A Conversation with María Susana Peralta Ramón from Colombia Diversa
In a conversation with Colombia Diversa's Peace and Transitional Justice Coordinator, María Susana Peralta Ramón, this article explores the question: Why should transitional justice account for queer experiences?
Please note that this interview has been edited for conciseness and clarity. Additionally, the acronym “LGBTQ” has been used in place of variations for consistency. While Outright typically uses the term “LGBTIQ” in our work to be inclusive of intersex people, transitional justice in Colombia has not, to date, included an in-depth discussion of violence against intersex people.
Transitional Justice, as defined by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights), aims to provide recognition to victims, enhance the trust of individuals in State institutions, reinforce respect for human rights and promote the rule of law, as a step towards reconciliation and the prevention of new violations.
Hannah Kohn, Outright International: The transitional justice process in Colombia is widely seen as the most LGBTQ and gender-inclusive peace process to date. But we know that didn’t happen magically: it was civil society organizations like Colombia Diversa that pushed for inclusivity. Could you tell me about that effort?
Susana: When the Colombian peace deal was being negotiated, at first there was no gender lens. The feminist movement pushed for the peace deal to have something about gender, and eventually that got us a gender approach mainstreamed throughout the peace deal in 2016. Then, the President subjected it to a referendum, and we lost. The political campaign against the deal argued that the gender approach was a way to “homosexualize” children and create a “gender ideology.” That struck a nerve with Colombian society.
Hannah: Was “gender” read by many who voted no on the peace deal as meaning LGBTQ?
Susana: There was one part of the feminist movement that focused on gender as meaning only “women.” Another part incorporated the LGBTQ and intersectional movements. The second part was the conversation that won: this mainstreamed gender approach that included both women’s and LGBTQ issues, and an analysis of power distribution around gender and sexuality.
Because this conversation was a public struggle, it was obvious that we made a point of making “gender” in the peace deal include LGBTQ persons. There's a saying in Colombia: you go to get your hair cut, and you end up with a buzz cut. We were trying to make a good thing happen by making gender an expansive notion, and opposition used that against us. The opposition is using this as an excuse, weaponizing homophobia that already exists in civil society to get rid of something else they don't like, which was the whole peace process and the [prosecution] of gender-based violence.
The less inclusive part of the feminist movement said: "Well, if the gays are costing us peace, let's drop the gays.” And then there was this bigger part of the feminist movement that said, "What are you talking about? We just spent the last two years saying gender involves women and LGBTQ people because they're intertwined, intimately connected, that it makes sense, because they're both part of the same resistance to the patriarchal structure. We cannot just leave the gays, that wouldn't make sense.” That allowed us to strengthen our relationship with the feminist movement. It doesn't make sense to do LGBTQ work without the feminist approach.
Hannah: Tell me about the importance of including LGBTQ people in the transitional justice process and what this inclusion means for everyday lives.
Susana: It's important for transitional justice to include LGBTQ issues because otherwise, transitional justice is incomplete. If you are not asking questions about the experience of LGBTQ people, you are leaving out a big chunk of the conversation, and the main purpose of having a transitional justice process is to find whatever was underneath what was happening. People were killing each other, but why? What are those roots that we have not been able to address in ordinary legal jurisdictions? If we aren’t asking those questions about gender and sexuality, which are perhaps the most effective power distribution tools in our societies, then we're not having the right conversation.
Also, if you're not talking about gender and sexuality, you're leaving out something that underlies everyone's lives. Nobody is left out of the gender and sexuality spectrum. You can look into religion, you can look into land ownership or drug trafficking, and you will always have someone who is not participating in that. You will never have a person outside of gender and sexuality. Everyone participates in that power distribution.
For LGBTQ people it matters to be included in transitional justice because no one has ever told them before that they matter, because they have always been seen as monsters, outliers, sick people, undesirable, undesired, unworthy of love, not worthy of being part of a community. People say to me, “Do you really want to listen to my story? No one ever said that to me before.” So just that is already a reason enough.
Also, transitional justice allows you to have conversations that are difficult and not meant to be had in other parts of law. For social change, we need to address what is considered “ordinary.” Every day, you're participating in what has been defined as possible for your life because of your gender and sexuality. In transitional justice, you get judges who are focused on particular kinds of conduct, its causes, how to prevent it and how to provide reparations for it. I think that is the biggest win for LGBTQ people who are participating in transitional justice: someone will be able to do something to prevent harm in the future. One thing we've seen is when you ask people what they want, the most common answer is, “I want those who hurt me to come to my town where they hurt me. I want them to tell my fellow citizens what they did was wrong, and it was not worth it, it was meaningless, that these actions have no foundation. I want them to come up to my society and say that it was not right.”
Hannah: So people aren't saying what they want is incarceration or money, but rather, “I want the acknowledgment that what happened was wrong.”
Susana: That acknowledgment is very important. You have a baseline of discrimination against LGBTQ people during peace, and then in war, actors take advantage of that discrimination. So when LGBTQ people were subjected to violence during war, it was considered normal. That act of violence then further legitimized the discrimination that existed before. Because people saw violence against LGBTQ people as normal, reparation payments do not fix the problem. The violence was reinforcing what people already thought: that I was not worthy of love, that I was a monster, that I should be somewhere else, not here. To me, that [acknowledgment of wrongdoing] is what can be the most useful result of transitional justice for LGBTQ persons.
Hannah: How effective have the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP) and the Truth Commission been in working towards the type of reparative measures you are talking about?
Susana: The fact that the final report of the Truth Commission acknowledges violence committed against LGBTQ persons is a win. They are now part of national history, and that is something LGBTQ persons have never had before. When you're part of that narrative, it is because you matter and because what happened to you was wrong, and because we should try to prevent that from happening ever again.
A weakness of transitional mechanisms is they are slow. We've been working since 2018, and not a single sentence has been issued. But what we've seen so far from preliminary decisions is that the investigation and [prosecution] of gender-based violence is not so good; there is a lot of analysis missing. Gender-based violence investigation requires a specific methodology. You don't ask, "Did you ever commit gender-based violence?" The answer will be “no” because the nature of the crimes, which are affected by the patriarchy, is to deny that they are violent. If you ask, did you ever discriminate against an LGBTQ person? They will say no, because according to their mind, they were just treating a person how they're supposed to be treated. This is not like a killing which is not normalized. This is the fabric of our reality.
Hannah: What I'm hearing is that discrimination based on gender and sexuality isn't just in war or conflict but exists during peace, and is exacerbated during war. So, part of the healing needs to be acknowledging this discrimination is wrong in peacetime.
Susana: That is also why reparations are such a risky and difficult conversation to have. Most of the time, you can stop doing what you did during the war, which was different than peace. If I used to recruit children, I will not do it during peace. But with this discrimination, it's so deeply rooted in the way we live our lives. And that's why what LGBTQ victims are asking of perpetrators is to go and tell communities that they were wrong and that LGBTQ people are equal citizens.
Hannah: And that's hard, because in order to get that to happen, you need perpetrators of harm to understand that, right? Do you think there's a way to that through transitional justice?
Susana: Yes. In July 2022 the JEP announced the opening of a case about gender-based violence. It would be a specialized effort to understand and judge these crimes. We're still waiting for the formal opening. We'll have a better shot at litigating gender persecution if the case exists.
Hannah: Gender persecution is a crime that asks not only what violent act was perpetrated, but also why it happened. So, why did that person get killed, and was it based on their gender? Do you think this will help get at systemic issues?
Susana: Definitely. We found that out the hard way. We thought there would be a pattern of specific crimes committed against specific LGBTQ people. But no. There was violence all over the place, from public humiliation to forced disappearance to displacement, torture, rape. And there was no uniform victim: gay men, bisexual women, trans men, trans women, those that have little in common other than their non-traditional gender or sexuality. We even had cases of violence against cisgender straight men who were with trans women. We had 40 cases, and they were all different from each other. We were like, oh my god, we have no pattern, what are we going to do? Then, a stroke of genius hit [Colombia Diversa]: the motivation of the violence is the same. What they were trying to do was to use LGBTQ people, punish them or expel them from society, because they're not considered worthy of being human. Okay, so what crime is it? That is gender persecution. We then faced the question of how come gender persecution: they were not being attacked because they were men or women, but because they were gay. But it is based on gender, because the meaning of being a man includes to be cisgender and straight. The meaning of being a woman includes it as well. So yes, they were being persecuted because they were men or women in the wrong way. That is gender persecution. And that is how we could glue all of that together.
Hannah: Why is all of what we have been talking about today important?
Susana: We need to find a way to resolve social conflicts around gender and sexuality in a peaceful manner, otherwise we will keep putting LGBTQ people in harm’s way forever. That is the big question and the difficult conversation we need to have. There must be another way and we need to find it.
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