Every November, the LGBT community (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans) marches through the main cities in Argentina, as part of the local chapter of the global Pride Parade.
At the 20th parade last year, people marched under the slogan ‘Gender Identity Law Now!’ This month, the parade is likely to be a celebration of the law coming into effect in May, one of several milestones the LGBT community has achieved in the last few years. The gender identity law is already helping to improve the lives of thousands of members of the trans collective (which includes transvestites, transsexuals, and transgender) by allowing them to change the names on their birth certificates and DNIs (national identity documents).
However, despite the hard-earned optimism, the situation of the trans community remains desperate. The progressive acquisition of rights in the last few decades cannot conceal the cold numbers, which indicate that trans fall well below the national average in basic areas like health, education, and employment. Reversing this situation will take a long time, and the new law is only a beginning.
Discrimination: A Death Sentence
Ravaged by years of war, famine, and human rights abuses, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the poorest country in the world. Yet, a person born in the DRC can expect to live longer than a transsexual born in Argentina.
According to the Health Ministry, the average life expectancy of a trans person is between 32 and 35 years (while a Congolese person can expect to live 48.4 years). The average life expectancy for the general population in Argentina is nearly 80 years.
There are various factors that help explain this incredibly grim statistic, all with one thing in common: discrimination. A trans person is condemned to die young, not because of some incurable disease or genetic predestination, but because of the discriminatory attitudes they are subjected to every day by ‘normal’ people and institutions.
A 2005 report by Alitt (Association for the Struggle for Identity of Transvestites and Transsexuals) indicates that 40% of the trans people surveyed had never been to a health centre. Another 56% attended hospitals, but very infrequently, due to fear, shame, and discrimination.
“The discrimination we suffer [in hospitals] is a massive barrier for us,” says Marcela Romero, a transsexual woman and president of ATTTA (Association of Transvestites, Transsexuals, and Transgender of Argentina). “Trans people get to the hospital days or even hours before they die.”
Another serious health issue affecting the trans population is the extremely high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, as many are pushed into unsafe prostitution due to the lack of other opportunities.
A 2006 survey by the Pan American Health Organisation and ATTTA shows that 34.5% of the trans people tested were HIV-positive, against an average of 0.5% for the general population in Argentina. In comparison, the country with the worst HIV epidemic in the world, Swaziland, has an adult prevalence rate of 24.9%.
Last but not least, risky practices of bodily intervention add to the health problems within the trans community. The most common interventions include hormonal treatments and silicone implants in breasts, buttocks, and hips. The vast majority of these interventions are carried out by the trans themselves, without medical consultation and without the appropriate equipment, materials, and sanitary conditions. Out of the 86% of trans people who inject silicones, almost 90% do it at home; and out of the 70% who take hormonal treatments, 80% do it at home, according to the 2008 book ‘Cumbia, copeteo y lágrimas’, compiled by trans activist Lohana Berkins.
A Slow Change
Maiamar Abrodos is a transsexual teacher. She transitioned from male to female later than most, at age 40, and her students were witnesses to her transformation. She coincides with many other activists who think that children are fairly open to these situations, but teachers and other school staff are often not. The president of the Homosexual Community of Argentina (CHA) where Abrodos participates, César Cigliutti, believes that “education is one of the most conservative and homophobic fields there are.”
Most transsexuals, however, begin their transition before their 18th birthday. This has a strong impact on the likelihood of them receiving and completing formal education, due to the discrimination and lack of understanding they face at school.
A report from Inadi (National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism) shows that there are “many cases of explicit or implicit expulsion of trans children from an education system unable to contain them.” This has resulted in drop-out rates much higher than those in the general population. The same report (which uses data from ‘Cumbia, copeteo y lágrimas’) indicates that only 64% of trans people finished primary school, 16% finished high school, and a meagre 3% finished tertiary education.
Trans people who transition during their teenage years not only leave school early, they are often thrown out of their houses and sometimes move cities in the hope of finding better conditions, or at least anonymity, elsewhere.
Last year, a group of activists started working to address this situation, and at the beginning of 2012, the first trans high school of Argentina opened its doors in the city of Buenos Aires.
The Popular Trans High-School Mocha Celis (named after a transvestite who was killed, many suspect at the hands of the police) is about to finish its first term, with around 20 students between the ages of 18 and 50. The abridged three-year course specialises in cooperativism and includes subjects such as ‘Trans memory’. Whilst it has a distinct trans identity, it is open to everyone, and a few of its students are not trans.
The school is structured under the ‘popular education’ methodology, and as such uses non-traditional forms of teaching. There are no hierarchies amongst teachers, and students are empowered and encouraged to take ownership of the place. Pao Raffetta, a teacher at the school, says that the students “are happy, and they’re also a bit thankful, which is not so great. That’s not the idea. It is a right. They should feel proud, not thankful.”
While it is generally agreed that the trans school represents a commendable effort, and that it will help to improve the lives of those who attend, some activists do not see these kinds of initiatives as long-term solutions.
Romero insists that her organisation, ATTTA, wants to achieve “visibility” for the trans community. She wants trans people to go to regular schools. “We are part of society, we live in this society. We have to be included in all these spaces,” she explains. ATTTA has been working for years to obtain administrative resolutions in different schools and universities, so that trans students are named and treated as per their self-perceived gender identity.
Romero illustrates how each case was a struggle. “We would support our compañera, we would tell her ‘go and enrol’, and the next day she would come back saying ‘I tried to enrol, but they won’t accept my [female] name’.” Now, however, “with the gender identity law that barrier has been brought down: I can go, enrol, and they don’t have to ask me anything.” As Raffetta says, the law “will not change people’s heads immediately. But it will force those who are in charge of making decisions to keep their opinions to themselves.”
Indeed, social change is not achieved by law, and it will take many years, and much education, to change people’s attitudes. With this in mind, Maiamar Abrodos recently joined UTE, a teachers’ union which has strongly campaigned for the gender identity law. The union is currently carrying out a programme called ‘Discrimination-free schools’, with the aim of educating teachers and students to eradicate all kinds of discrimination from schools. The programme was first put into practice last year, and Abrodos says that “even though we are making progress, it’s still pretty complicated. New paths are being opened, but it hasn’t been consolidated by the teachers yet. There is much fear of change.”
A lack of education and widespread discrimination are also barriers to the possibility of a trans person entering the workforce. This leaves few opportunities available to them other than prostitution.
The link between (a lack of) education and prostitution is clear. Almost 90% of trans people who did not finish primary school are prostitutes; that number drops to 76.7% for those who finished high-school, and 33.3% for the small minority who finished tertiary education.
In total, around 80% of trans people are sexual workers. However, 77% of them would prefer to do something else, if they had the choice. This is why Romero prefers to talk about “sexual exploitation” rather than sexual work or prostitution.
Those who derive their income from other activities mainly work as seamstresses, hairdressers, beauticians, and in “esoteric activities”. Most of these are low-qualification jobs, and are exercised independently. “The vast majority of transsexuals live under the poverty line,” says Romero.
There are private and public initiatives already trying to improve the situation of trans people in the workplace. One of them is the Nadia Echazú Cooperative, a textile workshop created and run by 60 transvestites and transsexuals who would otherwise be destined to work as prostitutes. A similar case is that of textile cooperative Amazonas del Oeste, in the Greater Buenos Aires area of La Matanza.
The state and sexual diversity organisations are also working side by side to create employment opportunities for the trans population. The Ministry of Social Development and ATTTA run training programmes for trans people to become in-home carers for the elderly. Graduates have the opportunity to work at institutions that have special arrangements with the ministry.
The Ministry of Labour and Inadi, meanwhile, have signed agreements to implement policies aimed at promoting tolerance of sexual diversity in the workplace, both at private companies and within the state. The Ministry of Labour also has its own ‘Policy of Work Inclusion for Transvestites, Transsexuals and Transgender People’, which aims to include trans people in existing programmes to “complete their studies, obtain professional training, and develop independent employment projects.”
After a successful pilot program in La Matanza earlier this year, Inadi will also undertake a nation-wide survey of the trans population in order to gain a better understanding of the challenges faced by this social group and improve the design of specific policies.
Ultimately, overcoming the difficulties that affect the trans community and creating a truly inclusive society, is something that will require a massive change in individual attitudes. Laws, like the gender identity one, are the beginning, but there is much work ahead.
The trans community, however, is hopeful. Most trans people have seen more changes in the last few years than in their entire lives. “I am optimistic,” says Abrodos. “I think changes are happening. We have to wait, give it time. It’s difficult, society is difficult, but I’m optimistic.”
Furthermore, the real change comes from the fact that trans people themselves are involved in making these changes happen. The text of the gender identity law, for example, was put forward by trans organisations.
Romero summarises their feelings: “I’ve always dreamt of this. Of being recognised as a citizen. Being able to get the same opportunities as any other citizen. Being able to say: I want to study, I want to get a degree, I want to work, I want to choose… Right now, in this political moment, there is a dialogue, we were listened to. And really, this is a great step for the world. The Argentine gender identity law is the best in the world. And it’s a law that we created.
“We didn’t know democracy until the law was passed. We were democracy’s forgotten.”
What’s in a Name?
* The gender identity law was passed by the Senate on 9th May 2012, with 55 votes in favour, 1 asbtention, and 0 against.
* It recognises the right to gender identity, and to develop one’s personality according to their self-perceived gender identity.
* Anyone can change the gender and first name on their birth certificate and DNI, without the need to have a sex-change operation, hormonal and/or psychological treament, or judicial authorisation. What took people like Marcela Romero over ten years, any trans person can now do in an afternoon.
* The law guarantees “the right to free personal development”, which includes integral health care, access to total or partial surgery, and hormonal treatments to adapt transsexuals’ bodies to their self-perceived gender identity.
* These services have to be provided by the public health system and covered by health insurance companies. Judicial authorisation will no longer be required for these medical practices.
Originally, the efforts of the trans activists were concentrated on abolishing discriminatory local and provincial laws passed during the second half of the 20th century, many under military governments. They criminalised homosexuality and cross-dressing, and were used as excuses to justify police abuse.
Marcela Romero is 48 years old. She is a long-time fighter for the rights of the trans community. Having grown up during the last military dictatorship, she suffered all kinds of violence and abuse. With the return to democracy in 1983, she was filled with new hopes for change. "I was always very hopeful; every time a new democratic government took office, I would think that maybe I'd get to have my DNI [national identity document], I wouldn't be jailed anymore, I would be able to walk around the streets in peace..."
It was a long struggle, but over time, the trans organisations achieved their goal and wiped discriminatory articles off local legislations.