Beyond the common associations of drugs and civil war, Colombia’s gay and lesbian population enjoys nationwide legal protection and lawmakers generally committed to upholding human rights.

Medellin-raised Pablo (name substituted), 27, believes that Colombia’s gay and lesbian people are hesitant to embrace their sexuality, not because of any physical harm or persecution, but because of their own anxieties regarding how society will perceive them.

It is really hard growing up gay in Colombia. You live in fear of what people will think of you, said Pablo.

Pablo explains that the perception of homosexuality is based on stereotypes that have been perpetuated by the media.

Most Colombians believe that gays are promiscuous, queeny, he said. On soap operas the gay character is always the queeny type because it’s funny.

Many gay Colombians choose to live two distinct lives. They live closeted at work for fear of being associated with an essentially false stereotype, and live a gay life at night when they go out to bars.

Pablo also cites the church and the macho culture as affecting attitudes towards homosexuality.

Colombia is really religious and gay is seen to be dark, strange, he said. Also, under the macho culture, women are worshipped.

To fit into Colombian culture, you have to be macho, Pablo said, clenching his fists in the air.

Despite these cultural perceptions and an unspoken conformity within Colombian society, attitudes are shifting.

I think it’s changing, especially in the big cities. People are becoming more open-minded, he said. Colombia is becoming secular, little by little. The church is losing its power.

Society’s views seem to be in direct contradiction to the legislation. Pablo believes that, while Colombia’s lawmakers must be careful not to alienate the church for fear of a political backlash, they are conscious of upholding human rights.

Colombia is leading the way in South America by enacting nationwide same-sex partner benefits. Thanks to a series of Constitutional Court rulings in 2007, gay Colombians enjoy equal rights to health insurance, inheritance, common-law marriage, property and pension rights.

When parliament was debating these bills, activist Virgilio Barco said, This makes Colombia a more democratic, more open place.

Colombians are not afraid to challenge the authorities when they believe their human rights have been violated. Most recently there have been two cases where women prisoners sought visitation rights for their partners.

In 1999 Marta Alvarez took her case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) after she was consistently denied the right to see her partner. In this landmark case based on sexuality, the IACHR ruled in favour of Alvarez. It wasn’t until 2002 that a local judge granted Alvarez’s partner visitation rights.

Pablo sympathizes with Alvarez’s plight. She didn’t have anywhere else to go. At that point she was helpless, he said.

Similarly, Alba Nelly Montoya, another female inmate, successfully took her case to the Supreme Court in 2001 when the authorities denied her the right to a conjugal visit.

Pablo has been living in Potts Point for a year and is currently studying at UTS.

I didn’t especially choose Sydney because of the gay life. I knew it was kind of big. Sydney’s one of the biggest in the world, he said.

In Sydney I’m more out. It’s kind of cool to be gay here.

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