This morning Juan got ready to meet some of the members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans-gender (LGBT) community in Bogotá, Colombia's capital city.
The gathering had one main purpose: to demonstrate in support of same-sex marriage. Juan is a 23 year-old Colombian pilot, who has experienced first-hand discrimination because he is attracted to other men. He is not the only one. Matti is a 26 year-old Canadian man, who has also experienced how difficult it is to accept himself as a homosexual man. Matti and Juan do not know each other. Yet, both of them have been fighting for years against their own beliefs, their family values, and the principles of a society that looks at them as “second class citizens”. A term used by the Colombia Diversa Organization, (Diverse Colombia), because they argue that the LGBT community in Colombia does not enjoy the same rights that heterosexuals do, under the constitution.
It is precisely today that the Senate of the country is debating to approve or disapprove a same-sex marriage proposal that, if accepted will give homosexuals “the right to protection and to the legal heritage that brings the state of marriage”, explained the Colombian lawyer, Camilo Ortega. In other words, same-sex couples would immediately have the right to affiliate their partner to their social security system and health coverage. They would also be allowed to inherit pension transfers and capital gains --half of everything acquired during the marriage.
According to Ortega, the root of the problem is written in the article 42 of the Colombian constitution which states, "The family is the fundamental unit of society. It is constituted by natural or legal ties, by the free decision of a man and a woman to marry ". This provision, explained Ortega did not allow same-sex couples to marry or even establish de facto marital union. This means that a same-sex couple was not even allowed to enjoy the right to cohabit, otherwise possible between a man and a woman.
This scene changed in 2007, when “the Constitutional Court intervened to mediate the situation given the claims and demands by the Colombian LGBT community calling for the recognition and protection of their unions in the Colombian legal system” said Ortega. “The court recognized the property rights of civil unions for gay couples formed, considering that the exclusion of these couples went against the regime of equity enshrined in Law 54 of 1990.
Today, the LGBT claims that there is still unequal treatment and discrimination. Ortega explained, you have to spend two years of permanent cohabitation to enjoy the right of community property. In marriage, you just need to sign a contract during a civil or religious marriage to acquire the community properties rights. A fact that Ortega says, “is obviously different”.
Marcela Sánchez is one of the founders of the Colombia Diversa Organization (Diverse Colombia). For her, the same-sex marriage proposal is simply asking for the recognition of a fundamental right, the right to equality. “ To my brother, who is straight, it does not seem fair that his lesbian sister does not have the same rights as him, even though we belong to the same family” Sánchez said.” As a person and as a Colombian, I do not want the law to give someone fewer rights than me.”
And even though the fight is taking place today, Juan knows there is still so much more to do. Juan grew up in an evangelic family in the city of Bogotá. He never told his family he was gay. They found out through Facebook, and “it has not been easy”, he said. “My parents are extremely religious, and I knew, I had no opportunity to tell them and gain their support. I was afraid of being rejected, being thrown away from my house, maybe they didn't want to know anything about me anymore”, Juan said.
He also said he received support from his closest friends. “If people ask me I am not afraid of telling them the truth, but I don't go around telling them I am gay,” Juan explained. “Being a pilot is extremely masculine in Colombia so I prefer not to say I'm gay”. Juan does not know what could happen with his profession if it was known, but he is not ready to find out yet.
Matti decided to accept himself when he was 23 years old. He grew up in a Christian family and when he first decided to tell his youth leader he was gay, he told him God loved him. Matti said, they told him, “all I had to do was grow close with God and follow His leading and I would be fine”. Yet, with the years church leaders called him and told him, he was not on the right path of God. “They felt I was living a deceptive life” Matti said. “ To be told I was being deceptive and sinful destroyed me. I left, had a major panic attack, avoided everyone I associated with for two days” he said. Finally, he understood he had not other choice but to accept and love who he was.
Today, he is the executive treasurer of the local universities Pride Society in Canada.
Matti and his family still have a long way to go. Matti told his mother he was gay, when he was 18 years old. When Matti was 22 years old he told his mom “there's nothing wrong with being gay, and that I believed I was born this way, she was angry, and felt ashamed”. Now, four years later, he says they are doing a lot better. They still have many issues to heal, but Matti well knows that he is on the right path. “ It can be very scary, entering the unknown and being unsure how you feel or what you believe. But you will continue feeling the lack of joy and happiness until you accept yourself” Matti said. “you spend most of your time with yourself anyway, if you don't love yourself, what a miserable time you'll have”.
Colombia´s fight proves that the country is ready to take a step towards a better society. “"This proposal may change the country's international image. It can demonstrate a mental and societal progress. So far the process has caused controversy, but this is a country with 46 million inhabitants, of which 10 percent of the population is estimated to be homosexual”, Juan explained. You cannot keep denying this community he said.
Juan had the opportunity to live in France and he explained that the government of that country supported the LGBT community, although the people seemed less interested in supporting them. “In Colombia I feel the opposite, people support us, but the government doesn't he said.
Sánchez explained that the Colombian government is proposing a third juridical form called the solemn union. “It would be a civil union for gays. The only difference between this and the marriage form would be the name”, she explained. “This is discriminatory and legally tricky because, this form will include the same procedures and rights than a marriage has” So why do they need to have a special name for homosexuals, she asked. “Its creation is not justified”, Sanchez said.
The discussion and debate regarding the issue of same-sex marriage is more a semantic issue, Ortega explained. “The debate must not ignore the importance and tradition of the institution of marriage and its religious roots but at the same time, we must not leave out the LGBT community that requires equal legal protection”.