Two obsessions dominated my life during adolescence: to become a writer and to find my true love. I was twenty-five years old when I won a major Colombian poetry award. From that moment on, I called myself a writer. Yet Colombia could not offer me the love I had despaired of finding: it was at that time a homophobic society and gay life was closeted. So I left with New York as my destination. In Gotham, I was sure, my lover was waiting for me.
On 4 July 1977, in a gay bar in Greenwich Village, I met the painter Bill Sullivan. As we walked out of the bar to go to his loft in the garment district, the night sky greeted us with the Independence Day fireworks. Bill wondered if they might be a good omen for us.
That night, I heard for the first time about a painter named Frederic Edwin Church, a nineteenth-century Luminist whose reputation was just then being revived. Bill mentioned he was interested in visiting Colombia because Church had painted there in 1853 and 1857, on his way to Ecuador. Months after meeting Bill, accompanied by Daisy, his one-eyed Rhodesian Ridgeback, we moved back to my country. I knew that there would be challenges facing us as a gay couple – but this was my militant gay liberation period. I saw our trip also as my chance to make a political statement.
Upon our arrival, Bill lost no time retracing Church’s steps, and painted some of the sights his hero had a century earlier.
The late 1970s were the beginning of the bloody reign of the Medellin and Cali cartels, and the rule of a repressive government that tortured citizens and made them disappear, without recourse to habeas corpus. Barely two years after we arrived in Colombia, Feliza Burstyn, a well-known and superbly talented Colombian sculptor, was arrested and tortured. Soon after her release, she died of a heart attack in Paris in a restaurant where she was dining in the company of her friend Gabriel García Márquez. Colombia was then a frightening place.
When Bill’s visitor visa expired, we went to visit an immigration official to get it renewed. When he found out that Bill was a painter, the man asked him to donate one of his canvasses to beautify the government’s office – Bill was happy to give it. Bill went back to New York for a brief visit; when he returned to Bogotá, he was informed at the airport that, under the terms of his visa extension, he was not supposed to leave for six months. However, he was allowed into the country as long as he got another permit and promised not to travel again abroad for the next six months. We paid another visit to the immigration office to report what had happened. I reminded the man we had dealt with before that the painting hanging above his desk was a present Bill had made as a show of his appreciation for getting his visa renewed, and that our understanding was that Bill would have no more visa problems in the future. A subordinate in the office overheard my comment and he said to his boss, ‘He is accusing you of having solicited and taking a bribe.’ Men with machine guns to our backs dragged Bill and me away; he was thrown in a jail cell along with his painting, and I was taken to the office of the director of immigration. When Bill was released from his cell, he had forty-eight hours to leave the country.
Then the nightmare began: every time Bill boarded a plane to return to the States, he was removed from it and left behind. As the absurd situation became public through the press, it took an even more bizarre twist: Bill was accused of ‘exploiting and stealing the Colombian landscape’ for profit. He was threatened with having all his Colombian paintings confiscated.
Just as abruptly as the harassment began, it stopped. Eventually, we managed to leave together, paintings and all. For almost twenty years, I stayed away from Bogotá, and Bill never returned to Colombia – he died this past October. We had remained partners for thirty-three years.
Photograph by Pedro Szekely