Today is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. On this day last year, Marcela Romero called for action to deal with the shockingly high levels of violence and murder that transgender people experience in the region. She said: “please don’t let us get to next year and be saying the same thing”. Marcela is the President of REDLACTRANS – the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender People.
Marcela’s words compel me to look back over the last 12 months, look at the progress that has been made and pay tribute to the transgender women who are fighting for their rights.
Gender Identity Law: changing lives in Argentina
Let’s start with the good news, because across the region, transgender organisations keep fighting for a safer and fairer Latin America and important steps forward have been made.
On 9 May Congress Square in Buenos Aires was full of people celebrating the approval of the Gender Identity Law. From now on transgender Argentinians can change their names without the previous complicated and expensive requirements. The bill allows sex reassignment, and promotes individual’s right to make the decision. Transgender identity is no longer considered a disease.
This will have a knock-on effect in the public health system, where transgender needs will finally be addressed, increasing their access to HIV services and prevention interventions.
This historic achievement is the result of an intense advocacy campaign by transgender people and sets an important precedent in the region. “My country has started to pay the debt it has with transgenders, those forgotten by democracy” says Marcela.
Some changes for the better
Another ground-breaking development came when the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) created a specific technical unit, to deal with rights issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgenders, and intersex (LGBTI) people in the Americas. The commission is preparing a human rights report that will present to the Organisation of American States later in the year. Read more here.
Things are definitely changing for the better. In the last few weeks Barack Obama has publicly declared that “same sex couples should be able to get married”, a bold statement which will hopefully inspire other leaders in the Americas. But although we should celebrate, we should not be over-enthusiastic. These encouraging legislative and political achievements need to make an impact on the daily lives of transgenders.
Killing with impunity continues
In 2010 there were 168 killings of transgender people in 13 Central and South American countries. In spite of Marcela’s plea last year, little has changed. Hate crimes continue to be committed against Latin America’s transgender population at an alarming rate, with rampant impunity. You can read more about some of the brutal crimes against transgenders in an extended version of this article, here. This includes Gaby, a transgender sex worker working on HIV prevention, whose murder in the Mexican city of Guadalajara sparked demonstrations among the transgender community.
Newspapers don’t report the impact of this violence on transgender leaders or the appalling situations that transgender human rights defenders in countries like Guatemala or Honduras go through when a friend disappears. How they look for them in hospitals, in police stations, in morgues, where staff refuse to provide information on the grounds that “they are not family”. How, after going through the shock of recognising the corpse of a beloved friend, there is no money to provide a dignified burial. The unbelievable response of some families when the death is communicated: “Sorry, my son died 10 years ago when he left home”.
Transphobia: the front line struggle
These stories often go unreported only reach us through our contact with transgender leaders. I feel that that today, it is essential to share with you the indignation and sorrow we feel at the Alliance every time we learn about another transgender being intimidated, harassed or murdered.
I want to pay tribute to the admirable transgender women all over the region whose courage, sense of responsibility and commitment to human rights are a key part of the struggle against transphobia.
In this collection of case studies you can read first-hand accounts from across the region. Stories from women like Claudia Spellmant from Honduras who saw the murders of three of her politically active peers but still went on to obtain a seat on the Honduras Country Coordinating Mechanism to fight for the right of transgender people to HIV services.
Like Claudia, many other transgender leaders are working every day, often risking their own lives to fight for transgender people’s human rights. Violence persists in a climate of indifference, where governments continue to ignore their duty to protect the rights of their citizens. In this environment the lack of systematic records on abuses and violations across the region continues to be a key challenge.
The fight against transphobia needs to be a fight for the full inclusion of transgenders in our societies. This means that transgenders should be able to have an identity document according to their gender but should also be able to access to education, get jobs and have the opportunity to achieve their rights and full potential in life, just like everyone else.
So, like Marcela would say… We’ve achieved a lot but ‘vamos por más!’ (We’re going for more!).
Read an extended PDF version of this article.
Address homophobia and transphobia to tackle HIV – this article looks at how Alliance programmes working in challenging environments are increasing access to services for the most vulnerable, and the progress that is being made through effective advocacy.
Read more about the Alliance’s work with REDLACTRANS and its other regional partners in Latin America.
Download a compilation of case studies on the experiences of transgender people in Latin America.