I was in Colombia last week to speak at an event about my work for Human Rights Watch with a focus on homophobic and transphobic bullying. I was to be interviewed by Brigitte Baptiste, who I had never met. When I took my seat in front of hundreds of people I must admit I was a bit intimidated. Brigitte has long hair, colourfully dyed, big tattoos on her arm and a deep voice. Brigitte, who identifies as a transgender woman, is a biologist and renowned expert on biodiversity Colombia’s forests.

Brigitte Baptiste (L) and Human Rights Watch LGBT Advocacy Director Boris Dittrich, Colombia, February 2017. 

© 2017 Human Rights Watch

“When I teach at the (Humboldt Institute) University, sometimes two hundred people are waiting for me after class,” Brigitte introduced herself to the audience. “Mostly they do not want to talk about plants in the jungle. Some want to know if I had a complete surgery. Others are searching for answers on questions of life. When you are a transwoman with my looks, you have no choice but to be open and honest about yourself. Colombia is a conservative country, where religion is dominant. The idea that you are free to choose who you want to be is appealing to many people.”

The Jesuit-administered Javeriana University, where Brigitte also teaches, fully supports her as a transgender professor. The University started a program for transgender students and welcomes her talks about LGBT issues.

Brigitte’s story made it easy for me to discuss Human Rights Watch’s recent report “Like Walking through a Hailstorm”, about the many forms of discrimination, bullying, and bigotry that LGBT students still suffer in too many US schools. Often bullying in school is about being different. LGBT students become isolated, lonely, and sometimes depressed. In some states, these problems are greatly compounded by insidious “no promo homo” laws that prevent teachers and students from talking openly about LGBT related issues.

I was struck by the contrast: In a predominantly conservative Catholic country like Colombia, Brigitte has become an important role model for LGBT people in educational settings, but in some places in the US, her voice would be silenced.