Colombia: LGBTQ+ Youth Faces Discrimination, Bullying, and Institutional Harassment 

by Juliana Martínez* 

Group of demonstrators in Colombia for LGBTQ+ rights / Erick Morales / Sentiido / Creative Commons License

Despite significant progress in laws advancing their rights, Colombia’s LGBTQ+ youths face systemic hostility and receive little support from the institutions that are supposed to help them, leading to higher mental health issues and reduced academic achievement. Surveys by the Colombian Sentiido Foundation – receiving 1,555 and 3,246 responses from LGBTQ+ youth in August-September 2021 – provide a comprehensive picture of their lives, experiences, needs, and support networks. 

Despite the most progressive legal protections in Latin America, the public record and various comprehensive studies show that LGBTQ+ people in Colombia continue to experience widespread discrimination and violence – including bullying, verbal harassment, mean rumors, and physical assault – that make them feel unsafe. Ninety-eight LGBTQ+ people were murdered in Colombia in 202021. 

  • Colombia’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court, has established strong precedents that explicitly protect sexual orientation and gender identity from discrimination. Gay couples can get married and enjoy the rights of straight couples. While the country does not have a comprehensive gender identity law, trans people can change their name and sex marker on all official documents freely. The Court has shown a strong anti-discrimination stance with a series of rulings protecting students as well. 
  • Despite this, LGBTQ+ youth suffers on many levels. Sentiido’s surveys confirmed that young LGBTQ+ Colombians experience harassment, bias, and discrimination in school and other aspects of their lives. Ironically, the Sentiido study found that, rather than being the solution, adults are often part of the problem – failing LGBTQ+ youths in school, home, and even churches. Teachers, parents, and other adults in positions of responsibility often press youths into therapies and treatments to make them conform to traditional models rather than prosper as they are. Eighty-seven percent of LGBTQ+ youths have heard homophobic or transphobic comments from family members, and almost one in five reports having been physically punished by parents for their sexual orientation or gender identity. 

Regarding school climate, more than half report they feel unsafe in school and were cyber-bullied at home, causing more than a third of them to miss at least one day of class a month. More than 90 percent hear homophobic remarks at school, and 75 percent report being verbally harassed based on sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, and race or ethnicity. Thirty percent have been physically harassed (e.g., shoved or pushed). Some 87 percent feel deliberately excluded by other students. 

  • Most students (65.5 percent) reported hearing homophobic remarks from school staff. Teachers’ and administrators’ unwillingness to create a safe environment, such as by discouraging peer meanness, create an impression of condoning the abuse. Almost 15 percent of youths taking the survey reported facing disciplinary processes for being LGBTQ+ despite laws explicitly prohibiting it. 
  • When students reported incidents, moreover, staff usually did not help. Less than a fifth reported that school personnel intervened most of the time or always. (Peers were much more reliable in assisting.) As a result, almost seven in 10 students never reported incidents to staff. 

Youths facing such challenges without reliable support networks, affirming resources, and safe spaces endure stresses that negatively impact their mental health and academic achievement – consequences that are visible in rates of attempted suicide and school absences. These data, however, can help responsible people make institutions more responsive. Almost 70 percent of LGBTQ+ youth think things will be better in the future, apparently because they see the obvious solutions that adults can adopt. 

  • The same questionnaires that paint vivid pictures of the problem also show the way ahead to improvements, starting with adherence to the law. The surveys show that youths who receive positive info about LGBTQ+ people, history, and events – although a minority – have the best outcomes in terms of mental health, a feeling of belonging, and school attendance. Schools with explicitly inclusive policies have more successful staff intervention when problems arise.  
  • Online materials and activities can help as sources of information, but they’re not a substitute for person-to-person interaction. The unsupervised way in which youths navigate online spaces can put them at risk or confuse them. The Sentiido surveys show that inclusion, acceptance, and personal contact are the elements, denied to most LGBTQ+ youths today, that will most help all Colombian youth, including LGBTQ+ youth, thrive. 

*Juliana Martínez  is the Research Director of Sentiido and an Associate Professor at the Department of World Languages and Literatures at American University. Her recent book, Haunting Without Ghosts, Spectral Realism in Colombian Film, Literature and Art, is the winner of the William M. LeoGrande Award for the best scholarly book or article on Latin American or Latino Studies published by a member of the American University community in 2020–2021. 

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