Loving and Living in Medellín

By: Lynne Scullard 

I grew up waiting for my nipples to turn to stars. For me, this was the result of being born into the conservative, discriminatory, separate and oppressive country that was South Africa.  

You see, during apartheid, CENSORSHIP became the main legal instrument for the control and cultural ‘education’ of society. It was also the period where sex between two people of the same sex was a crime. The period of apartheid was from 1948 to 1994. 

I was born in 1966.

That was the same year that the iconic magazine, SCOPE was first published. Scope challenged the censorship laws of the country at the time with their double-page, center spread, pin-up posters of pretty girls clad in bikinis and shiney star-covered breasts (or to be precise, nipples).

I’m unsure if it was those shiny gold stars that drew me to be more romantically interested in women or if it was destiny already ‘written in the stars’. Whichever it was, I decided in my early 20’s to live my life authentically in a way that brought me joy. I started travelling to explore the unknown. I was the first in my family to ever leave South Africa. I lived, I loved, I worked and I opened my heart and my mind for the world to show itself to me. When I returned to South Africa, I ‘came out’ for the first time. I lost my best friend. I went traveling again. I never looked back. 

Fortunately all things eventually pass, and In May 1996, just 30 years after I was born, South Africa became the first jurisdiction in the world to provide constitutional protection to LGBT people, via section 9(3) of the South African Constitution, which disallows discrimination on race, gender, sexual orientation and other grounds.

I have been to countries where this is not the case and I have chosen to hide romance under the guise of friendship. I have been to countries where I’ve been fully accepted and was able to show affection without judgment or concern. I’ve been to countries where I have pretended to be divorced from a man and no longer interested in any other men, and I have been to Medellin in Colombia and Cape Town in South Africa.

The obvious go-to, when hearing about Medellin is the infamous Escobar story. I was happy to not have watched any of the cartel series and neither had I done much research on the place before arriving. I prefer to see how a place shows up for me, without too much expectation. 

Once known as one of the world’s most dangerous cities, Medellin has shed that skin and has undergone radical change in the past two decades. It is now far better known as one of the most progressive cities in Latin America. 

The electrifying atmosphere showcases art and innovation. The food scene is ridiculously good and so well priced. It’s beautiful people, all-night parties and, I felt, heightened social awareness, all made for an unforgettable experience.

To add to the glee that was already washing over me, I saw LGBTQ+ in full, proud display. 

I was afraid I had swallowed bugs as my mouth hung open, wide in a smile. 

My ears took delight in the energetic Spanish music that filled the air, punctuated with chatter and bursts of laughter. This was a place where people expressed themselves. There was a natural and authentic flamboyance to the people and the place. You could feel the pulse of life, and I immediately knew that I was going to love this place. 

The smell of coffee and the colourful dishes of fresh food had me salivating. The lush flora that this incredible city is built in has clearly earned its title as The city of Eternal Spring!!

At Unsettled, where I am an Experience Leader, still traveling, not looking back, and exploring the unknown, I have a colleague in Medellin, Alejandro.

To my delight, we discovered that we definitely belonged to the same life-tribe. I did not yet know why, but I felt an immediate connection. A connection to Medellin and to Alejandro.

Alejandro grew up in a traditional Colombian family, where he had always been pushed to become the man of the house in the conventional sense. Growing up, being the ‘man of the house’ was a way to conform, and even as a kid, he began to draw the scorn of some adults in his life for not living up to these expectations at a young age.

It seemed that the tradition wasn’t going to be fulfilled by him and so instead of doing what was expected of him, he chose colors, creativity, games for the sake of playing, poetry, diplomacy, arts, grace, girls as friends, dance instead of what a “macho” culture would have offered to him. Oh! He also opted for dating other guys, a thing that gave him the label of “GAY” (among others!).

Betraying his “macho” fate in a Latino culture brings with it: rejection, comparison, oppression, bullying and what may be the worst, self-denial. Thankfully, in this fertile field he blossomed when these things got dried-up and self-love started to prevail.     

Alejandro and I thought we would team up, as we have done working together in Medellin in-person, to share some insights from our experiences as members of the LGTBQ+ community who love travel and exploring the unknown.

Alejandro was born in Medellín Colombia in 1995. He has seen this world change drastically with the continuous transformations that the city has witnessed. Thankfully, the city has left behind years of conflict as well as reinventing traditionalism to be more peaceful and artistic. Growing up with these changes gave Alejandro a chance to find his passion, using “body movement with awareness“  in dance, yoga, and acting. He has managed to develop his own way of living in a city that now welcomes inclusion and diversity and he is taking an active role in living this change himself. 

A week or so into Unsettled Medellin, it was 4am when I left the rest of our group still shaking their shoulders and showing off their dance moves in a nightclub called Oráculo. At this club the dancefloor never empties and, to make the most of our evening out, it was the third we had danced in that night. 

When living Unsettled we always encourage you to Embrace the Unknown and many of our group had never in their lives visited a gay club. Alejandro said he knew some of the best places and that we should ALL go together. Gay or straight or anything else that you may identify with, everyone was welcome. Everyone that was there said that it was one of the most fun nights they’d had out – ever. One of our group, Jordin James, had this to say about that night. 

“When a handful of straight people from the Unsettled crew invited me out to a gay bar in Medellin, I couldn’t possibly say no. I’d never been to a gay bar before, but Medellin seemed like the perfect place for that to change.

I knew I made the right decision after I saw the statues of chiseled buttockses (buttocksi?) mounted on the wall overlooking the dance floor. This was a novel.

As a woman it was an amazing feeling to just dance and not have to worry about who was looking at me—because nobody was! I was invisible in the best way. It felt safe to be me.

Everything and everyone from the striptease in assless chaps shaking his money maker to the drag queen singing on the third floor who took my breath away was remarkable.

Pretty soon it was early morning, I wandered home thinking I really should go to gay bars in Medellin more often.

10/10. Would come again.”

Embracing diversity in a city like Medellín implies recognizing that at its very foundations, diversity has been destined to shape its form. Here and now, the recognition of alternative ways of ‘being’ is what is remodeling the city and what has given its inhabitants a solution to the years and years of conflict. That conflict is moving aside and now seems far more distant than reality of what is going on in present times. Particularly in the valley where Medellín is located many are coming to find their true colors due to the growing opportunities that have been developed by the government, privates and foreign actors.

This one night at the gay club in Medellín is just one night in dozens of nights that we have enjoyed together as a community in the hundreds of experiences we’ve run in more than 40 cities on 5 continents. It proves how wonderfully open minded our Unsettled community is and how genuinely, open hearted the Medellín Gay community is. 

It is with this open mind and heart that we are so happy to announce that we are again OPEN for travel in 2022. We are open for conversation, connection and community. We extend an open invitation to the millions of people in the world who are only now able and allowed to express their identity without judgement or fear. Come join us in Medellín! 

The end.

Unsettled is a global community for those who embrace the unknown and value meaningful human connection. Our mission is to inspire a lifelong pursuit of growth, meaning, and adventure through travel and shared experiences. In 2021 and beyond we are carefully and intentionally making our way back to travel, with a balance of optimism, realism,  and embracing the unknown. Join us for adventures in Tuscany and Tahiti this fall, or figure out your next move from the comfort of home with our Lifestyle Incubator. If you have a travel story, a big question, or an Unsettled musing that you would like to share, reach out to us!

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