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Mexico City shelter offers second chance for transgender residents

Casa Refugio Paola Buenrostro named after murdered trans sex worker

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Kenia Cuevas, founder of Casa Refugio Paola Buenrostro, a shelter for transgender people in Mexico City (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

MEXICO CITY — Alcohol and drugs were the only things that allowed Michel Ríos, 33, to cope with her fears and traumas when she engaged in sex work or tried to face her life as a person with a disability.

Ríos is a transgender woman from Mexico’s Veracruz state who lost one of her legs when she was seven and earned her family’s contempt from the moment she assumed a non-heteronormative sexual orientation and gender identity. Ríos was forced to leave home at 15 and began to earn a living on the streets, alone.

She began to seek help after several years.

Ríos found Casa Refugio Paola Buenrostro, a shelter in Mexico City that Casa de las Muñecas Tiresias, a local advocacy group, runs. She first arrived with the intention of becoming sober through an Alcoholics Anonymous program, but she ended up staying to rebuild her life.

Shelter named in honor of murdered trans sex worker

Kenia Cuevas, a renowned LGBTQ rights activist, founded Casa de las Muñecas after she witnessed the murder of her best friend, Paola Buenrostro, in December 2016 while they were both engaged in sex work. That tragic event was the final straw that motivated her to fight for her community.

Casa Refugio Paola Buenrostro opened its doors in January 2020.

“The mission of our organization is that those people who we welcome know their rights, that they can have a decent life, that they can understand life processes and we can rescue them from situations of vulnerability, of abandonment, when they believe that everything has been lost,” said Cuevas during an exclusive interview with the Washington Blade via Zoom.

International News Editor Michael K. Lavers visited the shelter on Saturday and met with Cuevas.

“In short, what we do is create living conditions in accordance with human rights,” said Cuevas. “We have managed to give visibility to all the problems that trans people face on a day-to-day basis and of which society was not aware.”

Casa de las Muñecas has offices in Mexico City and in Mexico, Nayarit, Morelos and Guerrero states. It has a team of professionals who carry out a variety of services for trans people that includes support for legally changing their identity, legal advice and education workshops.

“We are also entering prisons to provide legal literacy to transgender people, workshops on culture, sports, addictions,” said Cuevas. “When they are released we then rescue them and take them to the home to continue their social reintegration.”

Casa de las Muñecas’ Mexico City shelter is named in honor of Buenrostro. Casa de las Muñecas also plans to open two additional shelters — one in the Mexican capital and another in Mexico state.

Casa de las Muñecas served 1,800 people in its first year of operation, which was 2018. The organization, according to Cuevas, had worked with upwards of 10,000 people last year.

Ríos arrived in July 2020 amid the pandemic. She said the shelter and its residents are now her family, because she has not seen her biological relatives since 2007.

“It is my home, a refuge from discrimination, violence, prostitution, drugs and alcohol,” Ríos told the Blade. “Staying here gives people the opportunity to grow, to achieve their dreams. It tells you that you can still dream. I am 41-years-old and I am dreaming. I am learning to dream here. The house has opened my horizons, it has given me the opportunity to be a different person.”

Ríos’ goal at the shelter is to learn the skills that will allow her to reintegrate into society. Ríos said she also hopes to help other people who may be in the same situation in which she was before she arrived.

“My goal is to finish my ‘prepa’ (high school diploma) and make a career for myself,” said Ríos, who hopes to become a designer.

This educational preparation is part of an intervention strategy that Casa de las Muñecas created in July 2020 to eliminate education disparities among the trans community.

“We do workshops aimed at economic autonomy, connecting them to the labor force,” said Cuevas. “It also allows for psychological support, access to health care, treatment for HIV or hormones, as well as the right to identity, either in their documents or the change of identity.”

Two residents of Casa Refugio Paola Buenrostro, a shelter for transgender people in Mexico City, on July 17, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Victoria Alejandra Arias, 33, a trans woman who is also from Veracruz state, learned while at the shelter that she is living with HIV. She was diagnosed at the shelter and now receives treatment.

Arias abused alcohol and drugs and was a sex worker.

She said her now ex-partner physically and emotionally abused her. He threatened and blackmailed Arias before they finally ended up in jail.

Arias recalled she was in a desperate physical and mental state when a friend brought her to the shelter on Jan. 7. She has found purpose in her life after less than five months.

“We have several workshops here, we go out to do exercises,” Arias told the Blade. “My life has changed in every way. I have improved in the physical sense because I got too thin. I used crack, a very addictive drug, and it really destroys people. My appearance is improving little by little. I know that I am on my way.”

“Women already have a profession because of all this support,” added Cuevas. “It will be easier for them to integrate themselves into society because they can come out (of here) a little more educated, empowered and know their rights and responsibilities.”

More than 20 people were living in the shelter when Cuevas spoke with the Blade, with 50 names on a waiting list. Canela and Leslie, two rescue dogs, also live at the shelter.

The Mexico City government pays the shelter’s rent and utilities, but donations that mostly come through social networks and people who provide furniture and other items support it. Cuevas donates around 70 percent of her salary.

“Our day at the house starts at 6 in the morning,” said Arias. “We make the bed, we bathe, we put on makeup and we go to our workshops, because part of this place’s goal is to re-educate ourselves.”

Ríos told the Blade the shelter offers English, theater, cosmetology, mathematics, Spanish, science and acting workshops.

“I’ve already imitated Paquita la del Barrio because I look a lot like her physically,” she said. “My favorite workshop is the theater — especially comedy — one because it goes great with my personality. The experience of acting is very beautiful. I have a lot of fun.”

Ríos said she and other workshop participants are preparing to premiere a play in December. She told the Blade they also perform at street festivals and in prisons.

Cuevas said she wants to open a headquarters for Casa de las Muñecas and a shelter in each of Mexico’s 32 states. Cuevas added she would like to expand her work throughout the rest of Latin America.

She said her greatest achievement is the gratitude and happy faces of those who have passed through the shelter.

“Thanks to this place I have regained my dignity,” said Ríos. “I want to live and, despite my disability and all the physical problems, I don’t let myself be defeated and I keep going.”

Arias, meanwhile, hopes to become a stylist “because I want to have a job.”

“I would like to finish my studies,” she said. “I see all those goals closer and stronger now and all that is for my life here. My greatest success is being clean and having goals in my life.” 

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South America

Colombia’s first leftist president takes office

Gustavo Petro has pledged to support LGBTQ, intersex rights

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Gustavo Petro took office as Colombia's first leftist president on Aug. 7, 2022. (Photo courtesy of the Colombian government)

Former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro on Sunday took office as Colombia’s first leftist president.

The former Colombian senator who was once a member of the M-19 guerrilla movement that disbanded in the 1990s, in June defeated former Bucaramanga Mayor Rodolfo Hernández in the second round of the country’s presidential election. Petro’s running mate, Francia Márquez, on Sunday took office as Colombia’s first female vice president of African descent.

Colombian Vice President Francia Márquez. (Photo courtesy of Márquez’s Twitter page)

Petro before his inauguration named Néstor Osuna, an openly gay man, as the country’s new justice minister.

“I am honored and thankful to President Gustavo Petro for the appointment as Colombia’s justice minister,” tweeted Osuna on Sunday. “I commit myself to working with your team to achieve the change for which so many of our compatriots yearn.”

Petro in his inaugural speech did not specifically reference LGBTQ and intersex Colombians, but OrgulloLGBT.co, the Washington Blade’s media partner in the country, published pictures that show LGBTQ and intersex people were among those who attended the inauguration.

Petro during the campaign pledged to fight violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and to implement policies “for the reaffirmation of gender and sexual orientation identities without barriers for all nonbinary and transgender people in Colombia.” Márquez noted LGBTQ and intersex Colombians after she and Petro won the election.

Wilson Castañeda, director of Caribe Afirmativo, an LGBTQ and intersex rights group in northern Colombia, told the Blade after Petro and Márquez won the election that the campaign held “various meetings” with advocacy groups. Castañeda also noted that Petro, among other things, named Tatiana Piñeros, a transgender woman, to run Bogotá’s social welfare and tourism office when he was mayor.

Castañeda and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power are among those who attended Sunday’s inauguration that took place in Bogotá’s Bolívar Square.

“Full squares; happy faces; the flags of Colombia, Bogotá; rural, indigenous and LGBTI communities received the president and the vice president in an emotive and historic act that inaugurated the first popular and leftist Colombian government,” tweeted Bogotá Mayor Claudia López on Sunday.

López is married to Angélica Lózano, a bisexual woman who in 2018 became the first LGBTQ and intersex person elected to the Colombian Senate.

Lozano in March won re-election in the country’s national elections. Colombians also elected five openly LGBTQ and intersex people to the country’s House of Representatives.

Tamara Argote in March became the first non-binary person elected to the Colombian Congress.

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Africa

Landmark intersex rights law takes effect in Kenya

Activists praise Children Act 2022

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(Photo courtesy of Rarrarorro via Bigstock)

A new law that took effect late last month in Kenya has granted equal rights and recognition to intersex people 

Intersex people are now recognized as Kenya’s third gender with an ‘I’ gender marker in response to the Children Act 2022. Kenya is the first African country that has granted the intersex community this universal right.

The new law requires intersex children to be treated with dignity and have equal access to basic services like medical treatment and education, in addition to social protection services as a special need. It also requires the accomodation of intersex children in child protection centers and other facilities.

Courts are also required to consider the needs of intersex children who are on trial — including the calling of an expert witness — before they issue any ruling. The law further stipulates that anyone can be a foster parent without restrictions of gender, age or marital status.

It also protects intersex children from so-called sex normalization surgeries, and such procedures will only be done with a doctor’s recommendation. Those who violate the law will face at least three years in jail and a fine of at least $5,000.

“This is a great and major milestone globally for Kenya. We are now way ahead and can teach our neighbors and the whole globe good practices,” said Jedidah Wakonyo, a human rights lawyer and former chair of the Intersex Persons Society of Kenya

The long journey for recognition started dramatically in 2006 when some human rights organizations petitioned courts about a detainee who had been accused of a violent robbery.

Authorities perceived the suspect was a man after police strip-searched him before he entered prison.

This followed numerous court battles by intersex people who demanded the right to recognition as another gender in their birth certificates.

Being denied birth certificates from the discriminatiory law that only recognized male and female genders further limited their access to national identity cards, passports and other crucial documents and government services.      

The Births and Deaths Registration Act under the new law’s Section 7 (3) “shall take measures to ensure correct documentation and registration of intersex children at birth.” 

Intersex people commonly have a combination of male and female gonads (ovaries or testicles) or ambiguous genitalia. 

Wakonyo, who also chaired the Intersex Persons Implementation Coordination Committee and was named the International Court of Justice’s 2020 jurist of the year, describes the law’s enactment as a historic moment because of its comprehensive definition of an intersex person.

It defines an intersex child as “a child with a congenital condition in which the biological sex characteristics cannot be exclusively categorized in the common binary of female or male due to inherent and mixed anatomical, hormonal, gonadal or chromosomal patterns which could be apparent before, at birth, in childhood, puberty or adulthood.”

Kenyan law considers anyone under 17 to be a child.

“Defining an intersex from a child’s perspective while taking care of many aspects and not just the physical notion of being intersex is the best practice because in future they don’t find themselves in the state of gender confusion between males and females like the current situation,” stated Wakonyo. 

This provision essentially protects intersex persons from being deprived of their constitutional rights of gender recognition under the country’s Bill of Rights.

Veronica Mwangi, the deputy director at Kenya’s National Commission on Human Rights, that helped secure the law’s implementation, said it addresses issues for which the intersex community has been fighting for years.    

“It is very progressive and we are glad about the gains because it provides for the existence of the intersex which all state actors have to accept. Full implementation is what we now need to focus on,” she said.

The law took effect roughly five years after Kenya became the first African nation and the second country in the world after Australia to count intersex people in a Census. The 2019 survey showed 1,524 Kenyans were intersex.

Intersex rights groups had initially petitioned the courts for a total ban of surgeries on intersex children unless they were a medical emergency.

Wakonyo backs the provision for a doctor’s approval on grounds that the surgeries will only be done “in the best interest of the intersex child, informed consent of the parents and the participation of the child depending on the age.” Wakonyo and other activists say the relaxation of the requirements for adopting intersex children not only seeks to end the problem of neglect and abandonment but also the stigma that has left some to die by suicide.

The law safeguards adoptive parents’ rights and parental responsibility and intersex children from child labor, online expuse and other forms of exploitation.

“Intersex children who are just like other children will no longer be killed at birth because of their gender ambiguity,” said Wakonyo.   

Despite the law’s huge benefits for the intersex community, Wakonyo notes it is a “very significant foundation” for the group because gender-specific accommodations in social gatherings and facilities remain needed.

Another historic win for intersex Kenyans this year was the Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights’ decision to hire an intersex commissioner.

“Dr. Dennis Wamalwa applied as an intersex (person), interviewed as an intersex (person), and the shortlist comprised male, female, and ‘I’ gender for intersex. He emerged (at the) top and his intersex friends and associates came to witness his swearing,” stated Wakonyo, who also served as a Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights commissioner.

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Canada

Montreal Pride organizers cancel parade

A lack of security personnel prompted last-minute decision

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(Courtesy of 𝐅𝐢𝐞𝐫𝐭é 𝐌𝐨𝐧𝐭𝐫é𝐚𝐥 𝐏𝐫𝐢𝐝𝐞/Facebook)

Citing a lack of adequate security personnel, the organizers of the Fierté Montréal Pride Parade abruptly cancelled Sunday’s parade. The event organizers told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation the decision was made in collaboration with Montréal police.

CBC reported that other Pride events taking place at the Esplanade du Parc olympique from 2 p.m. local time, including the closing show with Pabllo Vittar, will go on as as planned. Tens of thousands of people were expected to attend the parade.

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