Sunday, December 11, 2005

Colombia: An ex-President's son talks about being gay and Colombia Diversa

Today, one of the most important Colombian news- papers, El Tiempo (the only Latin American newspaper that has editorialized in support of marriage for same-sex couples), features an in-depth interview with Virgilio Barco Isakson, son of former Colombian president Virgilio Barco, on his decision to come out publicly and his involvement with Colombia Diversa, a new national Colombian LGBT rights advocacy organization.

The interviewer, Yamid Amat, a renowned Colombian journalist, calls Isakson as a 'hero' and I agree, even though I have met Virgilio personally and have not told him so directly.

In any case, here is my translation of excerpts from the Isakson interview in today's El Tiempo:

Yamid Amat: For you, has it been difficult to make de decision to recognize that you are gay?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: For me and for any gay person. From a very early age society told me: "Virgilio Barco, son of Virgilio Barco Vargas, you have to get married and raise a family." It's a pattern of behavior and to break away from it is very difficult for anyone, and even more if it is publicly. I was lucky that my family, when I told them I was gay, accepted it and supported me.

Yamid Amat: How did you get the courage to talk about it?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: I am a very reserved and shy person. It's not in me to expose myself to public opinion, but I felt it was important not only for LGBT persons in Colombia, but for the whole country in general, for the modern and liberal conception of society, to have someone who spoke freely of the topic and busted up imaginary [societal] constructs...

Yamid Amat: Why was Colombia Diversa created?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: Colombian society will not change from one day to the other; [Change] requires a serious, technical, judicious and long term process and this cannot be done by one person alone.

Yamid Amat: In search of what?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: Basically, three objectives: One, to fight for the recognition of some basic rights for the gay community. Two, to begin - and I say 'begin' because it is something that will take many years - to transform the imaginary construct that society has of gay and lesbian persons in order to defeat the prejudices that exist. And, finally, the third objective is to make this community politically visible.

We think it is very important that the political class, the people who make decisions, understand that there is a large gay community who is unjustly mistreated.

Yamid Amat: What are the basic rights to which you aspire?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: Not to be discriminated: These people have been condemned to rejection by society, to the lack of recognition of their rights and to the violation [of these same rights], without access to defend themselves. The Constitutional Court has said that this is illegal but, to make this ruling worth anything, you have to [go through the court system]. We think it is important that there be a law that in an affirmative way would establish no discrimination against persons due to their sexual orientation.

In Colombia, just because a person is gay, they will not be hired or will be fired from work, they will not rent an apartment, discrimination reaches [levels of] intimidation and physical violence.

Yamid Amat: Isn't there a law that can protect you?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: No. There are rulings by the Constitutional Court in our favor, but there is no specific law that protects us. Our goal is that all gays and lesbians can enjoy the same rights that the rest of Colombians enjoy; this will make of Colombia a more pluralist society, more open, more just.

The Constitution enshrines principles such as the right to equality and the freedom to develop as a person. We need a law that institutionalizes this.

Yamid Amat: Why are you asking for increased visibility for gay people?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: Gays and lesbians are poorly organized as a group and, due to this lack of visibility; they are not taken into account in the decisions made by Congress, the Executive Office and the local governments. Yet [the community] holds a few votes.

Yamid Amat: What other basic rights are you demanding?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: There are two rights in particular that we think are very important: The possibility to build a joint patrimony - If two people live together for a few years and buy, for example, an apartment, when one dies his family [should not be able to] take away everything that they built together [from his partner]. Another right is the possibility to affiliate one's partner to social security.

Yamid Amat: Why do gay people hide their condition?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: For the fear of being rejected, to lose their jobs, to be denied credit, to be assaulted in the streets. Our project seeks to build a society where gay and lesbian people do not have to hide.

Yamid Amat: How many are there in the country?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: There are no statistics or surveys, but it is estimated that 6 to 8 percent of the population worldwide is gay. If Colombia has 44 million, we would be approximately 3 million people.

Yamid Amat: Do you see [the legalization of] gay marriage being difficult in Colombia?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: Marriage is one way to live as a couple. There are other options. We are conscious that the topic of gay marriage causes controversy and that it would confront many difficulties at the moment, but the right to [joint] patrimony and the right to social security are issues that affect us on a day to day basis and are very valuable for couples.

Yamid Amat: How long have you been with your partner?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: Eight years.

Yamid Amat: Is there discrimination in education?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: A simple inquiry about [sexual orientation] as a requirement to access or remain in an educational establishment is a violation of every right.

The United Nations has said "education must be accessible to everyone, especially the most vulnerable groups, without discrimination for any of the discriminated groups."

Human Rights Watch points out that the rights of children are violated when they are mistreated at school due to their sexual orientation.

Yamid Amat: What can you do to help those who, after [reading] this interview, want to join you?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: A concrete way of joining Colombia Diversa. We need understanding and support. There is information available in our webpage or you can send an e-mail message to

Our project is not only for gays and lesbians; we work for an increasingly just, an increasingly Democratic, and an increasingly open and pluralist Colombia, free of discrimination, of all type of discrimination and injustice.

Yamid Amat: How is Colombia Diversa supported financially?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: We exist thanks to the generosity of many people, from donations, we organize fundraising events. Ten extremely important artists just donated some of their artwork to build a portfolio of incredibly beautiful engravings as a way to raise funds. We have also received donations from some human rights organizations, but the most important thing is the time and talent that many people are offering on a volunteer base to the organization.

Yamid Amat: Is there a cost to become a member?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: No. There are many ways of contributing [to Colombia Diversa]. You can offer time, knowledge and support; but, obviously, we need to survive and for this reason any contribution is welcome.

We are extremely careful about [being open] about our fiscal accounting; we publish financial reports, expenditures and investments. We have to be very transparent. We are a small organization, we have only existed for a short time and we do need resources.

Additionally, donations ate an expression of solidarity. Each person can contribute to build an integral Colombia, teaching his or her children not to discriminate.

Yamid Amat: What should a father or a mother do when they find out their son or daughter is gay?

Virgilo Barco Isakson: The most important thing is to acknowledge, understand and accept [their child], rejection only leads to more sadness, more difficulties, more frustrations. People are born gay; it is something they cannot change and, as a result, for a head of household to try to force his child to be like him causes a lot of suffering.

This interview is the vest opportunity to show that we are just as normal as everyone else, that we have dreams as the rest of all Colombians, that we fall in love as does everyone, but that we suffer more than the rest.

Yamid Amat: Many people might want to contribute economically.

Virgilo Barco Isakson: We keep the confidentiality of our contributors.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I went to college with him. Had no idea. Interesting info, and I'm glad to see he's doing good work these days.