Carlos Andrés Tobar Castaño was born in Armenia, (Colombia), in 1982. He is a Colombian activist for LGBTI rights and human rights. With a degree in business administration and management, marketing and a diploma in both human rights and social project management, he has been living in Gavà, Barcelona since November 2021. His story is that of an activist who has been fighting for more than 20 years to guarantee the defense of the rights of the LGTBI communities in Colombia. He was one of the first visible faces for the defense of the rights of the LGTBI communities in Armenia, – located in the department of Quindío—. “I started raising my voice in participation spaces with the Youth in Action for Life project and preparing and developing different municipal, national and international projects, with Peru, Brazil and Colombia. I also worked on HIV-AIDS prevention issues. It was the eighties and the gay population was very stigmatized,” he explains. I was 18 years old. A little later he participated in the national project Planeta Paz, in which projects were carried out in different areas: gender, environment or LGTBI, among others. “This was my training school; there I became a social leader”.
He also took part in the construction of the LGTBI Municipal Board in Armenia and was the first LGTB municipal councilor before the Social Policy Council in the city of Armenia for four years. “With our struggle, we managed to ensure that the LGBTI population was included in government plans and development plans from 2002 until today, participating in national public construction to guarantee the rights of the LGBT sectors. We also work to bring these public policies to the territories”. Carlos Andrés Tobar’s work has always been in two directions: on the street and in institutions.
After years of work from both activism and institutions, Carlos Andrés Tobar had to leave the country because of the threats he received. The activist believes that, although his country has made progress in legal matters, in the society and in the institutions, there is still a lot to be done. Discrimination against the LGBTI community and trans people, the crimes against them and their impunity are still outstanding issues in the Latin American country.
After the June 2022 elecions, Colombia begins a new stage with GustavoPetro—former mayor of Bogotá,ex-senator and ex-member of the guerrilla M-19 – and França Márquez—the first Afro-descendantvice-president of the country, environmental activist— in the lead. This is a good opportunity to regain those rights annihilated under the government of Iván Duque, heir to “Urbisme” more rigid. Carlos Andrés Tobar explains that: “All the successes achieved by the leftist, more socialist governments, were stopped when Álvaro uribe came to power, and later Iván Duque (2018-2022). This is when the backsliding began in Colombia in terms of human rights and when public policies stopped being made. The waves of murders of social leaders began and the situation started to become difficult. In the case of the LGBT area, many social leaders returned to the closet because they were afraid and suffered pressures and threats. This also happened with the community leaders. At that time, the peace building talks were taking place and the situation was difficult. But those of us who were not afraid, we spoke.” Now, with the beginning of a new political stage for the country, human rights defenders have their eyes on a government that, a priori, raises hopes.
According to the national survey “Stress, health and well-being of LGTB people in Colombia”, published in 2019, the situation of LGTB groups in Colombia is not ideal. The report explains that: “(…) Exposure to minority stress, discrimination and violence are common experiences for LGBT people that have serious adverse health outcomes. (…) All LGBT people experienced high levels of victimization, such as being threatened with violence, beaten, physically attacked or sexually assaulted. These levels were particularly high among trans people and gay or bisexual men. This is consistent with reports of attacks by paramilitary groups and other groups in Colombian society against trans people, especially trans women and gay or bisexual men. Overall, 20% of LGBT people reported being verbally abusive by police or state officials, and 11% reported physical abuse. The allegations of verbal (29%) and physical (24%) abuse by the police were particularly high for transgender people”. Malauradament, aquest no és l’únic informe que certifica la situació del col·lectiu LGTB a Colòmbia. Also in the report “More than Figures. Human rights report of LGBT people in Colombia 2019”, of Colombia Diverse it is highlighted the discrimination and violence that continues to be reported against the group and points towards the forces of the state: “[existeix] a recurring pattern of aggression by the National Police against LGBT people (…)” and “a high percentage of incidents involving the abusive use of force by the National Police are not formally recorded”.
Faced with this situation, people like Carlos Andrés Tobar Castaño or organizations like Colombia Diversa, which works in favor of the well-being and legal and social recognition of the LGBTI community, continue to fight no longer for the recognition of the rights of LGBTI people, but for respect and its compliance.
After many years of activism for LGTB rights, you had to flee from Colombia. Why were you threatened?
The threats started in 2012, but I didn’t pay much attention until 2016. I lived with them. I spent some time in Bogotá, until 2019 and then I returned to Armenia, stronger and more capable. Around that time, I became the first LGBTI referee of the municipal personnel, which is a human rights organization. In 2019 I was once again a recognized leader and activist. It was then that a wave of murders against trans women due to police abuse also began. In this context, and with a group, we were working on an issue related to the LGTBI community micro-trafficking cartels.
Was that when the threats became more serious?
Yes, it was. In July 2020 I was invited in L’Esmeralda neighborhood, in the municipality of Circàsia, in the department of Quindío, to carry out a public activity. A day before the activity, they called me and warned me that I would be murdered. I didn’t go there, but Mateo López did, and they murdered him. Mateo López was a trans man and was killed in a community space. That’s when I really thought my safety was compromised and decided to start my asylum application. My mental health started to deteriorate and I felt pressure, I was closed. I thought that this asylum thing was only for powerful people and I had never considered applying for it, because, moreover, I never considered that I would have to leave my country. However, I had no choice but to contact two foundations in Spain. I notified my family three days before I left. I was escorted from my house to the airport. And I left.
How did you decide to go to Barcelona?
Barcelona has always been a city of reference for the progress of LGBTI rights.
How was your arrival?
In Colombia I had quality of life and I always repeat it: I am not here because I want to, but because I only had to protect life as a fundamental right. In Colombia I had my job, my foundation and company, my family and friends. When I arrived in Barcelona I arrived in the Mina neighborhood and then settled in Gavà, where I offered to work as a volunteer at the SAI (LGBTI+ Care Service Network) and help with my knowledge. For example, I have collaborated in LGBTI-themed advertising campaigns and I have also participated in the creation of the video for the city’s LGBTI social plan. I also collaborate as a volunteer in the association ACATHI, where many young migrant men from various countries come, also with issues related to the LGBTI issue.
And how is your stay here?
It is always difficult to start from the ground up and write a new story, but I am sure that if I had not left my country, I would not have been able to continue raising my voice. Here in Barcelona I have continued to work for the human rights of the LGBTI group.
In Colombia, the government has changed and it seems that the tandem formed by Gustavo Petro and França Márquez can change things in a positive way.
Petro wants to change things, but so far he hasn’t been able to change or develop much. Colombia is a divided country and, for example, has not yet been able to establish a Ministry of Equality. In Colombia there is still discrimination and there is a lack of social recognition of LGBTI rights. For example, same-sex marriage is allowed, but notaries put up many barriers. Adoption also has barriers and a number of requirements. To sum up, there is a lot on paper, but it is complicated to put it into practice. The country remains indebted to LGBTI groups and there is still much to be done.
There are several recent reports by organizations fighting to protect the rights of LGBT and trans groups that point to police violence against these people.
I believe that there must be a tougher hand in the judicial and criminal power that investigates and that reaches the end of the investigations with the aim of punishing abuses of power by public officials, civil society and crimes of hate and LGBTphobia in Colombia.
Are you considering returning to Colombia?
If they gave me the chance to go back, I would, because I think the experience I’m getting here can be useful there. In addition to leaving family and friends, I left different projects there, such as an LGBT hotel. I would come back yes; but if I had guarantees of security and compliance with public policies as a guarantee of rights. I just got my work permit in 2023 and I am working with the purpose of rebuilding my life.
How do you see the situation of the rights of the LGBT and trans population in Spain?
In Spain there is still discrimination. People think that by having LGBTI laws everything is won, but there is still a lot of awareness and education needed. The task is long and we must continue to look for affirmative actions to achieve a fairer and more equal society. In many countries, being gay is still a crime, and while there is progress, there are also setbacks.