Acting up in Colombia: Police Accountability and Anti-Transgender Violence

This summer Bogotá and Medellín were the centers of an innovative LGBT initiative called el Ciclo Rosa (, sponsored by the Instituto Pensar (Javeriana University), the respective City Halls of each city, the Cinemateca Distrital de Bogotá, and the Centro Colombo Americano de Medellín. The radical nature of this event was that it addressed a very diverse audience, many segments of which had not been engaged on this issue before. It had an artistic and academic component, lectures and screenings of international films, as well as a series of workshops attended by members of the police, the military, and other government officials. This year, el Ciclo Rosa explored the transgender experience. Somos Latin@s LGBT of New England was selected to conduct a workshop on police misconduct towards the transgender community. The workshop was facilitated by Harvard's Cultural Agents Initiative and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program, and through teleconferencing, participants were able to join from Boston in addition to Bogotá.

This article will replicate our transatlantic experience by providing two texts in dialogue: Lisa Harrison will recount the experience from Boston, while Carmen Oquendo-Villar will relate the experience in Colombia.

Carmen Oquendo-Villar:

Bogota community police.
Bogota community police. Photo: Carmen Oquendo-Villar

Our workshop opened with a Boston-Bogotá teleconference. In Bogotá, the room was crowded with community police members and government officials. In Boston, a panel had been organized of which Javier Pagán, the LGBT Liaison of the Boston Police, was the first panelist to be introduced. It was powerful for police officers in Bogotá to see and hear a gay police officer speaking proudly about their shared profession. This officer-to-officer conversation helped set the tone for the rest of the workshop. As the other Boston panelists began to participate, the audience in Bogotá was already engaged and had begun to ask many questions.

Following the teleconference, we began an interactive activity acting out a fictionalized clash between trans prostitutes and police officers. I wanted the workshop to have a direct and memorable impact on the participants and had decided to incorporate an experiential component to enhance the participants' sense of agency and engagement with the topic of transphobic violence. In collaboration with Marina Talero of Trans Ser Colombia (, Diana Navarro, spokeperson for the trans prostitutes of Bogotá, and other trans people and assistants, I drew on techniques developed by Agosto Boal's Theater of the Oppressed to design a workshop that would foster nonviolent behavior during police-trans clashes.

Decades of U.S. media indoctrination on "Colombian violence" left me with preconceived notions about the Colombian police. But once I was faced with real people, with officers who were actually engaged in the subject, and once prostitutes were able to face their real and perceived "aggressors" within a safe space, real conversations began. A pillar of the framework behind the Theater of the Oppressed is to frame dramatizations from the victim's point of view. Thus, the dramatization was designed by trans prostitutes. They defined the ideas for the skit and made important suggestions. The police officers received the dramatization with discomfort. They contested the characterization of the police officer, claiming it was an anachronistic caricature of policemen as aggressors and perpetrators of violence. For the most part, they refused to identify with the character as portrayed and imagined themselves differently. The police officers' request that they too needed to be understood was accepted by other participants. Much more work and reflection is needed to achieve a mutual sense of respect between the LGBT communities and security forces and the relation between the fictions of identity and the facts of gender-based aggression.

Imagining nonviolent behavior during the workshop altered our sense of self. Theater provided a means of momentary transformation at a time of great perplexity in the country. Hopefully, our behavior will be different where it really counts: the real world. I can still hear the voice of the young police officer who asked the Boston LGBT liaison how to approach LGBT individuals to gain their trust in him as a person and as an officer. This question, about institutional measures and personal commitments, seemed crucial for all because change is a matter of institutions but also of individuals.

As a filmmaker, it is powerful to see practical and real-world applications sparked by films. I had never imagined that my filmmaking would lead to training Colombian police officers and government officials. Yet my short vignettes about Boston trans Latin@ performers had gotten me an invitation to address institutional transphobic violence in a new environment. Last year when former Amnesty International president Margarita Sánchez asked to screen my movie "Boquita," about the eponymous transexual Dominican performer, over the Supreme Court building in San Juan during a protest for transgender rights in Puerto Rico, I thought that would be the extent of my artistic involvement in politics. However, my heart spoke loudly when earlier this year I received this invitation from Colombia.

Diana Navarro, spokeperson for the trans prostitutes of Bogota
Photo: Carmen Oquendo-Villar

I am writing these words in Tampa on September 11, where I'm attending an international conference on "Human Rights, State Terrorism and Universal Jurisdiction." I was just conversing with another participant, former Colombian judge Luz Estella Nagle. Dr. Nagle served as judge in Medellín until assassination attempts and continued death threats compelled her to relocate because of her work on international criminal enterprises, terrorism, counter-insurgency, and national security laws. Once forced to flee Colombia, Dr. Nagle has since returned to her native country to train the military on human rights issues because of her vested interest in creating a balance between fighting terrorism and preserving human rights. I told her that even though I had little experience as an activist, there was no way I could refuse the opportunity to address transphobic violence. I owed it to the people who had, conditionally and momentarily, entrusted me with their lives. Even Diana Navarro, spokeperson of the trans prostitutes of Bogotá, is planning to incorporate my films to foment a dialogue within her peers. As Dr. Nagle and I compared training notes, I expressed my feeling that working with the prostitutes to train the police—facilitating their dialogue—represented the most challenging and rewarding experience I had ever had.

Lisa Pic-Harrison:

Our experience in Boston of the discussion held in Colombia was that it was not simply an informative panel but a revolutionary step toward the advancement of transgender rights in Colombia. All four of us were members of Boston's LGBT Latino/a community. We had diverse perspectives and different information to offer. I talked about my role at the National Police Accountability Project and shared with the group strategies on reducing police misconduct in the LGBT community. I discussed the importance of collecting data and using it as a tool to create change.

The dialogue was quite powerful to me personally, as I am originally from Colombia and most recently returned two years ago. When I was in Colombia two years ago I noticed the low visibility of the LGBT community. The fact that the government has sponsored this event and prioritized this population is groundbreaking.

As panelists, we began the teleconference thinking that we were there to teach and provide information on approaches we use in the U.S. to improve relations between the transgender community and the police. In the end, we were astonished by how much we learned and gained from this experience. Through our teleconference technology, we watched a room that consisted of police, government officials, activists, and Colombian citizens discussing the "radical idea" that transgender people be treated as citizens, and were struck by how extraordinary and imperative the event was, not only to Colombia but to us in the U.S. We were all moved because the discussion did not focus only on how we live our lives now but included strategies on how to improve our lives to their fullest potential. Some of us had never been a part of a workshop where government officials, the police department, and activists discussed together how to make a community better for transgender people. We felt that we were truly fortunate to have been a part of "a small group of thoughtful committed citizens chang[ing] the world" (Margaret Mead), because that "small group" brought together some of the most unlikely partners, all working to change the world in Colombia.

*The panel consisted of Javier Pagan, a Boston police officer who is also the Boston Police Department's LGBT liaison; Wilfred Labiosa, a psychologist who has done significant work with Latino/a transgender persons in Boston; Diego Sánchez, a transgender man who is the Director of Public Relations and Social Marketing at AIDS Action Committee; and Lisa Pic-Harrison.

Editorial team: Wilfred Labiosa, Mark Canavera and June Erlick, María Ospina, Juan Pablo Rivera and Dana King.

Carmen Oquendo-Villar is a scholar, visual artist, and independent curator. She is a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures as well as Film and Visual Studies.

Lisa Pic-Harrison is Executive Director of the National Police Accountability Project and Co-Chair of Somos Latinos LGBT.