An Indian woman carries her daughter during a peace march in Bogota, Colombia, Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara. All rights reserved.
By October 5, it was a truth publicly acknowledged that Colombia’s opposition had purposely distorted reality to sink the referendum on the peace treaty President Juan Manuel Santos had reached the leftist FARC guerrilla. Speaking to newspaper La Republica, former senator Juan Carlos Vélez admitted that the NO campaign he had managed deliberately avoided discussing the contents of the peace treaty, and forged a panoply of scaremongering narratives specifically tailored to foment indignation among distinct sectors of the electorate.
The strategy crafted a poisonous discourse which posited the implementation of the peace deal as a threat to the integrity of Colombia’s society. A crucial element of the propaganda was the myth that the peace deal would have implied the imposition of a “gender ideology” that could have shattered the traditional heterosexual family unit.
Earlier this August, several thousands Colombians took to the streets to protest against a handbook that Minister of Education Gina Parody was to issue to school teachers to help fighting discrimination against kids with non-heterosexual gender identities. Rumours had circulated that the booklet had an overly explicit sexual content, and social media began to share the images of a male couple enjoying some intimate moments which would have allegedly formed part of the publication. Of course, this was not the case. The pictures were taken from 2006 adult comic book In Bed with David & Jonathan, and Parody eventually clarified that the official guidebook the Ministry had commissioned only aimed at raising awareness on different sexual orientations inside schools, so to improve their acceptance amongst students and teachers.
Nonetheless, the mass outcry did not stop after Parody’s clarification. A number of catholic and evangelic groups kept warning against the threat that the question of gender would represent for the traditional Christian principles underpinning Colombia’s society, and a member of President Santos’ own party went as far as to claim the Education Minister, herself openly gay, was guilty of promoting a homosexual colonisation of the country’s schools. That thousands of Colombians genuinely thought a teaching handbook could be filled with pornographic images is – however baffling – besides the point. The indignation highlights the unresolved tensions of a fundamentally heteronormative society, in which the question of gender is still a taboo that is yet to find a proper place in public debate.
During the weeks leading up to the referendum, the NO campaign skilfully exploited the latent anger against Parody claiming that the peace treaty would have jeopardised the traditional family unit in the same way the Minister’s handbook did. This time, NO supporters pointed their fingers at the way the question of gender seemingly ran through the deal’s six points, and fabricated an apocalyptic narrative whereby the ratification of the treaty would have entailed the imposition of a “gender ideology” at odds with Colombia’s traditional value system.
To be sure, the issue of gender did feature throughout the points agreed by Santos’ government and the FARC guerrilla. But this was neither an ideology nor something that was going to be forced in a top-down fashion in order to dismantle the norms and conducts of the majority. Instead, gender had been carefully cashed out as a framework that sought to acknowledge the violence that women and members of the LGBTI community had suffered during five decades of armed conflict, and promote the conditions that would have ensured all victims, including those who had been targeted for their gender and sexual orientation, could enjoy a more humane existence. Colombia’s 52-year-old conflict did not quite simply claim an estimated 250,000 lives – it also produced certain modes of being which were necessary for it to last. The armed groups who took part in the past five decades of violence contributed to generate a model of manhood and womanhood which turned personal prestige, physical prowess and violence into three dangerously interconnected notions. Those who did not fit with the hegemonic subjectivities were either subject to conversion or social cleansing.
That the inclusion of a framework seeking to pay justice to the victims of systematic violence should be perceived as a threat by many is a sad testament of the embedded heteronormativity which has saturated Colombia’s public debate before and after the referendum. The question of gender was never an attack on the rights of the majority: it was and remains a question of human dignity.
The NO campaign purposely glossed over the above and decided to cash out the treaty’s mention of gender as a Trojan horse that would have initiated the collapse of Colombia’s society. It is difficult to understand just how much of the NO victory owed to the gender conspiracy the opposition had fabricated. But the way former president and staunch opponent of the peace deal Alvaro Uribe heralded the referendum’s defeat as evidence that families “had been respected” is telling.
Parody resigned on October 5. A few days later, President Santos reassured Colombians that the treaty with the FARC did not contain a gender “ideology”, and simply sought to acknowledge the multiple ways in which women have suffered during the conflict. Not only does the argument problematically reduce the question of gender to the plight of women alone: it also shows the difficulty of forging an all-encompassing discourse which does not posit gender as a threat, but a struggle for equal opportunities everyone should take part in.
The peace treaty with the FARC guerrilla was never quite simply a deal to put an end to an armed conflict. It was an opportunity for Colombians to open a new chapter of their country’s history, and embrace non-violent modes of being among others. Even if all illegal armed groups currently operating inside the country will be eventually disarmed, how exactly will Colombia disarm the deep-seated homophobia which the debate on gender has so shamelessly brought to light?
Leading up to the referendum, the NO campaign argued at great length that a vote against the peace treaty was not a vote in favour of war. This much is correct. The referendum was never meant to be a fight between friends and enemies of peace. A huge number of NO voters expressed some legitimate fears on the fairness of the treaty to the conflict’s victims which the government did not convincingly answer.
But it is one thing to respect the vote of those who rejected the peace treaty on the grounds that it might have granted excessive legal, economic or political benefits to former members of a terrorist organisation. It is quite another – and a much more difficult one – to respect the vote of those who rejected the peace deal fearing that the recognition of the rights of others would amount to a threat to their own.
A vote cast to purposely reject the gender framework of the peace treaty with the FARC is a vote premised on ignorance and fear. If Colombia is to achieve a long-lasting peace, the future demobilisation of guerrilla fighters should go hand in hand with efforts to promote tolerance and acceptance, irrespectively of gender and sexual orientations. Sadly, overcoming a heteronormative value system might take much longer than ending a war.