A message popped up in the group chat. ‘Gay pride in Parque de los Novios’. I felt a surge of excitement and anticipation. Having seen the way Colombians party at the slightest excuse, this had the potential to be huge. But would the conservative Colombians really get into it? (And more importantly would that cute girl with the Tegan-and-Sarah-hair be there?)
Even though Colombia was the first country in South America to legalise gay marriage, attitudes have not exactly caught up. Especially on the coast. I’ve experienced homophobia first hand; silently stewed in school where my co-teacher routinely throws slurs around the classroom, and not so silently pushed a man into the marina for calling me a ‘marika.’
So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from my first Colombian Pride.
As I approached the park, I googled Santa Marta Gay Pride. Apart from a confirmation that it was actually happening there was little more information available. I mused over the fact that back home a trail of glitter and rainbow flags would have lead me straight (lol) to the parade.
Today the streets, which on an average Wednesday afternoon are louder than a Saturday night back home, were eerily quiet. I began to feel apprehensive. While Colombians may appear to be very sexually open, as the cat-calling, booty shaking, and excessive PDAs would have you believe, they are also deeply Catholic. Especially when it comes to their pick and mix morality. (In school, for example, thirteen-year-old girls in hot-pants dancing like Beyonce is fine, two boys dancing together is not.)
Having failed to find the crowds, I soon bumped into some friends in the park, and we were alerted to the approach of the parade by the very camp siren of a fire engine. (Does it always sound like that??)
We rushed over to cheer the handful of revellers, and after the initial rush of feathers, glitter and music I started to feel a bit awkward. I’d never seen such an underwhelming march.
For a country that seemingly parties at every opportunity, the lack of a crowd seemed like a statement in itself. But it wasn’t just the disappointing turnout the struck me so much as the lack of energy. There was no buzz. If anything people seemed slightly on edge. Some women in matching LGBTI t-shirts handed out badges while a circle of drag queens started dancing, before passing around a bottle of rum and tottering over to the oddly formal stage with its rows of plastic chairs.
We went for a drink, knowing that in true Colombian style the festivities wouldn’t start for at least another hour, and I couldn’t help mentioning that if we were back home we would have been drunk hours ago. I started moaning about the lame turnout and more importantly the lack of lesbians, when I was told that this was only Santa Marta’s 3rd year of Pride events, and the first time that the march has not been met by a counter-protest arranged by the church. I piped down.
All of a sudden it hit me how lucky I am to be from a country where my main fears during Pride consist of my girlfriend’s ex being there or getting glitter in my eye (the struggle is real!) While I know things are far from perfect back home, it definitely put rants about the commercialisation of Pride into perspective. I hadn’t seen a single advert for the event around the town, or even around the park itself.
After my initial doubt, the show itself was a pleasant surprise. Rather than a crass celebration of sexuality (which I’m definitely not saying is a bad thing), they focused more on showing the crowd how ‘normal and human gays are’ (the presenter’s words, not mine!)
The show opened with the national anthem, which although is quite common at organised events in Colombia, seemed to be an affirmation of conformity; I can’t exactly imagine a Pride event back home bursting out into God Save the Queen (at least not non-ironically)
The music started to draw a crowd, as dance crews from drag queens to tribal dancers aimed to showcase the rich culture of the queer community. In between acts the hosts gave a Wikipedia-esque rundown of the gay rights movement, along with some cheesy chat-show style banter.
They worked hard to be inclusive, inviting suspicious Santa Martians to a kind of gay 101, whilst very much confirming to Colombian values. Namely their obsession with beauty. It seems like gay men are more palatable if they look like beautiful women in Colombia. And gay women are practically invisible. One of the only women to actually make it onstage was introduced as ‘ a heterosexual, but a supporter’ and was a former Miss. Colombia.
While the self-consciousness of the event was disappointing (I didn’t even know that was a thing in Colombia…) it was definitely interesting to see a gay rights movement at such a different stage. People in the UK often complain that Pride has become more of a party than a political protest, and I’ve always agreed. But I suddenly realised what a fucking luxury that is.
Pride in the UK has become a day to simply be proud. To party and bask in our gayness. While we moan about advertisers hijacking the rainbow flag to promote their company, we take for granted the fact that in many countries even waving the flag is problematic.
While I love the warm fuzzy feelings I get from listening to speeches at Pride, there was something so raw about it this time. The presenters kept driving home the message that ‘we’re just like you, and we just want to be accepted,’ and it seemed so foreign to me.
I felt like there was so much wrong with that message. We’re so used to celebrating the very fact that we’re not like everyone else, that the idea of begging for acceptance seems repulsive.
But in a country where paramilitary groups want to ‘cleanse’ society of homosexuals, and the minister of Education was recently forced to resign after being accused of trying to turn Colombia’s schools into ‘gay colonies,’ for many people, even being at the event was an act of defiance.
Inspired, I decided to wear my badge to work the next day…
But as I got closer to school, my courage started to waiver. The badge seemed enormous all of a sudden. Aggressive. Why was I making trouble for myself? Didn’t I already have enough reasons to disagree with my co-teacher? I got off the bus and realised too late that it would be even worse if I took it off at this point.
So I took a deep breath and walked into school.
While I had imagined a hundred different reactions from the teachers, I stupidly hadn’t even considered what my students would say. And it was overwhelming.
As my first group entered the classroom, a boy who never usually speaks to me pointed at my badge and gave me the thumbs up, a huge smile on his face. There seemed to be a different energy in the room, and I suddenly had a flashback to my school years, remembering how little things could cause such a big ripple.
While I was in the middle of a grammar lesson, a student took advantage of my co-teacher leaving to ask me about the badge. Wide-eyed. she pointed and almost gasped ‘Kiki…LGBTI?!’
It sounds really weird in Spanish.
Soon they all joined in, and I froze. I was irrationally worried that my co-teacher would come back and find us discussing it like it was some big dirty secret.
I told them I’d been at the parade but they were getting frustrated by my evasiveness.
‘Si, pero tienes noviooo o noviaaa?’
‘She doesn’t understand!’
They began shouting over each other, paraphrasing and speculating ‘Do you have booooyfriend or giiiiirlfriend?’
I laughed, ‘No I’m single…Now let’s get back to work, please.’
I’m still not sure what I was afraid of, having already promised myself that I’d stand up to my co-teacher. Maybe I was remembering how homophobic kids were when I was in school, or maybe it’s just that even back home I’ve never stood in front of a room of 40 people and said ‘I’m gay’ (or even half gay )
But I soon realised that the kids were not the problem.
One of my most proficient students asked me what I thought about ‘LGBTI’ during English club. I asked him what he thought and he paused. ‘I think that love is so big to stay in the closet.’
I was so touched that I couldn’t even correct his grammar.
In my last class of the day, one of my favourite students (ssh I definitely don’t have favourites) came up to my desk with a group of friends. I’d seen her clock the badge and knew what was coming.
‘Are you…?!’ Expectant faces, raised eyebrows. Nudges. ‘Are you a lesbian?’
‘Oh I just went to the march’
Giggles. ‘I know, I saw you!’
‘So are you??’ They all joined in.
‘Lesbian? or Bi? ‘ I was very aware of my co-teacher packing up her things behind me.
‘So…?’ They pressed. I sighed and nodded.
‘Me too!’ She squeaked, spun on her heel and bolted out of the classroom.
Her friends laughed and said goodbye, and I left school feeling proud.