By Anastasia Moloney
PASTO, Colombia, Feb 21 (Openly) - When Colombia's FARC guerrillas turned up at the home of Cristian Camilo Gonzalez nearly two decades ago and shoved him into a truck when he was just aged 14, his happy childhood ended abruptly.
Growing up in a rural hamlet, Gonzalez knew from an early age he was different from the other boys. He did not play football and was attracted to boys and women's clothes.
And despite being raised as a Catholic in a conservative home, his parents allowed Gonzalez to be different.
But once forced into the ranks of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, he quickly learned that being gay can have fatal consequences.
"Under their rules, homosexuality was banned and punished even by death," Gonzalez, now 33, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"For the FARC, homosexuality was seen as a Yankee affliction and a crime. My sexuality was incompatible with their rules."
Fighters who disobeyed the rules were punished, and their fate was decided by the FARC's council.
"Once there was a council to rule on two women who were found kissing each other. One was transferred to another camp, the other was shot dead," Gonzalez said. "It was after this that I knew I had to leave."
After a year in rebel ranks, a rare opportunity to escape arose when Gonzalez was ordered to get medical supplies in a nearby village. He never returned.
"It was a huge risk," Gonzalez said. "I walked for days until I was sure they had lost my track."
Gonzalez's ordeal offers a rare insight into the experiences of LGBT+ people in the FARC, who have so far remained largely hidden and invisible.
But following a 2016 peace deal between the government and the FARC ending 50 years of war between the two sides, human rights abuses committed by all sides are slowly coming to light.
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For Gonzalez, having escaped from the FARC was a chance to come out of the closet without fear of being killed.
Surviving as a street vendor and sex worker in various cities across Colombia, Gonzalez had relationships with men, and then gradually transitioned from a man to a woman.
Gonzalez changed his name to Darla Cristina. She started to wear women's clothes and make-up, and then got buttock and breast implants.
Gonzalez says she knows of only three other former FARC rebels who have become transgender women.
"Armed groups have never recognized that LGBT people made up their ranks," Gonzalez said. "We couldn't then come out as transgender or gay. But there must be many of us."
According to former rebel Olga Cedeno, who spent 34 years with the FARC and who is now a member of the group's political party, more ex-combatants are coming out.
Under the peace deal, thousands of rebels who handed in their weapons are living in designated settlements across rural Colombia as they transition into civilian life.
"I know of several women in the settlement I live in who are having open lesbian relationships," Cedeno said.
"During the war this existed but it was very clandestine. In peace time, things are different."
HUMAN RIGHTS ABUSES
Colombia's peace accord recognizes that different groups in society, including LGBT+ people, suffered and experienced the conflict in different ways, said Roman Huertas, a researcher at The Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP), a think tank based in Bogota.
"Before 1991, homosexuality in Colombia was a crime and was considered to be an illness. The peace accord reaffirms their right to diversity," Huertas said.
Colombia also recognizes that LGBT+ people were specifically targeted by armed groups because of their sexual orientation.
Of Colombia's nearly 8 million war victims, most of whom were displaced by the violence and who are recorded on the government's official list, about 2,000 are LGBT+ people.
Under the peace deal, a truth commission and war tribunals have been created to document, collect testimonies and uncover what happened in the war that killed about 220,000 people, including abuses committed against LGBT+ people.
Gonzalez says that before she transitioned to being a woman, she was sexually abused by a FARC commander, who would force himself on her while she slept in a jungle tent.
"Coming out of the closet is talking about what we feel and what we experienced," Gonzalez said.
"I'm showing I can contribute to peace and reconciliation and that it's possible to forgive."
Far more is known about how LGBT+ people were targeted by right-wing paramilitary groups, who fought against the FARC and who demobilized from 2003 onwards.
Research by Colombia's National Centre for Historical Memory reveals the paramilitaries were particularly cruel.
This included forcing gay men to take part in boxing matches, while "corrective rape" was used against gay men and transgender people to instill fear in communities and as a way of imposing social control.
On the other hand, M19, a left-wing rebel group that demobilised in the early 1990s, had a more liberal attitude towards its LGBT+ members, said Theresia Thylin, a researcher who has studied Colombia's armed groups.
"They even had a unit, during a very short time, of homosexual men, for example, that was known by the senior commanders," she said.
Having survived the war and left behind her job as a sex worker, Gonzalez is now fighting to promote equal rights for LGBT+ people in the socially conservative city of Pasto, the capital of Colombia's southern province of Narino.
Gonzalez is the first transgender person to study at a university in Narino, and the first transgender woman in Colombia to run for local councillor. In 2012, she was also the first transgender woman to be employed by the mayor's office.
"The reaction was: 'How can a prostitute work at the mayor's office?'", Gonzalez said.
Her work has included denouncing police aggression against sex workers of different backgrounds and has led to police officers being fired, Gonzalez said.
While at city hall, Gonzalez campaigned to get public policy and funds in place to promote LGBT+ rights, including access to jobs and healthcare, along with projects to help dozens of sex workers get off the streets and set up their own businesses.
But her high-profile activism has come at great personal cost.
Since 2011, Gonzalez says she has narrowly survived two assassination attempts - one involving a gun and another a knife. Three star tattoos on her shoulder cover the stab wounds.
The attacks, which she has reported to the police, have so far gone unsolved.
In all Gonzalez says she has received about 10 death threats, sent by email or pamphlets. The last threat came in September, saying: "Stop your campaign corrupting society."
"The threats aim to send a message of terror - to stop people claiming their rights," Gonzalez said.
Such is the danger Gonzalez faces that the government included her in its protection scheme for at-risk social leaders in 2016. Since then, Gonzalez moves around in a car and has two bodyguards provided by the government to protect her.
Despite the risks, Gonzalez shows steely resolve. She is determined to achieve her dream of becoming Colombia's first elected transgender councillor on her third attempt in October, when local elections will be held.
"I'm here to break stereotypes. To show we can do it," said Gonzalez. "That we're not reduced to just being in the hairdressers or in the street." (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, additional reporting by Rachel Savage, Editing by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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