September 14, 2017 at 6:00 am EST | by Michael K. Lavers
Latin America trans rights movement sees advances, setbacks

Colombia is among the countries in Latin America that have extended rights to transgender people in recent years. Discrimination and violence based on gender identity nevertheless remains commonplace throughout the region. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Editor’s note: Michael K. Lavers will be on assignment in Latin America from Sept. 19-Oct. 4. He will be traveling to Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Colombia and Chile.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Torrential downpours were flooding roads and causing massive traffic jams in the Chapinero area of the Colombian capital shortly after 6:30 p.m. on March 7 when a handful of people were gathered inside the small office of Fundación Grupo de Acción y Apoyo a Personas Trans, a trans advocacy group known by the acronym GAAT.

They were talking about ways to identify trans people as the downpours continued to flood the streets around the building. Transsexuals and cross-dressers are among the words to which they referred, but GAAT Executive Director Laura Weinstein pointed out their meaning can prove complex.

“One of the problems that we have is how to precisely identify (ourselves),” she told the group, which included trans men and women who live in different Bogotá neighborhoods.

How to identify oneself is among the myriad problems trans advocates in Colombia and across Latin America face.

Situation for trans Salvadorans ‘very delicate’

Activists across the region with whom the Washington Blade has spoken since the beginning of the year say violence based on gender identity remains a serious issue.

Three trans women were killed in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador, in February. Stacy Velásquez of Organización Trans Reinas de la Noche, a Guatemala City-based group that advocates on behalf of trans sex workers, in that same month highlighted to the Blade the case of a trans woman who fled to Guatemala after a gang member tried to slit her throat.

Diana Sacayán, a prominent trans rights advocate in Argentina, was stabbed to death in her Buenos Aires apartment in October 2015. Francela Méndez, a former board member of Colectivo Alejandría, a trans Salvadoran advocacy group, was killed a few months earlier while she was visiting a friend at her home in Sonsonate, El Salvador.

Diana Sacayán, a transgender rights advocate from Argentina, first row, left, takes part in a roundtable on LGBT
rights in Havana in May 2015. She was stabbed to death in her Buenos Aires apartment a few months later. (Photo courtesy of Francisco Rodríguez Cruz/Paquito el de Cuba)

A trans sex worker in Cuba was reportedly stoned to death by a group of six teenagers in the province of Pinar del Río in April 2015. The videotaped torture and murder of Dandara dos Santos in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza in February sparked widespread outrage and highlighted the brutal violence based on gender identity that remains commonplace in the country.

Statistics from the Brazilian Secretariat of Human Rights indicate more than half of the 300 reported LGBT murder victims in the country in 2012 were trans, with roughly 52 percent of them people of color. A report the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released in 2014 indicates the average life expectancy of trans people in the Western Hemisphere is between 30-35 years.

“The situation of our trans community is very delicate,” Odaly’s Araujo, a trans woman who lives in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador, told the Blade earlier this month. “We are being killed by the violence that exists in our country.”

Génesis Rafael, general coordinator of Colectivo Hombres XX, a trans advocacy group in Mexico City, noted to the Blade that three trans people were killed last October in the Mexican capital.

“Trans women are more visible,” said Rafael. “Having changed one’s name is no guarantee for getting a job, a place to live and even riding the subway or going to the bathroom.”

Advocates in Honduras, El Salvador and other countries with whom the Blade has spoken said they have been harassed and even receive death threats. They also said discrimination based on gender identity in employment, education, health care and other sectors remains commonplace.

“There is a double morality,” Agata Brooks, a transsexual woman in the Dominican Republic who was born in the Bahamas,” told the Blade late last month in an email. “Many are only looking for trans people in secret in order to satisfy their sexual desires, but they are the first to point you out in public.”

Araujo told the Blade there is a lack of educational opportunities in El Salvador for trans women, noting they “must dress as a man” if they want to go to high school or attend university. Tatiana Piñeros, a trans woman who ran Bogotá’s social welfare agency under former Mayor Gustavo Petro’s administration, said discrimination based on gender identity forces trans people to drop out of school.

“They are not prepared for life,” she said.

Lack of education, employment forces trans women into sex work

Piñeros and others with whom the Blade spoke said many trans women become sex workers because they lack formal education and employment opportunities.

“They are less accepted socially, suffer more rejection,” said María Fernanda Martínez of Caribe Afirmativo, a Colombian LGBT advocacy group, on March 14 as she and the Blade walked through the old city of Cartagena in which trans sex workers typically work. “We see that it is not normal in Colombia to find a trans woman working in a formal job.”

Martínez told the Blade that many trans sex workers in Cartagena are attacked and killed, noting one could no longer work after she underwent back surgery. She also said local police officers either don’t investigate attacks against sex workers or use anti-LGBT slurs against them.

A trans activist in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with whom the Blade spoke in February said police officers — along with gangs — frequently target trans sex workers for extortion and violence. The activist, who asked the Blade not to publish their name because they have been the target of two assassination attempts over the last two years, said those who publicly criticize the police or gangs are threatened and often go into hiding.

“Police officers, soldiers are the ones who violate our rights,” said the activist.

Elected officials raise trans community’s profile

Advocates have celebrated a number of legislative and political advances in the region in spite of persistent violence and discrimination based on gender identity.

Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico City are among the jurisdictions in which trans people can legally change their name and gender without undergoing sex-reassignment surgery. Chilean lawmakers continue to consider a bill that would allow trans adults to legally change their name and gender without surgery and without going before a judge.

El Salvador’s criminal code includes enhanced penalties for hate crimes based on gender identity, but advocates with whom the Blade has spoken say authorities are reluctant to apply them. The Honduran constitution bans anti-LGBT discrimination, but activists insist these protections have had little impact.

Mexico City’s nondiscrimination law includes gender identity. The Mexican capital also allows trans people to legally change their gender without a court order.

Luisa Revilla in 2014 became the first openly trans person elected to public office in Peru after she won a seat on the local council in La Esperanza. Tamara Adrián and Diane Rodríguez were elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly and the Ecuadorian Congress in 2015 and earlier this year respectively.

Tamara Adrián is the first openly transgender person elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly. She is among those who attended the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute’s International LGBT Leaders Conference that took place last December in D.C (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kendra Stefani Jordany in March became the first openly trans person to ever win a primary election in Honduras. She was among the list of 20 candidates for the Central American Parliament who advanced to the country’s November general election, but she will not appear on the ballot because the party of which she is a member reorganized itself.

Rihanna Ferrera is running for a seat in the Honduran Congress. She would make history as the first openly trans person elected in the Central American country if she wins in November.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, last November signed a peace agreement that specifically acknowledges the LGBT victims of a war that lasted more than 50 years.

“The big challenge is how do we implement the agreements,” Weinstein told the Blade during an interview at her Bogotá office. “LGBT people are here.”

Bolivia is among the 18 countries that allow trans people to serve in their respective armed forces.

Cuba provides free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system. Leodan Suárez, a trans woman from the province of Pinar del Río, and other advocates who work independently of Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who spearheads LGBT-specific issues as the director of the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, point out only a few dozen surgeries have been performed since the policy took effect in 2008.

“(The Cuban government) is the first one to discriminate against us,” Suárez told the Blade earlier this month, referring to similar comments she said she made to an Argentine journalist. “It doesn’t give us the chance to work to better ourselves.”

Lulu, a drag queen in Santiago, Cuba, poses after she performed at a public art and fashion show on May 6, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Marcela Romero, regional coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Trans People, which works throughout the region, told the Blade earlier this month during a telephone interview from Buenos Aires there have been “setbacks in regards to human rights” in Argentina and other countries in “which the LGBT community has gained very strong visibility and (trans-friendly) laws.” Romero added the Roman Catholic Church, gangs, conservative lawmakers and governments and other groups continue to influence people’s transphobic attitudes that she says contribute to violence and discrimination.

“It is very complicated,” she said. “Latin America has not yet had a streak of freedom and rights.”

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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