Fictions and Facts of Identity and Gender-Based Aggression


Police training in Bogota. Photo courtesy of Carmen Oquendo-Villar 

A Filmmaker's Response to Violence

By Carmen Oquendo-Villar

I never imagined that my short films about transsexual and transgender life in Boston would lead to human rights work in Latin America. But the truth is that film is a powerful medium through which we can come to better understand ourselves and through which we can begin to visualize a world without violence. The completely random first step toward this realization occurred when the president of Puerto Rico’s Amnesty International, Margarita Sánchez, asked to screen my movie "Boquita" about an eponymous trans-sexual Dominican performer, at the Supreme Court building in San Juan during a protest for trans-gender rights.

To my great surprise, the screening led to an invitation by Diana Navarro, spokesperson for trans-prostitutes in Bogotá and candidate for the Polo Rosa coalition in that city, to use my films to stimulate dialogue with her peers about ways to prevent police misconduct against this often-targeted population.

At first, I was tempted to refuse this offer. I considered myself a filmmaker, not an activist. I had never worked with and never aspired to work with the police. In fact, I felt a slight aversion towards this uniformed sector of society. In addition, decades of U.S. media indoctrination about "Colombian violence" had left me with preconceived notions about Colombia in general and the Colombian police in particular. However, there was no way I could refuse the opportunity to address trans-phobic violence.. Despite my reservations and even though I hardly qualified as an expert, I owed it to the people who had, in that time and place, entrusted me with their lives.

The 2006 Ciclo Rosa in Bogotá was dedicated in its entirety to the transgender experience. It explored this experience from many vantages, including the legal, medical, artistic and social spheres. I was invited to participate as speaker, filmmaker and workshop facilitator.

As a filmmaker, it is powerful to see real world applications for film, and to experience art being used to help people deal with some of their most difficult problems. Bogotá and Medellín, Colombia, were the headquarters for this innovative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) initiative sponsored by the Instituto Pensar at Javeriana University, both City Halls, the Cinemateca Distrital de Bogotá, and the binational Centro Colombo Americano de Medellín.

The radical nature of this event was not simply in its novelty within the Latin American context. Its very special and highly innovative purpose was mainly to address an audience of law enforcement, military and government officials, a group historically known to turn a deaf ear towards the problems of minority groups.

I sought the expertise of Somos Latin@s LGBT of New England, an organization on whose board I serve, for designing the workshop on police misconduct. The Harvard University Police was very gracious, accepting our invitation to participate in designing the workshop. Thus, prior to my trip to Colombia, I had the good fortune to rehearse with “real life” officers (even if still within the Ivory Tower).

On the request of my Colombian hosts, I arranged a teleconference from Harvard, facilitated by Harvard's Cultural Agents Initiative, the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. The Cambridge-Bogotá teleconference opened the workshop.

In Bogotá, the room was crowded with members of the Bogotá Community Police and other government officials. The Cambridge panel consisted of Javier Pagán, a Boston Police officer who serves as the Police Department's LGBT liaison; Wilfred Labiosa, a Puerto Rican psychologist working with Latino/a transgender people in Boston; Diego Sánchez, a Mexican transgender man from the Aids Action Committee; and Lisa Pic-Harrison, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, herself of Colombian origin.

The most powerful presentation for the police officers in Bogotá came from Javier Págan, a gay police officer who spoke to them proudly in Spanish. This “officer to officer” talk, as Pagán called it, helped set the tone for the rest of the workshop in Bogotá, where the audience quickly became engaged with the topic.

After the teleconference, we role-played a clash between trans-prostitutes and police officers. We incorporated this experiential component in order to enhance the participants’ sense of agency and engagement with the topic of trans-phobic violence. In collaboration with Marina Talero of Trans Ser Colombia (www.trans-ser.org), Diana Navarro of Bogotá as well as other trans-people and assistants, the workshop was designed to stem violent behavior during police/trans clashes, using techniques from Brazilian director and political activist Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed.

The situations I encountered were much more complex than my preconceived, and sometimes misguided ideas, about the Colombian police and even the transgender community itself. One of the pillars of the method used by the Theater of the Oppressed is to frame dramatizations from the victim's point of view. Thus, the the prostitutes themselves created their own dramatization, , defining the ideas for the skit and making important suggestions. The police officers, however, reacted to the dramatization with discomfort. They refuted the character of the police officer, saying that he was nothing more than a stereotypical caricature. In the police officers' worldview, that aggressive officer was old-fashioned. They refused to identify with the character as portrayed, as they imagined themselves differently. At the same time, there was an opportunity for the trans-prostitutes themselves to counteract their response within the dialogue, and to speak about their own experiences.

Once the officers were actually began to participate in the workshop and the prostitutes were able to face their real and perceived aggressors within a safe space, tough conversations began to take place, many of which need to continue over time in the space of the real world. The police officers even requested that the workshops also be extended to the trans-community. The officers feel they need to be met half way and asked the prostitutes to learn more about the armed forces, institutions currently in the process of reinventing themselves after the country’s traumatic experiences of civil strife.

Even though Bogotá has now created an LGBT liaison within the city's police force, much work remains to be done to achieve a mutual sense of respect between the LGBT communities and security forces. The voice of a young Colombian police officer who asked the Boston police officer how to respectfully approach an LGBT individual still resounds. This question about institutional measures and personal commitment is crucial. The solution, we all agreed, must ultimately be individual.

Further workshops on human rights issues have been scheduled not only within the police force, but also within the military. I began jotting some initial notes for this article while attending an international conference titled "Human Rights, State Terrorism and Universal Jurisdiction.” There I conversed with another participant, former Colombian judge Luz Estella Nagle. Nagle had served as judge in Medellín until assassination attempts and continued death threats compelled her to relocate. Once forced to flee Colombia because of her work on international criminal enterprises, terrorism, counter-insurgency, and national security laws, Nagle has since began working with the military on human rights issues. Given her vested interest in creating a balance between fighting terrorism and preserving human rights, she explained the sense of urgency with which the Colombian Armed Forces needs to address issues of violence within its ranks. As Nagle and I compared training notes, I expressed my feeling that working with the prostitutes to train the police—in fact, facilitating their dialogue—represented the most challenging and rewarding experience I have ever had.

More reflection is needed on this topic; nonetheless, the possibility of imagining nonviolent behavior during the workshop had a significant impact. Theater provided a means of momentarily allowing ourselves to transcend our own experiences and put ourselves in the shoes of others to confront and untangle the perplexities, doubts and uncertainties that naturally arise.

The exercise was surprisingly powerful. All parties recognized how this type of play-acting can help us build a future thoughtfully and intentionally, rather than just stumbling into it. Hopefully, training such as this can help police and transgender people to understand one another better so that conflicts can be avoided where it really counts: not in workshops, but in the real word, during our face to face interactions with the other, and with one another.


Carmen Oquendo-Villar
, a Boston-based interdisciplinary artist and writer, received her doctorate in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard in 2007. She has published extensively on diverse cultural fields including narrative and performance studies, visual cultures, media and politics, authoritarianism and technology, and gender and sexuality.

As a visual artist, she has completed a series of portraits about members of the Boston Latin@ transgender community and is currently working on a multimedia installation featuring Jacques Cabaret. Integrating video, photographs and possibly animation, the piece is to be a portrait of this legendary drag cabaret, the oldest in Boston, around which a multi-ethnic trans community gathers. Her website is www.oquendovillar.com.