What I Learned From the Fabulous Ms. Colombia

One of New York City's brightest gender-bending personalities died in early October.

I first noticed Ms. Colombia shortly after I moved to New York almost 20 years ago. I’d spy “La Paisa,” as she was also known, at the New York City Pride March. She loved any parade, really—Chinese New Year’s, Folsom East, the West Indian Day Parade. Dolled up with some outrageous dress and Day-Glo beard, sashaying along with her parrot, Rosie, and her tie-dyed poodle, Carino.

I’d see her in the gay section of Riis Beach, daintily grabbing her skirt ends so they didn’t drag on the sand.

But it was only after her death that I knew her name and her incredible story.

To be frank, I hadn’t bothered to learn much about Ms. Colombia before then. In my youthful mind, she was just another New York character—someone in the background. It had been years since I’d seen her, but I hadn’t given it much thought. If I had, I’d have guessed she died some time ago.

So when the news came that Ms. Colombia, born Osvaldo Gomez, drowned in the waters off Riis Beach on October 4, it was a surprise. Mostly that she was still alive—and that her passing had made headlines. It was blowing up on social media that day: Friends and people I followed were posting reminisces about La Paisa and photos they had taken with her.

In the weeks since her death, I’ve started to learn what she meant to New Yorkers, especially those in Queens.

Not a lot is known about Osvaldo Gomez. He was a lawyer in Colombia, but emigrated to New York in 1975, just as the Medellín drug cartels were ascending. “I decided to come into the United States for my own freedoms,” La Paisa explained in the 2015 doc No Your City. “Because by the time I leave my country, nobody can dress like this. They kill it.”

After being diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s, Gomez quit the rat race and started to live “day by day.” His doctors told him he only had a year to live anyway. Thirty years on, and Ms. Colombia was still letting her freak flag fly.

But who was behind the wigs and the dresses? Everyone I spoke with knew La Paisa (the name refers to people from a region in northwest Colombia), but hardly anyone knew about her daily life.

She wasn’t homeless, folks told me—she lived in Elmhurst with her sister. And there was apparently a nephew who was also gay. And La Paisa had a job—selling arepas at 80th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, near the Citibank.

Colombians starting moving into Jackson Heights in big numbers in the 1980s, and they still represent the neighborhood’s largest Latino demographic. “The immigrant community came to this neighborhood for the same reason the LGBT community came here, and the same reason I came here in 1973,” Jackson Heights city councilman Daniel Drumm told me. “To find community.”

Ms. Colombia challenged gender norms decades before most Americans were discussing non-binary identities or preferred pronouns. Everyone I spoke with reiterated how she never labeled herself or cared what pronoun people used for her.

“They ask me, are you homo? Are you gay, are you lesbian?” she explained in No Your City. “And I say, ‘No, I am [a] human being from another planet.”

There were more than 100 people at that vigil—besides Drumm there were other elected officials and candidates, trans activists, and representatives of Make the Road New York and GMHC.

Over and over, I heard how Ms. Colombia was a beacon to young queer people.

“When I was a kid, she was a staple at the Colombian Day Parade on Northern Boulevard and the Hispanic Day Parade on Fifth Avenue,” says Javier Sanchez, who grew up in Queens in the 1980s. “I was always intrigued by her. But I was also worried—I was scared that her mere proximity would make other people identify me as gay.”

As Sanchez came into his own—and came out—his intrigue evolved into admiration. “I saw the power and respect that she created with her infectious energy,” he says. “Her representation in the two communities I identify with most makes me even prouder of what she represented. Both the Colombian and LGBTQ communities feel a tremendous loss with her passing.” In her own way, La Paisa helped unite those two communities. “If not for everyone,” adds Sanchez, “then at least for me.”

That doesn’t mean she was universally accepted.

“Sometimes she wasn’t treated with the respect she was due,” Drumm admits. “Some people didn’t understand: Was she a crazy person? Someone with a solid background?”

He recalls the time Ms. Colombia was asked to leave a parade in Manhattan. “I told them, ‘She’s with me.’ And we never had a problem again.” La Paisa even marched in front of the bagpipes at the Rockaways’ St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

To an outsider like me, her getups were just flamboyant and fun. But they celebrated her Colombian heritage: The blue, red and yellow of the Colombian flag were often represented in her wigs and accessories. Her frilly white skirts recalled the pollera worn by women in her homeland as they danced the cumbia.

But even if you didn’t know all that, her aura was magnetic.

“One time when I was campaigning in 2009, she grabbed a bunch of my flyers and just started handing them out,” Drumm remembers. “She just made this incredible connection with people.”

La Paisa was gentle, but her sense of humor was definitely raunchy: At the first Queens Pride parade in 1993, Drumm remembers, she peeled and swallowed a banana provocatively for the crowd. “She had great time with that banana.” At another parade, she had a live duck in a baby carriage. (The Spanish word pato means both “duck” and “fag.”)

“I’d see her at the beach and she’d say, ‘I love when you smile,’” recalls Danny Ochoa, 30. ‘When you smile, I can see your testicles.”

Ochoa, an HIV coordinator at GMHC, first encountered La Paisa a decade ago in Medellin, where he grew up. Things had calmed down enough that she could travel home for La Feria de las Flores, a big August festival, and sometimes for Christmas.

“I’d joke and ask, ‘Why are you so crazy?’ And she’d say ‘I’m not crazy—I’m free. I have the balls to do what I want and I’m not hurting anyone.”

Drumm and La Paisa were only a year-and-a-half apart, and the councilman says he understands where she was coming from. “She always meant to shock a little bit, to push the boundaries of sexuality. She was camp.”

Pure New York characters like her are harder and harder to find. She wasn’t an influencer, she didn’t have an Instagram following or millions of YouTube subscribers. She just was.

Though authorities don’t suspect foul play, it’s sad to think about her final moments at Riis Beach. Was she in pain? Was she tired of living? At 64, she was “semi-retired” from getting dolled up. Her dog, Carino (AKA chocha, or “pussy”), died in 2014 and it seems like she never really recovered from the loss.

Instead I try to focus on what La Paisa’s life meant. On what Ochoa said about why she lived the way she did: “She didn’t want to be forgotten. She wanted to say ‘Hey, I’m here. Even if you try to avoid me you can’t. It’s impossible!’”

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.