Why you should care
Marta Álvarez fought for the right for conjugal visits for lesbians and earned an official apology for her trouble.
When she first entered Colombia’s prison system, Marta Álvarez knew she had to do her time: She killed her brother. But she was still incredulous. Not at her own incarceration, but at the conditions for lesbian women like her on the inside. They were being thrown into solitary confinement for exchanging a kiss.
“Lesbians have two sentences,” says Álvarez, now 60. “One for what we did, and another for being gay.” But it was such blatant discrimination that turned her into a crusader. “They did it to break me, but it just made me want to fight.”
The isolation of prison drives women to turn to each other for affection and company, says Álvarez, and that comfort was being not only denied but punished. She knew she was gay long before she was put away — from the age of 13. In fact, she says, there were a lot of gay people in her small town of Santuario, in the western Colombian department of Risaralda, where she was born and raised. The community “didn’t love us, but they tolerated us, respected our parents and our families. But there were cases of violence and murders against gays,” she remembers.
She says she was one of the few women who would walk hand in hand with her girlfriends in her hometown, and because two of her siblings were gay her father was accepting. But he was also aware of the local dangers and sent Marta and her older brother to live in Boston in her late teens. Álvarez returned to Colombia in the mid-1990s to help her younger brother, who was getting into drugs. But she ended up killing him after he repeatedly attacked her physically and verbally, landing her in prison. She snapped, she says, when he wagged his penis at her and yelled: “Suck it! Suck it!”
In 1994, even heterosexual women weren’t allowed conjugal visits with their partners in jail. In women’s prisons “a lot of the norms were marked by religious values and different from the practices in the male prisons, which weren’t run by religious organizations,” says Marta Tamayo, Álvarez’s lawyer. Women’s prisons in Colombia at that time were run by Catholic nuns. But the conjugal visit policy changed in the early months of Álvarez’s incarceration, thanks to a new law. So Álvarez applied for permission to have her then-girlfriend, Marta, come visit her.
The law left such visits to the discretion of prison directors and judges. Álvarez’s request was denied by the prison director, saying it was immoral and a security threat, even though it was approved by a local judge.
She appealed the decision, writing: “I am in love with a woman who is one hundred percent for me … You might find it strange that a woman loves a woman. I understand that. But don’t judge me based on your beliefs.”
She was denied again. It was a devastating blow, on top of the routine abuse — from solitary confinement to physical torture. One guard, she says, broke her nose. She appealed to the guard’s boss, who replied: “What do you want me to do about it?”
“I think that prison is a slice of society,” Álvarez says. “On the streets, there are mostly good people, but a few bad ones in whom you live in fear. It’s the same on the inside, and they are the ones that cause the chaos.”
Álvarez spent 10 years in the Colombian prison system. During that time, she was moved more than a dozen times, with little or no justification, according to Tamayo and documentation on her case from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Every time she was shifted to a new prison, she had to form new relationships with guards and inmates, and she was often far enough away from her family to make regular visits impossible. Up until her release in 2003, she fought for the right to intimate visits. By then she had a new love, a fellow prisoner also named Marta.
Her first and only conjugal visit during her 10-year incarceration was on December 16, 2002. She was released almost exactly a year later and moved back to Boston, but didn’t feel free and wanted to keep fighting.
We hope that this case will set a precedent for the region.
Francisco Quintana, Center for Justice and International Law
The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights first admitted her case in 1996, and Álvarez and Tamayo credit the international pressure on the Colombian government for its exceedingly rare — if belated — formal apology.
“The case of Marta Álvarez hasn’t just had an impact in Colombia, but in the whole of the region,” says Francisco Quintana, program director for the Andean region, North America and the Caribbean at the Center for Justice and International Law. “It was a huge exposure of abuse at the hands of the authorities and has allowed us to sit at the table with the government to talk about the formation of rules in the prisons. We hope that this case will set a precedent for the region.”
In 2017, Álvarez returned to visit one of the prisons where she was held in Bogotá. During a ceremony in the patio of the prison attended by a group of some 50 lesbian prisoners, Colombia’s Minister of Justice Enrique Gil Botero said: “Denying an inmate the right to an intimate visit because of their sexual orientation was a fact of extreme discrimination, but not having offered them an effective judicial recourse to vindicate their rights deepened the institutional violence of which they were victim.”
“I felt that he was being sincere,” says Álvarez. “I felt recognized, and that it had all been worth it.”
As for her love life? Álvarez is now married to Marta Silva, the last girlfriend she had on the inside. They were released at different times and lost touch, but years later got back in contact. “They used to separate us on the inside once they knew we were a couple. They used to make us cry,” says Álvarez. “But we always had a really strong connection.”
Even now, Álvarez hasn’t had enough. At the end of the year, she plans to move back to Colombia, when she retires from her job as a pharmacy technician. She and Tamayo want to monitor the progress for lesbian women in Colombia’s prisons and whether they get intimate visits. Quintana says that although there are signs the government has begun training prison officers and directors to better treat and accommodate gay female prisoners, there is still a lot of work to be done. “The situation won’t change overnight or even in a year, but we are in a good position in the fight.”
Álvarez isn’t sure how receptive the government will be to her desire to measure its progress, or what kind of access she’ll have to the prisons. No matter. “I know how to get in,” she says, “even if they don’t give me permission.”
Read more: My terrifying trek across borders, rivers and jungles to find my wife.