March 7, 2018 at 12:00 pm EST | by Nicolás Levy
‘A Fantastic Woman’ reignites Chile trans rights debate
Daniela Vega, gay news, Washington Blade

Daniela Vega as Marina in ‘A Fantastic Woman.’ (Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

SANTIAGO, Chile — The success of the Chilean film “A Fantastic Woman” has triggered an authentic revolution not only around the world, but in its country of origin.

Director Sebastián Lelio’s film marks Chile’s first Oscar in the best foreign language film category. It has also made visible the harsh reality of the local transgender community and the fight for its rights in a very conservative society.

Chile’s main newspapers on Monday published on their front pages pictures of Lelio and Daniela Vega, the 28-year-old trans actress who starred in “A Fantastic Woman.” The focus of attention that had been on Vega throughout 2017 intensified after the movie was nominated and the news that she would become the first trans person to present at the Oscars.

The impact was felt by the entire society.

Chilean national television on March 2 broadcast “A Fantastic Woman.” Google Trends indicates Chilean users searched for “transgender” and “What does it mean to be transgender?” 24 hours before the broadcast, among other specific information related to the film or Vega’s life.

“A Fantastic Woman” on Sunday was trending online during the Oscars.

Actress a role model for young trans Chileans

Vega has become a point of reference for the Chilean trans community in a year marked by the still slow progress of a gender identity bill in Congress and the presence of the anti-trans “Freedom Bus” last June. Sebastián Piñera, the right-wing former president, was elected in December with the support of a conservative political coalition that includes some groups opposed to the LGBTI agenda.

The screening of the film in local movie theaters was among the several initiatives that promoted visibility of Chile’s trans community. These include the publication of an article about the first trans woman who transitioned on the job in the country.

Vega has taken advantage of the spotlight to make some political statements about the conditions to which trans people are exposed. She has publicly pointed out the irony of representing her country with a passport that doesn’t recognize her gender identity and has described herself as “happy and incorrigible” after Piñera declared shortly before the election the gender identity of trans children could be corrected overtime.

Franco Fuica, a trans activist who is a member of Organizando Trans Diversidades (OTD), a Chilean trans advocacy group, said Vega is a role model for trans children and teenagers and their families.

“One of the hardest barriers for trans people is not having references,” Fuica told the Washington Blade. “A few years ago, I met a 12-year-old trans girl who wanted to be a sex worker because she thought that was what a trans person had to do. Today trans adults, like Daniela, could be role models to future generations and we have to create new imagery to move towards a healthier society and fearless families.”

Evelyn Silva, director of Fundación Selenna, an organization that works for the rights of trans children in Chile, said trans boys and girls can see Vega as someone who has achieved her dreams.

“It is very significant that she is a woman, because trans women are the most discriminated people in the LGBTI community,” said Silva. “This award gives hope for our children to think not everything that is related to transsexuality is sad or hard.”

Fuica said Vega has proved “trans people can do everything we want, as long as we conquer all the spaces and opportunities that we deserve just like any other person.”

“And that is what Daniela is accomplishing,” added Fuica.

Lawmakers urged to pass trans rights bill after Oscar win

The Oscar has reignited the public debate around gender identity and trans people’s rights.

Outgoing President Michelle Bachelet herself made a series of statements in favor of the trans community moments after “A Fantastic Woman” won the Oscar.

“The award, which makes us proud, not only recognizes a great quality film, but also a history of respect that makes us good as a country,” wrote Bachelet on Sunday night on her Twitter account.

Some Chilean LGBTI movement leaders in the hours after the Oscars have used “A Fantastic Woman’s” win to accelerate the discussion of the gender identity bill.

Fundación Iguales President Juan Enrique Pi said “a celebration without understanding the duty we have as society to protect trans community is petty” and pointed to current and future administration and Congress officials to fulfill these pending matters. Rolando Jiménez, president of the Movement for Homosexual Integration and Liberation, had a similar opinion.

“The joy of public authorities for the success of the film requires at a minimum (a commitment) to accelerate the discussion of the gender identity bill, protecting trans people rights from their childhood and without conditions,” he said.

Franco Fuica of Organizando Trans Diversidades (OTD), a Chilean transgender advocacy group. (Photo courtesy of Organizando Trans Diversidades)

Fuica added OTD expects the film’s impact could pave the way for the gender identity bill to be approved this week before Piñera takes office on March 11.

The Chilean Senate on Tuesday approved the measure, but it remains unlikely it will be signed into law by the time Piñera arrives at La Moneda. Local media have indicated “A Fantastic Woman” has presented the new administration with its first challenge before it even takes office.

Gonzalo Blumel, the future minister of the General Secretariat of the Presidency, the institution within the Chilean Executive Branch in charge of prioritizing legislative debates in Congress, said during a national radio broadcast the movie “presents us a challenge we have to take.” Blumel also recognized “the need of legislation, especially because the change of registration is cumbersome and is not up to the standards.”

Future Justice Minister Hernán Larraín, who is part of the most conservative party that was part of Piñera’s coalition and, paradoxically, the father of one of “A Fantastic Woman’s” producers, said the incoming administration will do everything it can “to bring solutions for a just need” of trans people. Larraín, however, added the situation of trans minors will be more complicated because “no one can make decisions for them, not even their parents.”

“We have to look for a temporary solution,” said Larraín.

Chilean lawmakers are under increased pressure to approve a transgender rights bill after “A Fantastic Woman” won an Oscar. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Nicolás Levy is a Chilean journalist who specializes in LGBT human rights. He is a correspondent for the Washington Blade in Santiago, Chile.

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