León Zuleta: The Father of the LGBTI Movement whom Colombia Forgot
The first gay movement in Colombia began with a lie – a courageous way out by someone who recognizes that sometimes fiction is more fertile than material reality.
It was 1976. A Colombian Trotskyist journal published an interview with León Zuleta, a paisa student who asserted he was part of the Colombian Homosexual Movement, which comprised 10,000 active members. In Bogotá, Manuel Velandia, another young student, contacted the journal upon reading the interview: the news about such movement couldn’t possibly be more pertinent to him – he himself had been meaning to create a political movement for sexual minorities. Thanks to that conversation with the journal, he was days later talking to Zuleta over the phone. From Medellín, he confirmed that the movement indeed had 10,000 members, but all the zeros in the figure were bogus.
The movement constituted a single person: himself.
“He told me that he was the only one, that he wanted to start a magazine, The Other One, because the other one was himself, but since I was interested he recommended I try creating something in Bogotá, and if someone ever reached him, he said he would refer them to both my POBox and my phone number so they could call me up,” told me Manuel Velandia, 41 years later, in another call. Thus, groups in Medellín and Bogotá were formed, then in other cities in the country, until the whole thing was no longer bogus and it became the Homosexual Liberation Movement.
León Zuleta’s name means something for a few people, for less individuals you would think should remember he who’s been referred to as the pioneer of LGBT movements in Colombia. A couple of YouTube videos. Some brief biographies on blogs and LGBT websites. An award and an organization bear his name. Two, perhaps three, research papers on him. The book he wrote. His articles buried under lost or archived magazines. A two-paragraph note on El Tiempo newspaper about his murder on August 23, 1993, after being stabbed to death in his own apartment.
That’s all that’s left about him.
Tying up story after story, you can tell León Benhur Zuleta was Born in Itagüí, Antioquia, in 1952. He was part of the Colombian Communist Youth until he was 19, when he was expelled for coming out. He studied Philosophy and Letters at Antioquia University, where he was also professor until he was kicked out, perhaps on account of being gay, or communist, or trade unionist, or most likely because of all of them. He traveled down to Nariño University, where he was also cast out. He went back to Medellín to only encounter his death. He wrote essays, poems, short stories. He devoured books, magazines and all sorts of social theories which came to him from Europe. He translated Foucault. He wrote for all magazines and journals he could. He created his own magazine, The Other One, the first gay publication in the country, which by using pseudonyms he would conceal the fact that he himself was the author of all texts, even of readers’ letters, which he would also reply to. He shared texts, theories and authors with whoever he could. He was a self-declared “faggot.” He was a feminist. He used to kiss other men in public. He fucked in pastures, in confessionals, in churches altars. He fucked women. He fucked as an erotic act. He fucked as a political act. He always felt death close to him.
Three months after talking to each other for the first time, Manuel Velandia and León Zuleta finally met up. Velandia invited him over. Zuleta got there and told him that, before getting down to business, they should get rid of the issue of dominance and dependence latent in homosexual relationships, a problem linked to the exercise of genitality. The solution, according to him, was to have sex. To fuck. To penetrate and to be penetrated. He suggested so to anyone who wanted to engage in conversation with him. Many interpreted such attitude not as a political statement, but rather as a hidden interest in plainly “fucking” everyone.
“It was really weird,” told me Velandia. But at the same time he assured me that, in a way, he felt prepared thanks to some European authors Zuleta had recommended about sexual orientation movements: Foucault, for example, but especially French author Hocquenghem, who wrote Homosexual Desire, a book they read with dictionary on hand -neither knew French- and which became their main task. “It wasn’t an erotic act. It was a political act,” he clarified, so as to ditch any other possible interpretation.
Zuleta was that way: a transgressor, openly sexual, deeply theoretical. A man who claimed the sexual realm was political and homosexual public manifestations were a way of directly attacking the status quo which segregated and discriminated against sexual minorities: taking theory out to the streets, changing things through practices and not through norms, attacking head-on the prevailing fear of being a fag, spreading fear to destabilize order and institutions.
That was the Sex-Pol movement, which Zuleta was the greatest defender and exponent of: a discourse that, even today, over 40 years later, feels avant-garde and radical. A discurse that Zuleta openly gave to Colombia in the 1970’s, when the police would “charge a fee” so gays could be left alone in bars, when officers themselves would strip gay men naked and make them “give them head,” when being gay was still a felony.
Perhaps one of the most treasured documents up until now about León Zuleta is an over-an-hour video uploaded to YouTube. There’s him, surrounded by three men who look rather young compared to a Zuleta reaching his forties. He’s wearing a blazer, in a discussion format that reminds of those other videos about European philosophers who discuss with a mic at hand before an audience. Zuleta talks and looks confidently heard and uninterrupted. He talks about his childhood, his adolescence, the way he was brought up, as well as the decisions that little by little defined his personality from an early age. He talks and you can tell he has invested a great deal of time in thinking about himself, in giving his experiences a meaning and in providing them with a new significance in accordance with the person he became. He talks and reminds his public he’s first and foremost a philosopher: a man who’s turned ideas and language into his world and profession; he takes pleasure in playing with his own discourse’s possibilities, perhaps regardless of whether his game is grasped enough.
“I always had a quite high narcissistic ideal (…) I had an idea of “my self” utterly intellectualized [which] somehow translated into a contempt for my peers’ brutality or ignorance. That isolated me too much,” says Zuleta on the video about a childhood that unfortunately was spent among French classic literature books. “I would’ve liked to be more ludic and less intellectual because that definitely had a great impact on me (…) I’m immersed in language, in symbolic order as I don’t live real order. I’m like a sort of intelligent fool who doesn’t get what’s going on in reality.”
Zuelta did not seem to live in the late 20th century paisa society, but in the parallel European intellectual avant-garde. He was a stranger in his own land, a fact acknowledged by himself and the people who knew him well. In the short documentary The Citizen León Zuleta, his friends and acquaintances hailed him as a figure that, alien to the city itself, would stroll down the streets in Medellín. He would hang out in bars, drink, frequent several trade unions and other activist and political groups. He was a professor; he used to encourage public discussions. Yet he seemed to live in parallel in a world only he inhabited, inaccessible to others.
“I feel like an outcast. I feel out of my time,” says León in that very video. “Sometimes that means externally I give the impression of audacity or irreverence (…), [but] I’m not interested in being irreverent,” he holds, as someone who deems his political stance not as a transgression nor as an avant-garde challenge, but rather as a personality that only a few could understand.
Like most deaths, Zuleta’s was shocking. However, the news came to many as a fulfilled prophecy.
“León’s death contented me because I felt he was tired. (…) I think the way he drank and got high, as well as the spaces where he hung out, were a thanatic quest. And I think he made it. When I was told León had died, I only thought: well, he finally attained what he wanted to,” says Marta López, one of his friends, in The Citizen León Zuleta.
Death was familiar to him, even from a poetic perspective: he used to suffer from catalepsy. Many heard from Zuleta himself about that time he woke up naked in a morgue in Bogotá, surrounded by corpses – from that moment on, he had felt death became a part of him, possibly as a company rather than as a threat. He even felt it as an easy way out, the conclusion many reach once their own life goes unbearable.
“There was this time we concluded we were both in the wrong time. [We commented] that we weren’t from this age, that it was too painful for us to live in this age, that in response to that situation decisions had to be made, and suicide was one of them. We made a pact on that very night: we wouldn’t commit suicide, but we would give ourselves entirely to whoever could put out the fire in our two candles,” explained in the documentary Piedad Montes, a poetess and feminist activist who was a friend of his.
The vision of his life as something that would eventually extinguish because of someone else was also political and theoretical: he acknowledged his acts -public, sexual, transgression-based- made him vulnerable: one who society would intend to get rid of to maintain its own status quo. So he said to Manuel Velandia himself, after kissing him on his mouth on a bus right before other passengers.
“He told me that we, leaders, had to be on the lookout for any kind of violation, even death,” told me Velandia, who also added that that was the first memory that came up to him when he learnt León Zuleta had been killed.
Little is known about his murder. Actually, nothing is known. He was stabbed to death in his condo, in the neighborhood of Loreto in Medellín, on August 23, 1993. What remains is hearsay: his murderer was conceivably someone who posed as gay to kill him afterward; it was possibly the work of social cleansing groups existing since 1986 which targeted homosexuals; it was a common crime, a plain murder; it was an act of homophobia.
He died at 41, at home, only accompanied by his killer. No investigation into his death was ever carried out. No culprit was ever found, not even a person of interest. The only documented thing left about his passing is the two paragraphs published on El Tiempo, which include his exact address – as though nothing else could be said about Zuleta.
His murder nowadays still goes unpunished. Maybe no one ever investigated because it was “a faggot’s” death. Zuleta is no longer among us, but his words still are:
“What worries me the most is that I might be living in such an opaque, narrow-minded and wretched time (…), but we should go on. For better or worse, what remains now is: if nothing can be transformed as far as your worldview goes, then you ought to come up with your own truth, but always have a smile and laugh, with permanent happiness. What remains is the philosophical laughter.”
Original Title: León Zuleta: el padre del movimiento LGBTI que Colombia olvidó
Originally Published by Tania Tapia Jáuregui on September 11, 2017
Translated by Themonochromeman