Jhonnatan Espinosa was having a bad day last summer. He had just broken up with his partner of 10 years and was feeling really down.
"It was August 28, 2016, and I was in a bad place," he told NBC Out. "To cheer myself up, I put on one of my favorite songs by Enrique Bunbury, and I just felt better."
This soothing experience triggered a “light bulb” moment for the 43-year-old finance professional. He had been taking music classes with a group of other transgender men at the LGBTQ Center in Bogotá, and he decided to present them with a bold idea: to form a rock band unlike any other in Colombia.
The Birth of 250 Milligrams
To Espinosa’s delight, the five other trans men were on board, and the band 250 Milligrams was born in September 2016. The group’s name is a subtle reference to the members’ transgender identities.
"Every month we have to take a 250-milligram dose of testosterone as part of our transition," 21-year-old drummer Thomas Jimenez explained. "'We thought it was the perfect name — not immediately obvious with a bit of inside humor."
250 Milligrams is the first transgender male rock group in South America, according to the band members. Espinosa and Jiminez, along with Andres Castillo, Gustaff Garzon, Martin Orozco, Ale Quiroga and Viviana Vega (the group’s only woman) are the core members of this groundbreaking ensemble. They said they're part of Colombia’s new generation of LGBTQ citizens "taking a stand" to defend their rights in South America’s fourth largest country.
"Music became our vehicle to show the world who we really are," Espinosa said. "We wanted to be more visible, because we’re often marginalized by society. We didn’t want to hide away and suffer in silence. The public had to see a different side to us."
Every Tuesday and Friday they meet at the Sebastián Romero LGBTQ Center in Bogotá. They rehearse in a small, dark room at the back of the building where they write lyrics and plan their gigs. It’s not the most ideal venue for an up-and-coming rock group: When all seven members arrive, they struggle to find space for their instruments, sound mixers and mic stands among the stacks of gym mats and plastic chairs. Despite the cramped quarters, it’s a safe place where they share jokes, swap stories and are able to be themselves.
250 Milligrams is still in the startup phase. They own just a single guitar between them, and the rest of their equipment is either rented or borrowed. But despite their limited resources, the members of the group are passionate about their music, and they have big aspirations for their band.
Coming Out in Colombia
"It’s rare to find a band like us," Jiminez, the youngest member of the group, said. Colombia is still a deeply Catholic country with largely conservative views."
From a young age, Jiminez said he felt "different." As a child, he loathed girls clothes and playing with dolls. Then, when he was 15, his parents found out he had a girlfriend after looking at his text messages. This was the start of his transgender journey.
"When I told my parents I identified as male, they were angry. They have a religion that puts God first, and I felt rejected. I lost a lot of friends when I told the truth," he said.
For the past six years, Jimenez said he has been working hard to be accepted by his family. "I started the conversation by giving them leaflets and trying to explain how I was feeling. Eventually, I told them I was transitioning, and there was still a lot of confusion and tears — especially from my mother."
Jiminez is now able to live his life openly as a young trans man with the support of his parents. "I started taking testosterone about a year ago, and I feel great. I’m growing a beard!" he told NBC Out.
Viviana Vega, the singer and only person in the band who does not identify as a transgender man, works as a nurse during the day and arrives at practice still dressed in her blue scrubs. "I’m always in a rush, so I never have the time to change in between leaving hospital and practice," she laughed.
"My best friend Gustaff is a member, and I was with him every step of the way during his transition," Vega said, explaining how she became a member of the trans male band. "From the moment I saw him on stage with these guys, I felt such energy and emotion. I begged them to let me be a part of it."
Vega fulfills another important role for the band: She’s in charge of administering the monthly injections of testosterone. "I give them the dose whenever they need it, but I also monitor their health and make sure they’re coping, because it can be overwhelming."
LGBTQ Rights in Colombia
Many activists see the arrival of 250 Milligrams on Colombia’s music scene as a pivotal moment for LGBTQ rights in the country. "One of our obligations is to educate the public about what it means to be trans," Espinosa said. "There’s still a lot of people in Colombia who don’t know that trans people even exist."
According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Colombia reported the world’s fourth highest rate of murders of transgender people between 2008 and 2013.
"Almost every day a member of the trans community is killed in Colombia because of hate crimes. Many people don’t respect being different. Transgender men and women are one of the most persecuted groups in Colombia," Espinosa said.
But attitudes toward LGBTQ citizens in Colombia are changing. In 2015, the government allowed those who identify as transgender to legally change their name and gender on national ID cards. Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia have also allowed this change. It’s part of a wider shift across South America where many gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are slowly finding their voice and becoming more visible in society.
Future of 250 Milligrams
250 Milligrams started off as a cover band, but they’re now focused on writing original material that draws on their own personal experiences. Every member of the band, for example, has a story to share about discrimination. These painful memories are openly discussed during their writing sessions and used as inspiration for new music.
"'Entre Unicornos' ('Between Unicorns') is one of our original songs. It’s about being born transgender. Moments when we open our hearts, when we feel pain and suffering or we’re feeling low," Espinosa said. "But eventually we pick ourselves up, and we transform like unicorns: brilliant, colorful and magical at the core."
Over the past 10 months, the band has played mainly at local clubs and festivals in Bogotá, but thanks to their growing popularity, they’ve lined up gigs for most of the summer in towns and cities around Colombia. As of now, they plan to perform at gay pride events around the country throughout July, and they’ve been invited to perform at a festival in Mexico in 2018.
Their ultimate aim, however, is to release their own record to inspire transgender people around the world to simply be themselves.