Pandemic pulls Latin America’s trans community into the spotlight

Pandemic pulls Latin America’s trans community into the spotlight

Why We Wrote This

COVID-19 sent governments scrambling, but some policies – like allowing people outside based on gender – had unintended consequences. Activists are capitalizing on the missteps, creating new conversations on trans rights.

Luisa Gonzalez/Reuters

Alis Nicolette Rodriguez, who is transgender and nonbinary, shops at a supermarket during gender-based quarantine restrictions, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus in Bogotá, Colombia, May 2, 2020.

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July 13, 2020

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Scores of transgender citizens in cities and countries across Latin America found themselves under a microscope this year, after decades of living in the shadows.

A handful of national and local policies dictated movement amid COVID-19 quarantines that were broken down by gender. Videos of trans people harassed in grocery stores or stopped in the streets, and in some cases assaulted for breaking lockdown orders, inspired some governments to overturn their gender-based policies. And the international community and media joined in conversations around trans rights in the region. 

While the successes are not nearly as resounding as the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that LGBTQ+ employment discrimination is unconstitutional, they hold potential for progress. 

“We are demanding the rights that already exist [for others] that have been denied to us,” says Venus Tejada Fernández, president of the Panamanian Association for Trans People. “We want to see change, and I know we can do this.”

Bogotá, Colombia

On the crowded streets of Panama City, a woman approaches a hospital, clutching her purse and phone. Before she reaches the entrance, two police officers block her path. 

“You! What are you doing? Today only women can be outside,” the woman, who is transgender and asked not to be identified by name for her security, recalls one officer saying.
 
She took a deep breath, trying to cover her fear, and explained she had a doctor’s appointment. But the officers interrogated her and denied her entrance, she reported to a human-rights group later that week. The second officer, who is also a neighbor, punched her in the face when she tried to step outside on a separate, subsequent date, she said.

Panama, along with a handful of other Latin American cities and nations, has introduced gender as a guideline in their attempts to limit the number of people outside during the coronavirus pandemic. It has had unintended consequences, like trans violence and discrimination, often at the hands of police.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Panama’s decree requires people adhere to the sex assigned on their birth certificate, and does not recognize sex changes legally. As a result, trans women must either leave on “days for men,” a gender they don’t identify with, despite their birth certificates, or journey outside on even dates and subject themselves to harassment.


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Since these policies were enacted, scores of videos have circulated on social media chronicling trans shoppers kicked out of stores, harassed on the streets, and even assaulted. The combination of international pressure and outspoken pushback from LGBTQ+ groups, who argue the measures put trans and nonbinary individuals at heightened risk, resulted in most Latin American countries and cities revoking the gender-based lockdown measures.

The victory wasn’t universal: At least one Colombian municipality still persists with the policy, and Panama, after initially reversing the policy, reinstated the gender-based restriction in early June as COVID-19 cases once again spiked.

Still, activists say the conversations sparked by these policies give them hope for the future. Government ministries and nongovernmental organizations that never publicly concerned themselves with trans rights have reached out to leading activists to form alliances and coalitions in the wake of gendered lockdown policies. The increased visibility has forced some governments and the public to acknowledge discrimination against transgender individuals. While the successes are not nearly as resounding as the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that LGBTQ+ employment discrimination is unconstitutional, they hold potential for progress.

“We have a small but powerful movement,” says Daniela Maldonado Salamanca, a Colombian trans woman and founder of the Trans Community Network in Bogotá. “I don’t think they ever imagined a small group that has been historically ignored would be listened to this time,” she says of the policy’s repeal in most of Colombia. It’s led to new, broader conversations about “exclusion in our daily lives.”

Fight for trans rights

Each country’s implementation of the gender quarantine policy has differed.

After Bogotá announced its decree, about a dozen local governments across Colombia followed. Eventually, almost all cities ended the policy. In Peru, the national government revoked its decision just one week after its introduction, stating it did not succeed in limiting mobility. Panama paused the measure for just one week, then reinstated it as COVID-19 cases surged. The Central American nation, however, was praised by Human Rights Watch for its statement against trans discrimination.

LGBTQ+ groups and academics say they believe most governments that implemented the measure were ignorant about how it could affect transgender citizens.

While several Colombian governments released statements encouraging authorities to respect trans and nonbinary individuals, “the police have been (and continue to be) one of the primary aggressors of trans people’s rights throughout Latin America,” says Dr. Juliana Martínez, professor of gender and sexuality at American University, via email. She says expecting respect for gender identity simply because governments asked security officials to do so was naive and “disingenuous.”

Despite those efforts, NGOs documented various cases of police violence against trans and nonbinary people, says Dr. Martínez, and “the entire society began policing gender as well.”

The Panamanian Association for Trans People has received over 40 reports of discrimination against trans people since April 1. The Trans Community Network in Bogotá documented dozens of cases of violence and discrimination in three weeks. Peruvian activist groups documented at least 20 cases in the one week the policy was in place. In response, LGBTQ+ groups have circulated videos of abuse, coordinated with international press, written to local and national governments, and created petitions to draw attention to the impacts of the gender-based policy on trans rights.

Thaina Duarte Diaz, an Afro Colombian philosopher and trans woman in Cartagena, says this measure “exposed the inequality we experience” daily, even pre-pandemic. Because of the attention discrimination against trans communities drew during the lockdown measures, many NGOs say they’ve found solidarity in new, promising alliances.

“Various institutions have called us and want to have a conversation about this,” says Venus Tejada Fernández, president of the Panamanian Association for Trans People. In order to build momentum and create any kind of lasting change, “dialogue is essential,” Ms. Tejada says. She was contacted by Panama’s Ministry of Social Development, the Institute of the Public Defender’s Office, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and local and international NGOs. “All want to know much more about how this policy has affected us,” she says. It gives her hope.

“This movement demonstrated their organization and their capacity to mobilize rapidly,” says Dr. Martínez. She sees it as a sign of burgeoning political power for trans activists in the region, where historically trans rights have been overlooked, even as gay-rights movements have achieved more recognition and important legal victories.

We “have taken advantage [of the moment] to talk … not only about the gendered quarantine policy, but also about how historically we have lived in exclusion,” says Ms. Maldonado, from the Trans Community Network in Bogotá.

Moving forward, advocates regionwide hope to harness the international momentum around these policies to amplify the conversation beyond the pandemic. That includes the treatment of trans sex workers, deaths and disappearances of trans people, and discrimination in the health care sector. In Panama, trans NGOs are pushing for a law that protects gender identity, as well as amendments to police protocols that will limit harassment.

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“We are demanding the rights that already exist [for others] that have been denied to us,” Ms. Tejada says. “We want to see change, and I know we can do this. There is willpower, and I am witness to it.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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