Diversity Achieved

 

Date : 2010-03-09 01:47:00

 

On February 24, 2010, Colombia Diversa, Latin America’s first advocacy group for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered people, celebrated its six-year anniversary.  Over that short period of time, and under the unwavering leadership of Executive Director Marcela Sanchez, the organization has made some incredible strides toward securing the equal protections for GLBT people as those that are enjoyed by heterosexuals.   

 

Founded in part as a reaction to the defeat of a 2003 bill that would have provided such protections, Colombia Diversa’s primary focus was to create strategies that would enable the organization to achieve its objectives in a clear and effective manner.  The founding members also contributed their varied and impressive skill sets to ensure the organization would be strong and ready to face the many challenges that lay before it.  According to Colombia Diversa’s website, the organization’s mission is:

 

To promote the complete inclusion and respect for rights, recognition and mobilization of the LGBT community in the economic, social, political and cultural spheres, in order to help build a democratic, modern and fair Colombia.

 

With a professional background that concentrated on gender equality issues, sexual and reproductive health, and feminist and lesbian activism, it would appear that fate was grooming Marcela Sanchez to take the helm of Colombia Diversa, and navigate it through the uncharted waters of human rights, politics and law.  While there were many GLBT grassroots advocacy groups that came before Colombia Diversa, none were organized in such a deliberate manner.  Although gays were officially allowed to openly serve in the military as of 1995 (and currently the surviving partners of military personnel receive their deceased partner’s pensions), there was still much work to be done, and the community was not an organized political force.  This fact was highlighted by the small turnout at Colombia’s first GLBT equality march in 1996 (the annual event has since grown, attracting close to one million participants and enthusiastic spectators). 

 

In 2006 the first lawsuit brought by a same-sex couple suing the Colombian government for equal rights was heard.  Based on an argument that they were only seeking the same rights afforded to heterosexuals, they had to amplify the decision that recognized them as a legal couple.  Sanchez points out that all of the victories that have been achieved in Colombia have been through lawsuits (-a common approach in Colombian jurisprudence to promote new legislation), challenging the constitutionality of denying equal rights for same-sex couples.  Of course, such actions are not without their challengers, and the main opposition was levied by a coalition of Christian churches and governmental officials from different parties.  According to Sanchez, these were the same people that perpetrated most of the violence against GLBT people in the first place.  In perhaps a surprising twist, those who spoke out in support of equal rights measures included members of the Conservative party.  Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and the Constitutional Court and the media also gave the measure unequivocal support.         

 

The road to complete equal rights recognition was a circuitous one that started on February 7, 2007, when the Constitutional Court extended several property and inheritance rights to same-sex couples.  These rights were equivalent to some of the rights afforded to a heterosexual common law marriage.  In October 2007, social security and health insurance rights were extended to same-sex couples by the Court, adding important benefits and closing the gap between heterosexuals and homosexuals, making Colombia the first nation in Latin America to start providing legal protections to same sex couples.

 

President Uribe was poised to sign into law a measure approved by the Colombian Congress (by a vote of 62-43) on June 15, 2007 that would have provided completely equal rights to same-sex couples, however, a group of Conservative senators took an 11th hour vote that defeated the measure by 34 - 29.  This was a shock and surprise to all those who expected a routine vote on the final form of the bill, including the interantional medai present in Bogota.  The passage of the bill at that time would have made Colombia the first nation in Latin America to provide such rights to co-habitating GLBT couples.     

 

Not to be discouraged, advocates redoubled their efforts and worked tirelessly to bring a similar measure to a vote a year and a half later (sadly, with most interantional media absent).  On January 29, 2009, in a landmark decision, the Constitutional Court ruled that cohabitating same-sex couples should be given all of the rights afforded to unmarried heterosexual couples.  These rights, which are equal to those of married heterosxual couples, include nationality, residence permits, family-properties laws and more.  In a further development, same-sex couples were able to be covered on one health insurance “policy” as of January 2010.  Colombia Diversa also opened the first GLBT community center in Latin America.  It is this type of work that Colombia Diversa has concentrated on since its founding. 

 

Even though some “people are surprised that Colombia is the first to grant such rights…(thanks to the persistency of Colombia Diversa)” it should be no wonder that Colombia Diversa has won the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission’s Felipa de Souza Award, which “recognizes the courage and effectiveness of groups or leaders dedicated to improving the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (LGBTI) and other individuals stigmatized and abused because of their sexuality or HIV status.”  Sanchez will receive the award at two gala events; one in New York City on March 15, 2010 and again on March 18, 2010 in San Francisco.

  

Not one to rest easy when there is still so much work to be done, in addition to monitoring the progress already made, and making sure that the private and public sector implement the policies and law correctly, Sanchez is leading several campaigns, such as: 

 

  • The legalization of adoptions by GLBT couples

 

  • Combatting anti-GLBT bias and violence in schools (stating that the internationally acclaimed play Un beso de Dick / Dick’s Kiss, based on a novel by Colombian author Fernando Molano, depicting a healthy budding romantic relationship between two high school soccer players, should be part of the national curricula)

 

  • Assisting parents and teacher with accepting GLBT children

 

  • Combatting violence against lesbians, bisexual and transgendered women.

 

Many other initiatives are being planned and strategized by Colombia Diversa and its partner organizations such as PROFAMILIA and Arco Iris.  Sanchez hopes that the international GLBT advocacy groups will one day be a cohesive force for change, not only in their countries, but also around the world. 

 

With leaders like Marcela Sanchez, the world for GLBT individuals and families is sure to become a safer place.