Being gay in 1970s Colombia was a crime. Article 323 of the 1936 Civil Code punished all male homosexual intercourse with imprisonment for up to two years. It was also a sin. The Catholic Church, the country’s official religion, continued to hold power over people’s lives, regulating gender roles and sexuality while condemning sodomy. In this harsh environment no one could imagine that in December 1977 a group of university students in Medellín would found a publication about homosexuals* and a movement for change, the Movimiento de Liberación Homosexual, or MLH, (Homosexual Liberation Movement).
Called El Otro (The Other), the publication was passed around in secret. Its messages were new: there was no reason to be ashamed of being homosexual; the marginalization of the non-heterosexual was based on a violent system. Its first issue explained:
It is here [in the patriarchy] where our critique, and our raging desire to destroy and later to build, has its origins, because we feel overwhelmed with cultural moral burdens and authoritarian policies that force us into SUBMISSION to VERTICAL and hierarchical powers. (El Otro, No.1 p. 19)
No Colombian publication had ever depicted homosexuals and their political agenda in this manner. El Otro told homosexual men and women that they were not criminals, nor were they evil. They were victims of an oppressive system that violently attacked those whose characteristics were deemed undesirable. And, if this system was to be destroyed, homosexual needed to to know what was going on in their country, and in the world. They needed to communicate, they needed to debate and, most important of all, they needed to organize.
El Otro was founded and edited by León Zuleta (1952-1993), a homosexual activist in Medellin. Zuleta was a philosophy student at the Universidad de Antioquia, one of the country’s major public universities, and a former member of the Communist Party of Colombia (he was expelled in the early seventies). He regularly instigated public expressions of non-heterosexual behavior as acts of rebellion, and was convinced that homosexuals needed to act against the oppression they suffered. Zuleta conceived El Otro as the communication organ of the MLH, dedicated to promoting this message first from Medellin and, a year later, Bogotá.
The MLH railed against patriarchy and called for the union of homosexuals across the country. The group was similar to the broader gay liberation movements that emerged, first in the US and later in the UK and elsewhere, in the aftermath of the Stonewall Riots in June of 1969. Many articles in El Otro were, in fact, translations by Zuleta of international gay liberation writings. Its content ranged from HIV and religious views to the gay struggles in other parts of the world and the diffusion of feminist and queer theories. Gay Liberation Front movements inspired Zuleta to create the MLH, and El Otro was to be its tool to politically educate Colombia’s vast hidden homosexual community.
HOMOSEXUAL ACTION directly attacks power, the law, order and the norm of the macho (the man). It fights to overcome any society that bases its power in exclusion and oppression. Therefore, this Action seeks not only simple sexual liberation but also the shaking of any classist and phallocentric society. (El Otro, No. 2 p. 6)
The political strategy of direct action gained currency among many social movements in 1970s Colombia when the civil war between Marxist-Leninist guerrillas and the government was at its peak. The Frente Nacional (1958-1974), a pact between the Liberal and Conservative parties to alternate the presidency in order to stop the violence between them and prevent any third party from taking control, had ended. Social justice, by armed struggle or by reform, was now seen as possible.
All over the country, especially at universities, there was a proliferation of revolutionary ideas, inspired on Marxism Some of these ideas informed the MLH perspective on the relationship between sexual and social liberation. Members studied the different forms of violence that oppressed people, concluding that understanding class and race differences among homosexuals was essential to instigating and participating of a sexual and social revolution. This perspective influenced combined action with trade unions (including participation in Labour Day demonstrations) and calls for the liberation of the all oppressed people.
WE CALL FOR THE CONFIGURATION OF A JOINT ACTION OF SEXUALITIES AND SENSUALITIES towards the definitive implementation of the sexual revolution as an IMPERATIVE action in the historical struggle for free societies, and with the necessary particularities that this implies for Colombia and Latin America. (El Otro, No. 3 p. 4)
Unfortunately, the movement didn’t attract the participation that Zuleta had hoped for. Although many people read and shared El Otro, few accepted the invitation to join the MLH. By the last issue (July 1979), the paper was being delivered to Bogotá, Barranquilla, Cali and Armenia, yet MLH groups still only appeared in Bogotá and Medellin. Tired of editing the publication alone, Zuleta quit and instead dedicated himself to trade union activism. He continued to write for Ventana Gay (Gay Window), a 1980s publication that continued the work of El Otro, but his MLH political radicalism and his particular analysis of social struggle changed with this new publication.
On the morning of 23 August 1993, Zuleta was found dead in his apartment in Medellín, apparently assassinated by one of the city’s cleaning squads. These squads gained strength with the support of drug cartels and paramilitary forces, and were commissioned to clean the city of homosexuals, homeless and mamertos (someone of Marxist or left ideology). The murder has never been closed and no reparation of any kind has been made.
Today, both the mainstream LGBT movement in Colombia and the wider left have forgotten about Zuleta and the MLH. Revisiting his publication El Otro, however, highlights the activist work of this marginalized actor during the period of Colombia’s civil war. Even amidst the national conflict, the MLH fought for the recognition, and liberation, of homosexuals. For Zuleta and the MLH there was no true social revolution without a sexual revolution.
* I use this word as the translation of Spanish homosexual, the term used by authors of the publication to refer to themselves.