Marcha LGBT in Bogotá 2013. Some rights reserved.
It all starts with a love story in times of change. Of the many prisoners in the Colombian prison La Picota, this story touches on the life of Laura, a transgender woman, from the Santa Fe neighborhood in Bogotá, a city area where transgender women find themselves confined in a context of poverty and street-related practices for survival. Structural violence and criminalization result in high levels of incarceration of transgender women from Santa Fe. In La Picota Laura met Jaime, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP). In prison, they came to love each other during the initial period of the peace talks in 2012.
In La Picota, the relationship between Laura and Jaime got the attention of other incarcerated FARC-EP members. Given that the vast majority of FARC-EP militants come from rural, religious and socially conservative backgrounds, they accused their comrade Jaime of being “a queer”. His love affair undermined their conception of hetero-normative revolutionary masculinity and they condemned him, labeled him a traitor and suggested that he should be expelled from the ranks of the FARC-EP. After receiving much abuse, Jaime requested the FARC-EP Secretariat’s intervention.
The political climate during the inception of the peace negotiations created a context of re-evaluation of the FARC-EP’s stance towards people of non-hegemonic genders and sexualities, and the FARC-EP’s presence in the gender sub-commission of the Peace Accords opened up a space of deep reflection. In addition, Jaime’s high intellectual capacity was particularly valued and his dismissal would have represented a heavy loss. Given the confluence of these factors, the FARC-EP did not expel Jaime, as his comrades insisted on doing, even as he entered into a civil union with Laura in La Picota. The FARC-EP Secretariat circulated a written communication requiring its incarcerated members to stop harassing their comrade Jaime.
Meanwhile, since 2012, the Trans Community Network (RCT) from the Santa Fe neighborhood maintained a regular presence in La Picota. Founded in 2012 by transgender women sex workers as a popular, street-based and trans-feminist organization, the RCT’s mission is to strengthen relationships between the transgender population in the streets, the academy, social organizations, community projects and state initiatives, advocating for and defending the lives of transgender people. As community educators in Santa Fe of transgender women who provide sexual services, RCT members share knowledge on political advocacy, human rights, sexual and reproductive health, security, and citizen participation. The RCT uses art and culture as its best tools for the promotion of activism and advocacy because they provide a high level of visibility and social impact.
Given the criminalization of transgender women’s survival practices in Santa Fe, much of the neighborhood’s population goes in and out of prison. This is why one of the main RCT projects - Bodies in Prison, Minds in Action - takes place in La Picota, where the organization assists incarcerated transgender women and gay and bisexual men defending their rights, given the constant violence and abuse from both inmates and guards.
Laura participated in the project since the very beginning. Most men in the prison that have sexual and affective relations with transgender women participating in this project do not themselves participate in it for fear of harassment and discrimination. Laura asked permission for Jaime to participate and he contributed with assistance on understanding prison dynamics, and on how to navigate through the infrastructures, procedures and protocols of the National Prison Institute (INPEC). The RCT worked with many other transgender women’s rights advocates to adapt prison protocol to the needs of LGBTI people, such as the right to use their chosen name, permission to wear clothes and have access to products and accessories expressing their gender, continuing hormone treatments, and providing specialized medical attention. In collaboration with inmates - including FARC members, prison employees, and a team of lawyers, psychologists, artists and others - they created a guidebook of rights for incarcerated transgender people.
These relationships led to an invitation to participate with the FARC-EP. While several initiatives from the State - including the peace accord gender sub-commission - and civil society have addressed the role of LGBTI populations in the building of peace, transgender people, including those participating in the RCT, felt themselves excluded from them to a large extent. RCT participants criticized mainstream LGBTI non-governmental organizations for holding high-level meetings and producing reports but little or no real action. In this context, the invitation to work with the FARC-EP, while completely unexpected and surrounded by a good deal of uncertainty, proved to be an interesting option well worth exploring. Instead of asking for a seat at the LGBTI table, they took this opportunity to break away from the political dead-end they were in and to work on significant issues for their cause in other spaces, and on setting up a political platform from which to contribute to the peace building efforts.
Before the peace agreement was signed in November 2017, a previous one had been submitted to a national referendum in October of the same year and had been voted down by a slim margin. Among the many civil society efforts to support the peace accord and to voice outrage at the outcome of the referendum, the Juridical Solidarity group, which offers legal advice to interns in prisons, invited the RCT to participate in the vigil for peace in the FARC pre-concentration zones in preparation for the final demobilization process, under the auspices of the United Nations. In this extremely delicate political moment, the FARC-EP created a meeting space with the RCT. RCT members explain that they were terrified at the prospect, but they went ahead and attended anyway. They define the reception they were given as an open one. The FARC-EP wanted to learn, and acknowledged its ignorance regarding questions of gender and sexuality. In contrast to the rejection they experience in most social spaces, the FARC-EP never treated them disrespectfully.
This exchange also represented the opening of a learning process on the FARC-EP’s historical perspective and the building of sustainable communities. In addition to more formal exchanges, sharing spaces of celebration - including dance, jokes and play - quickly broke down any existing barriers. Jaime also connected RCT members to the rural temporary normalization zone Antonio Nariño, which they have visited five times since February 2017 and where they have held workshops on cultural expression, art, folkloric and Arabic dance.
RCT director Daniela Maldonado Salamanca thinks that only five years ago, when the RCT was founded, she would never have imagined establishing such an alliance with the FARC-EP. But the two groups have in common several experiences which bring them together: the clandestine lifestyle and the heightened levels of incarceration - for sexual/gender reasons and for reasons of political dissidence; and also the fact that the FARC-EP members change their names in their construct of a revolutionary identity and transgender people change names in relation to their gender transition.
The excitement, high expectations and hope that the transition to peace promises crystallize around this unlikely alliance. Only time will tell if it holds through to the process of formalizing the FARC as a political party. Will this period be the origin of new insurgent feminisms from the margins which include trans-feminism and transforms political subjectivity and sexual citizenship in Colombia? Or will it end up as another example of pink-washing – that is, in the FARC-EP’s use of the transgender and feminist groups’ political agendas for legitimizing its transformation into a political party? Considering the fact that the evangelical and socially conservative political sectors represent a formidable enemy to both the FARC-EP and the RCT, the alliance may very well hold through, and beyond, this transitional period. In any case, while it carries some added vulnerability to the already highly precarious lives of transgender activists, it also enables the setting up of significant political platforms from which to demand recognition and advocate for transgender rights and a dignified existence in the construction of the “new” Colombia.