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In Catholic Colombia, LGBT people find growing acceptance

The Rev. Iván Darío Gutiérrez, left, and Camilo Moreno at one of Bogota’s gay community centers. Photo courtesy of Chris Herlinger
Jaime Ricardo Cadavid, the coordinator of one of Bogota’s gay community centers, left, with Azahy Ali Triana de la Peña, a transgender woman. Photo courtesy of Chris Herlinger

Jaime Ricardo Cadavid, the coordinator of one of Bogota’s gay community centers, left, with Azahy Ali Triana de la Peña, a transgender woman. Photo courtesy of Chris Herlinger

BOGOTA, Colombia (RNS) When Azahy Ali Triana de la Peña began transitioning from man to woman in 2012, one of her fears was how, or even if, she would be accepted in the Roman Catholic Church.

The devout Catholic, who now works at an LGBT center in Bogotá, also worried about whether she would be a man or woman in the afterlife.

“I needed this benediction with my name and this body,” Triana de la Peña, 32, recalled. So she sought spiritual guidance from her priest.

“We are all equal in heaven,” he assured her. “There is no gender in heaven. It’s all souls.”

READ: Post-traumatic church syndrome? Yep, it’s a thing

Not long ago, the thought of a transgender person speaking openly to a Roman Catholic priest in Colombia would have seemed unthinkable. Now cultural shifts are making way for LGBT acceptance, at least in some urban areas.

“We are liberal,” said Marcela Sánchez, director of Colombia Diversa, the nation’s most prominent LGBT rights organization. “Please don’t say Colombia isn’t liberal!”

Recent polls estimate that two-thirds of Colombians oppose same-sex marriage, but that is less opposition than in many Latin American countries, including neighboring Ecuador. Support for same-sex marriage is highest in Bogotá, the nation’s capital, where, in a 2010 poll conducted by local newspaper El Tiempo, 63 percent of residents endorsed the right of same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies.

Marcela Sánchez, the director of Colombia Diversa, the nation’s most prominent gay rights/LGBT organization. Photo courtesy of Chris Herlinger

Marcela Sánchez, the director of Colombia Diversa, the nation’s most prominent gay rights/LGBT organization. Photo courtesy of Chris Herlinger

Gay rights advocates in Bogotá say that number would be even higher today in the city of about 8 million, known for its burgeoning gay culture and nightlife. But it’s not just Bogotá.

Support for LGBT rights is spreading across the country. Manizales, a medium-sized city in Colombia’s more conservative “coffee country,” recently hosted a gay pride parade with little controversy.

To Sánchez and other gay rights advocates, these changes are welcome. Many say they stem from young people knowing more “out” family members, friends, classmates and colleagues, and perhaps from Pope Francis’ more moderate tone on LGBT acceptance. An estimated 80 percent of Colombians are Catholic.

READ: Franklin Graham calls on Christians to blacklist LGBT-friendly companies

“Now people can’t say anything publicly against LGBT people without a reaction,” Sánchez said, citing strong criticism on social media when a conservative political figure recently made derogatory remarks about one of Colombia’s two lesbian government ministers.

Despite some change, activists say the struggle continues. A recent study by Bogotá’s municipal government found that 54 percent of LGBT residents say they have experienced discrimination. That number jumps to 73 percent among transgender people.

Jaime Ricardo Cadavid, the coordinator of a gay community center in Bogotá, said that the sight of two men kissing or holding hands in public is still more likely to upset public sentiments than the “normalized violence” often depicted in films.

“The love is forbidden here, but the violence isn’t,” he said of Colombia, which has been plagued by internal armed conflict for decades. “The LGBT movement has an opportunity to show our society that we can build a better society when we respect diversity.”

READ: LGBT Catholics can’t lobby or use local parish facilities during Pope Francis’ visit

Colombia has permitted civil unions for heterosexual and homosexual couples since 2007. Since 2013, some municipal judges have granted civil marriages to about 100 same-sex couples.

Colombia’s highest court is expected to rule on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right later this year. Advocates like Sánchez hope the court follows the U.S. Supreme Court in permitting marriage rights for all couples.

Though some leaders of the Catholic order Opus Dei have publicly opposed efforts to legalize same-sex marriage, Colombia’s Catholic hierarchy has been quieter on the matter. Opposition has been more vocal and robust among the nation’s evangelical Christian community.

The Evangelical Confederation of Colombia filed a brief before the Constitutional Court saying that homosexuality is a choice and that the court’s nine members should not “fall into judicial activism” by issuing a decision for the country’s 48 million people that does not honor the beliefs of “the moral majority of Colombians.”

Despite such opposition, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has voiced support for the legalization of same-sex marriage, which pleases Sen. Armando Beneditti, a prominent human rights activist in the country.

For Beneditti, the issue facing the court is not religious but rather what is fair and constitutional. “Starting from the principle that humans have rights, how can we think that in Colombia a sector of society cannot have the same legal rights as others?” Beneditti told Colombian journalist Juan Carlos Davila Valencia in a recent interview.

Benedetti said he has developed his stance on the issue by “listening to the testimonies of LGBT people as mistreated and discriminated against.” He said there was no reason why, in the 21st century, rights should be “violated and rejected, by a sort of modern inquisition.”

To those in Colombia’s progressive religious community, having allies like Santos and Beneditti is encouraging.

The Rev. Iván Darío Gutiérrez, left, and Camilo Moreno at one of Bogota’s gay community centers. Photo courtesy of Chris Herlinger

The Rev. Iván Darío Gutiérrez, left, and Camilo Moreno at one of Bogota’s gay community centers. Photo courtesy of Chris Herlinger

The Rev. Ivan Dario Gutierrez and Monsignor Haiver Esneider Perilla Caballero, both members of the Free Protestant Episcopal Church, an Anglican denomination that is not formally affiliated with the U.S. Episcopal Church, work with poor, homeless and displaced young gay people. They consider their work an integral part of supporting human rights for all.

“It is a vocation of service to everyone,” said the monsignor.

As Ali Triana de la Peña balances the challenges of being a transgender woman and a Roman Catholic in Colombia, Camilo Moreno balances being an openly gay man and beginning the process of converting to Islam.

Brought up Protestant and now working at one of Bogotá’s gay community centers, Moreno said he started the “deeply personal process” of converting to Islam three years ago.

He has faced hostility and puzzlement from all sides. Some Muslims reject him for his sexuality while some family members reject him for his newfound faith — and the stereotype that all Muslims are terrorists.

Muslims constitute less than 1 percent of Colombia’s population, and such fears have become increasingly common in recent years.

Moreno said he tries to correct stereotypes with earnest talk about Islam’s religious values and significance. He speaks from the heart, and says he must embrace all aspects of his life.

“The truth is, I’m gay,” he said. As someone drawn to Islam, he said he feels the special need “to say the truth in every moment.”

“God has a special form and reality, and he showed me the Muslim way,” Moreno said. “I feel like a Muslim. I have a Muslim soul. I didn’t feel that connection with God when I was a Protestant. I felt bad. Now I feel a connection with the heavens. It’s special, this connection.”



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Chris Herlinger


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  • The drug capital of the western hemisphere is loosening up its discrimination of gays. Seems like a step up, at least.

  • Yes, in 2Thessalonians 2:7, Paul speaks of the end times, making the following statement: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way.” One would assume that the restrainer, whether that be St. Michael the Archangel, or St. Rafael, has now been instructed by God to allow man to descend to his lowest primal self. Things are getting very very weird out there. And of course they bring in this Catholic priest, who just broad brushes Matthew 22:30 about gender in heaven, without taking into account that Jesus rose from the dead in his Glorified Body as a man. Marriage is one thing, gender is another.

  • It’s a shame that these third world countries are taking steps to legalize gay marriage because they want to be more like the West, not because its something their countrymen want. Moral progress ended some 50 years ago. Machiavelli would be so proud.

  • What’s a shame is that you assume everyone is as religiously benighted and as humanely backwards as you. Not everyone mistakes their mere social prejudices for the word of God, or takes their belief that it is the word of God as an excuse to despise the people they know and love. That takes a special kind of person to ignore reality in favor of their prejudices.

    The civilized world is changing, and changing rapidly. Not surprisingly, the most Antigay countries are the most theocratic, the most repressive, the most authoritarian, the poorest, and usually crap holes to live in.most of Africa, most of the Middle East, Russia, the less civilized part of Sothh America, though that is just coming around.

    Yup. The world is changing, and you don’t like it. So you call the churches that are changing fake Christians, you express admiration for dictators like Putin, you make up stuff about gay people.

    Too bad. you’re losing.

  • Actually, there have been instances where western countries, including the USA, have threatened to withhold their Foreign Aid to many third world countries unless they tow the line on things like gay marriage and the like, which is very bad to deliberately subvert a culture. But as for the fact that things are changing very quickly, well, that is a sign of the End Times. 2 Peter 3:3-7, 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4, 1Timothy 4:1, Joel 2:28-32 (apparitions abound in our day),

  • What I don’t like is that the world is changing in non-important, useless ways that address only minor ideological issues. The invention of gay marriage serves the needs of no one, and only degrades a social is not an historical accomplishment of value.
    Abortion has only brought on millions of arguments for what life is, should we use parts of the baby for experiments? That lion’s life in Africa is more mourned today. Again, abortion brought society nothing but evil.
    Ashley Madison sites are permitted to exist, when the basis for it is openly adultress. This is progress? This is important for man’s right to freedom?
    Too much time and money is wasted on moving backward, to redefine historical immorality as now a moral necessity. To what end?
    Chastising religion, the only traffic cop for good, is now a “danger” to civilization and is an accepted stance people are free to adopt.
    Humanity is wasting too much energy on regressive “advancement”.

  • Except that isn’t true.

    Aid is being withheld from countries which are going out if their way to attack gays. The blame for such discriminatory policies in those nations can be laid at the feet of American evangelicals who try to enact abroad what they are forbidden to do in the developed world.

    The anti gay movement in the US has foreign blood on its hands. This is not surprising as the same people actively encourage suicide and murder of gays here.

    But murder and oppression is perfectly moral if God says so, right?

  • Between narcotraffickers and FARC who has time to engage in such useless bigoted discrimination of a harmless segment of society?

  • Thanks for your first paragraph. It certainly proves my usual point.

    So my marriage serves no purpose at all? And the marriages of the many couples that I know that of adopted the cast off, unwanted products of heterosexual reproduction also serve no purpose.

    Got it.

  • Ben,

    The reality is the gay pride gains road into town on the godless train. As societies jettison God and Noble morality, gay behavior becomes more embraced.

    Of course.

  • Larry,

    Drugged and raped boys are not to be ignored. Gay behavior is anything but harmless to society.

  • If you don’t want boys drugged and raped, then get rid of the nearby Catholic churches. Those priests can’t get their grubby mitts off the young’ins.

    Of course one of the most common way for child molesters to go about their business is make scapegoats. This is why the Boy Scouts of America, despite a 20+ year ban on gays as both members and leaders was rife with sexual abuse.

    Studies show that sexual predators do not have gender preferences and merely go for targets of opportunity. Most prefer girls but lack the access to them. But don’t let facts get in the way of your defamation.

    But its nice to know who here are malicious lying bigots (and probably closet pedophiles).

  • What you have, no matter how upright, is not a marriage. Imitating marriage does not qualify as a marriage, just like plastic surgery does not change one’s gender. It is a superficial deception, a lie, now somehow being recognized as what it is pretending to be.
    Gays in partnerships should leave it at that. Their rights are equal to those married, so including it in the marriage definition is over-the-top pandering to a noisy minority.

  • But its nice to know who here are malicious lying bigots (and probably closet pedophiles). – Larry

    Yes, yes, they march under and fly proudly the rainbow flag. Some as Catholics and some as hidden “Boy Scout” leaders.

    But the same old ancient ev_l is the driving force.

  • BB, I am pretty certain you are a pedophile looking to shift suspicion elsewhere. Its usually the people who crow the loudest are the ones hiding the deepest secrets.

    How could there be so many child molesters in the Boy Scouts and Catholic Church when they go out of their way to remove people who are in consensual adult homosexual relations? Oh right, those people, have nothing to do with it.

    People shouldn’t talk about evil when they engage in petty defamation and outright lying like you do.

  • Larry just verified my remark with his Leftist retort. Again, the Leftists have only two positions on any subject, the Leftist position, and the position that everyone else is a hater, who disagrees with the Leftist position.

  • Calling me a “leftist” doesn’t make your statements factually correct nor is it a denial of bad behavior of people who you gladly support. ALl you are telling me is that you have nothing of value to say in response other than childish name calling.