Last month, a slate of gay activists ran for national and local offices in Colombia. A few years ago, five candidates promoting the needs of the gay Colombians would have been unheard of in this South American nation, where civil rights normally take a back seat to a decades-long civil conflict. But that was before Andres Duque and Daniel Castellanos came on the scene, from thousands of miles away in Jackson Heights, Queens.
Both born in Colombia, each moved to New York at very different times in their lives–Duque with his family as a young boy, and Castellanos as an adult looking to live as an openly gay man. Over the years, many of their gay and lesbian friends from back home followed them, fleeing persecution or seeking treatment for AIDS. In their war-torn country, discrimination against people with the virus still makes headlines, like last October, when a group of Marxist rebels forcibly tested an entire town for HIV and tossed out anyone who tested positive.
When their friends got to New York, however, they found that services were spotty. Many felt isolated; other than a handful of bars, there were no places to congregate or get information.
So in 1996, Duque and Castellanos founded the Colombian Lesbian and Gay Association, or COLEGA, to connect gay Colombians to services and to one another. “A lot of people came here because they couldn’t be out in Colombia, either about being gay or being HIV-positive,” says Duque. “They came here in need of food, companionship and assistance.”
One June afternoon in 1997, the group marched through the streets of Queens as part of the borough’s gay pride parade. COLEGA’s public debut made headlines in the city’s Spanish-language press and in newspapers across Colombia. A year later, activists in Bogotá organized the first sizable gay pride parade in their nation’s history. “It’s not that we changed life in the capital city,” says Castellanos. “But people were afraid to march before because of repercussions. We created some visibility.” Since then, their group in New York-home to about 77,000 Colombians-has grown from 30 members to more than 200.
Duque has also founded Mano a Mano, bringing together 15 gay Latino groups and 400-plus activists to share information–including job listings and legislative updates-on the web. “It brings a broader perspective on the day-to-day issues that people are facing,” says Doug Robinson, cofounder of the Out People Of Color Political Action Committee. “A lot of these issues aren’t looked at by the established gay organizations.”
Castellanos, meanwhile, joined Gay Men’s Health Crisis to create Proyecto Papi, dedicated to HIV prevention among gay and bisexual Latino men. But they have not forgotten their roots. When COLEGA member Eddie Garzon died last September after a brutal attack outside a gay bar in Jackson Heights, Duque organized a massive candlelight vigil that successfully pushed the NYPD to investigate the incident as a hate crime.
Back in Colombia, none of the openly gay candidates won, but the issues they raised have taken hold. A same-sex civil union bill was introduced in the Senate, and the main newsweekly polled presidential candidates about their views on gay rights. “They made the issues be considered seriously,” says Duque. “As a nation, gay rights became an issue to be discussed.”