin American nation.

Earlier this year, the country's Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex couples should have the same rights to shared assets as heterosexual couples, a decision that even the Catholic Church supported.

And last month, pushed by a strange coalition of conservative and leftist congressmen, legislation giving gay unions the same social security, health and inheritance benefits as heterosexual couples passed the House and the Senate -- only to have a few opponents temporarily stall the bill when the two chambers tried to reconcile the language.

That legislation, which also has conservative President Alvaro Uribe's support, is expected to pass in the coming months, despite a tepid resistance by the Catholic Church.

''This is a conservative country, but it's not a moralist country,'' said Virgilio Barco, the son of a former Colombian president with the same name and who is also gay and a leading organizer for the group Diverse Colombia

Latin America has long experienced discrimination and violence against gay people. But a recent surge in gay-rights organizations has led to landmark legislation: Governments of Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil have passed laws allowing gay civil unions.

Colombia, however, is the first to inch toward making gay rights national law.

Like most activists, Barco points to the 1991 constitution as the starting point for this battle because it gives widespread recognition to the indigenous, Afro-Colombians and minority religious groups.

''This started everything,'' said Barco.


But the fight for gay rights started gaining momentum at the beginning of this millennium with the emergence of several groups like Diverse Colombia, founded in 2003. Working with lawyers from the prestigious University of the Andes, these groups took their battle to the courts and Congress.

They have found some strange allies along the way. Uribe is a staunch Catholic but supports the pending legislation on gay rights. One of his congressional allies, Armando Benedetti, also championed the law, as did leftist political parties and movements.

''It's something we can all support,'' Benedetti told The Miami Herald at the gay pride parade while several transsexuals waved to him. ``This isn't about class warfare. This is about equality.''

The legal push has been accompanied by a drive to make the gay world more visible. Bogotá's mayor, Luis Eduardo Garzón, set up a community center that specifically tends to psychological and legal problems, as well as hosts gay-rights-related events.

The annual gay pride parade has also grown. An estimated 10,000 marched this year down the main thoroughfare of Bogotá to the occasional applause of supporters. Politicians of all stripes joined them.

''We used to be tourists in our own country,'' said Leonardo Galeano, 35, as he walked with his male partner along the city's main thoroughfare. ``[But] there's been an awakening.''


Still, activists, marchers and pro-gay politicians admit there's a long way to go. Polls show that most Colombians approve of the legislation on gay rights but do not favor gay civil unions or adoption by same-sex couples.

Violence and discrimination also continue, said Marcela Sanchez, the head of Diverse Colombia.

And protestant churches, more than the Catholic Church, are mobilizing to defeat any future legislation.

''The laws seem to be going in one way, but the consciousness doesn't always go with it,'' Sanchez said.


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