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Latin America trans rights movement seeks advances, setbacks

Central and South America is a patchwork of progress and setback on LGBTQ issues

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Colombia is among the countries in Latin America that have extended rights to transgender people in recent years. Discrimination and violence based on gender identity nevertheless remains commonplace throughout the region. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Editor’s note: Michael K. Lavers will be on assignment in Latin America from Sept. 19-Oct. 4. He will be traveling to Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, Colombia and Chile.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Torrential downpours were flooding roads and causing massive traffic jams in the Chapinero area of the Colombian capital shortly after 6:30 p.m. on March 7 when a handful of people were gathered inside the small office of Fundación Grupo de Acción y Apoyo a Personas Trans, a trans advocacy group known by the acronym GAAT.

They were talking about ways to identify trans people as the downpours continued to flood the streets around the building. Transsexuals and cross-dressers are among the words to which they referred, but GAAT Executive Director Laura Weinstein pointed out their meaning can prove complex.

“One of the problems that we have is how to precisely identify (ourselves),” she told the group, which included trans men and women who live in different Bogotá neighborhoods.

How to identify oneself is among the myriad problems trans advocates in Colombia and across Latin America face.

Situation for trans Salvadorans ‘very delicate’
Activists across the region with whom the Washington Blade has spoken since the beginning of the year say violence based on gender identity remains a serious issue.

Three trans women were killed in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador, in February. Stacy Velásquez of Organización Trans Reinas de la Noche, a Guatemala City-based group that advocates on behalf of trans sex workers, in that same month highlighted to the Blade the case of a trans woman who fled to Guatemala after a gang member tried to slit her throat.

Diana Sacayán, a prominent trans rights advocate in Argentina, was stabbed to death in her Buenos Aires apartment in October 2015. Francela Méndez, a former board member of Colectivo Alejandría, a trans Salvadoran advocacy group, was killed a few months earlier while she was visiting a friend at her home in Sonsonate, El Salvador.

Diana Sacayán, a transgender rights advocate from Argentina, first row, left, takes part in a roundtable on LGBT
rights in Havana in May 2015. She was stabbed to death in her Buenos Aires apartment a few months later. (Photo courtesy of Francisco Rodríguez Cruz/Paquito el de Cuba)

A trans sex worker in Cuba was reportedly stoned to death by a group of six teenagers in the province of Pinar del Río in April 2015. The videotaped torture and murder of Dandara dos Santos in the Brazilian city of Fortaleza in February sparked widespread outrage and highlighted the brutal violence based on gender identity that remains commonplace in the country.

Statistics from the Brazilian Secretariat of Human Rights indicate more than half of the 300 reported LGBT murder victims in the country in 2012 were trans, with roughly 52 percent of them people of color. A report the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released in 2014 indicates the average life expectancy of trans people in the Western Hemisphere is between 30-35 years.

“The situation of our trans community is very delicate,” Odaly’s Araujo, a trans woman who lives in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador, told the Blade earlier this month. “We are being killed by the violence that exists in our country.”

Génesis Rafael, general coordinator of Colectivo Hombres XX, a trans advocacy group in Mexico City, noted to the Blade that three trans people were killed last October in the Mexican capital.

“Trans women are more visible,” said Rafael. “Having changed one’s name is no guarantee for getting a job, a place to live and even riding the subway or going to the bathroom.”

Advocates in Honduras, El Salvador and other countries with whom the Blade has spoken said they have been harassed and even receive death threats. They also said discrimination based on gender identity in employment, education, health care and other sectors remains commonplace.

“There is a double morality,” Agata Brooks, a transsexual woman in the Dominican Republic who was born in the Bahamas,” told the Blade late last month in an email. “Many are only looking for trans people in secret in order to satisfy their sexual desires, but they are the first to point you out in public.”

Araujo told the Blade there is a lack of educational opportunities in El Salvador for trans women, noting they “must dress as a man” if they want to go to high school or attend university. Tatiana Piñeros, a trans woman who ran Bogotá’s social welfare agency under former Mayor Gustavo Petro’s administration, said discrimination based on gender identity forces trans people to drop out of school.

“They are not prepared for life,” she said.

Lack of education, employment forces trans women into sex work
Piñeros and others with whom the Blade spoke said many trans women become sex workers because they lack formal education and employment opportunities.

“They are less accepted socially, suffer more rejection,” said María Fernanda Martínez of Caribe Afirmativo, a Colombian LGBT advocacy group, on March 14 as she and the Blade walked through the old city of Cartagena in which trans sex workers typically work. “We see that it is not normal in Colombia to find a trans woman working in a formal job.”

Martínez told the Blade that many trans sex workers in Cartagena are attacked and killed, noting one could no longer work after she underwent back surgery. She also said local police officers either don’t investigate attacks against sex workers or use anti-LGBT slurs against them.

A trans activist in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with whom the Blade spoke in February said police officers — along with gangs — frequently target trans sex workers for extortion and violence. The activist, who asked the Blade not to publish their name because they have been the target of two assassination attempts over the last two years, said those who publicly criticize the police or gangs are threatened and often go into hiding.

“Police officers, soldiers are the ones who violate our rights,” said the activist.

Elected officials raise trans community’s profile
Advocates have celebrated a number of legislative and political advances in the region in spite of persistent violence and discrimination based on gender identity.

Argentina, Colombia, Uruguay and Mexico City are among the jurisdictions in which trans people can legally change their name and gender without undergoing sex-reassignment surgery. Chilean lawmakers continue to consider a bill that would allow trans adults to legally change their name and gender without surgery and without going before a judge.

El Salvador’s criminal code includes enhanced penalties for hate crimes based on gender identity, but advocates with whom the Blade has spoken say authorities are reluctant to apply them. The Honduran constitution bans anti-LGBT discrimination, but activists insist these protections have had little impact.

Mexico City’s nondiscrimination law includes gender identity. The Mexican capital also allows trans people to legally change their gender without a court order.

Luisa Revilla in 2014 became the first openly trans person elected to public office in Peru after she won a seat on the local council in La Esperanza. Tamara Adrián and Diane Rodríguez were elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly and the Ecuadorian Congress in 2015 and earlier this year respectively.

Tamara Adrián is the first openly transgender person elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly. She is among those who attended the Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute’s International LGBT Leaders Conference that took place last December in D.C (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Kendra Stefani Jordany in March became the first openly trans person to ever win a primary election in Honduras. She was among the list of 20 candidates for the Central American Parliament who advanced to the country’s November general election, but she will not appear on the ballot because the party of which she is a member reorganized itself.

Rihanna Ferrera is running for a seat in the Honduran Congress. She would make history as the first openly trans person elected in the Central American country if she wins in November.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño, commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, last November signed a peace agreement that specifically acknowledges the LGBT victims of a war that lasted more than 50 years.

“The big challenge is how do we implement the agreements,” Weinstein told the Blade during an interview at her Bogotá office. “LGBT people are here.”

Bolivia is among the 18 countries that allow trans people to serve in their respective armed forces.

Cuba provides free sex-reassignment surgeries through its national health care system. Leodan Suárez, a trans woman from the province of Pinar del Río, and other advocates who work independently of Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuban President Raúl Castro who spearheads LGBT-specific issues as the director of the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, point out only a few dozen surgeries have been performed since the policy took effect in 2008.

“(The Cuban government) is the first one to discriminate against us,” Suárez told the Blade earlier this month, referring to similar comments she said she made to an Argentine journalist. “It doesn’t give us the chance to work to better ourselves.”

Lulu, a drag queen in Santiago, Cuba, poses after she performed at a public art and fashion show on May 6, 2017. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Marcela Romero, regional coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Trans People, which works throughout the region, told the Blade earlier this month during a telephone interview from Buenos Aires there have been “setbacks in regards to human rights” in Argentina and other countries in “which the LGBT community has gained very strong visibility and (trans-friendly) laws.” Romero added the Roman Catholic Church, gangs, conservative lawmakers and governments and other groups continue to influence people’s transphobic attitudes that she says contribute to violence and discrimination.

“It is very complicated,” she said. “Latin America has not yet had a streak of freedom and rights.”

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United Kingdom

Boris Johnson’s LGBTQ rights advisor visits U.S.

Nick Herbert praises efforts to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans

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Nick Herbert, a member of the British House of Lords who advises Prime Minister Boris Johnson on LGBTQ issues, speaks at the Victory Institute's 2021 International LGBTQ Leaders Conference in D.C. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

WASHINGTON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advisor on LGBTQ issues last week applauded his government’s efforts to help facilitate the successful evacuation of LGBTQ Afghans from the country.

“I’m very proud of the tremendous work that’s been done by the U.K. government,” Nick Herbert, a member of the British House of Lords, told the Los Angeles Blade on Dec. 1 during an interview in D.C. “The U.K. has shown global leadership here.”

A group of 29 LGBTQ Afghans who Stonewall, Rainbow Railroad and Micro Rainbow evacuated from Afghanistan with the help of the British government arrived in the U.K. on Oct. 29. Herbert on Nov. 6 announced a second group of LGBTQ Afghans had reached the country.

“It took … a strong effort with different parts of government working together and the determination that this was really important and that people’s safety was at risk and also that we have a moral obligation to the communities affected,” said Herbert.

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15 and regained control of the country.

A Taliban judge has said the group would once again execute people if it were to return to power in Afghanistan. Rainbow Railroad and Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, and others have been working to help evacuate LGBTQ Afghans from the country.

Advocacy groups continue to urge the Biden administration to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans who remain in Afghanistan.

Herbert noted the British government has committed to grant asylum to 10,000 Afghans under the country’s “Operation Warm Welcome” that seeks “to ensure the Afghans who stood side by side with us in conflict, their families and those at highest risk who have been evacuated, are supported as they now rebuild their lives in the U.K.” Herbert stressed this program will “prioritize” LGBTQ people and other at-risk groups in Afghanistan.

“This shows the power of working together and governments working in partnership with NGOs to achieve something,” he told the Blade. “I fully recognize there were lots of citizens who remained in Afghanistan, and so nevertheless, I think it was very heartening to see that those Afghan citizens who are most at risk were brought to the center.”

Herbert said he expects more LGBTQ Afghans will be “brought to safety,” but he declined to provide a specific number.

Johnson raised LGBTQ rights crackdown with Hungarian prime minister

Herbert spoke with the Blade before he participated in the Victory Institute’s International LGBTQ Leaders Conference that took place in-person at the JW Marriott in D.C. from Dec. 2-4.

Johnson in May appointed Herbert as his LGBTQ rights advisor.

Herbert is the first person who officially advises a British prime minister on LGBTQ issues. The former House of Commons member also co-founded the Global Equality Caucus, a group of LGBTQ elected officials around the world who work to fight discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Herbert throughout the interview noted his government continues to champion LGBTQ rights.

The British government on World AIDS Day pledged more than £23 million ($30.5 million) in additional funding to efforts that seek to “achieve zero new HIV infections, AIDS and HIV related deaths in England” by 2030. The British government also announced it would move to allow people with HIV/AIDS to serve in the country’s armed forces.

“It’s a legacy discriminatory policy that has no basis in sound science any longer,” said Herbert, referring to the policy against people with HIV/AIDS in the British military. “It’s entirely safe for people to serve, and we think they should be free to do so.”

A public comment period on a bill that would ban so-called conversion therapy in England and Wales is underway.  Herbert also expressed concern over the increasing backlash over efforts to expand rights to transgender people in the U.K.

“I’m troubled by the debate,” he said. “I recognize that … this is a that a complicated issue where you have an assertion of conflicting rights. But I don’t think it’s acceptable to see some of the sort of angry exchanges of language that has been seen over the course of the last few months.”

“It’s very damaging,” added Herbert.

Herbert noted to the Blade that Johnson rose Hungary’s anti-LGBTQ crackdown with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán when the two men met in May in London. Herbert also highlighted the British government in June will host a global LGBTQ rights conference that will coincide with London Pride’s 50th anniversary.

“The prime minister, by the way, has always been very ready to raise these issues, both when foreign secretary and now as prime minister, which is why I think he wants to hold this conference on the agenda,” said Herbert.

“We have to stand together with other countries to express our concern about what is happening,” he added. “We also must take a strong stance against culture wars, and I think governments joining in culture wars results in harm to citizens.”

U.K. has ‘historic responsibility’ for anti-LGBTQ laws in former colonies

Consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized in dozens of countries around the world, and many of them are former British colonies.

Then-Prime Minister Theresa May in 2018 said she “deeply” regrets colonial-era criminalization laws the U.K. introduced. Herbert spoke with the Blade two days after the Botswana Court of Appeals upheld a 2019 ruling that decriminalized consensual same-sex sexual relations in the country.

“We want to work with our partners in encouraging countries to try to change those laws,” Herbert told the Blade.

He stressed the British government has “to guard against any idea that we’re being so neocolonial,” while adding the U.K. has a “historic responsibility for these laws and their legacy.”

“The position we approach (with) this is one of respect where we, along with other countries, are encouraging decriminalization,” said Herbert. “We want to work with countries that will work with us to support them in that journey. We have to recognize that all countries have been on a journey.”

Herbert noted to the Blade that homosexuality was criminalized in the U.K. when he was born.

“We need to remember that other countries are different points of the journey, but it doesn’t all happen at once. And they have to make their own decisions on this and we have to encourage them to support them to do,” he said. “I don’t think that this is a case of Britain lecturing, certainly not a case of dictating. It’s a question of encouraging.”

Herbert also questioned the use of sanctions against countries that enact anti-LGBTQ laws.

The British government late last year sanctioned three Chechen officials who are responsible for the anti-LGBTQ crackdown in the semi-autonomous Russian republic that continues. Herbert described these sanctions as “justified,” but said the British government has “to be careful of blunt instruments that may backfire.”

“There can be different ways to make our feelings known and to encourage countries to do the right thing,” he said.

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South America

The gay man who shook Brazilian society and sports

Gilberto Nogueira shares his dream of inclusion

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Gilberto Nogueira (Photo by Anderson Stevens/Sport Club do Recife)

RECIFE, Brazil — An unexpected trailblazer shook Brazilian society in 2021 and caused significant advancements of LGBTQ rights in historically conservative groups.

Gilberto Nogueira, a reality show superstar, brought to prime-time television what most would think of as contradictions: A sexually liberal person with strong religious convictions; a high-level academic who speaks the language of the people; and, most strikingly, an effeminate and proudly gay man who is also a soccer fan.

Nogueira, or “Gil do Vigor,” which roughly means “Striving Gil” in Portuguese, became a TV phenomenon by almost winning “Big Brother Brazil”, one of the most popular shows in Brazilian television. His unapologetic character struck an enormous fan base that includes some of the most famous Brazilian soccer players and sports journalists. In a matter of weeks, Nogueira managed to build an unexpected alliance of LGBTQ people and sports fans to support him. This would produce lasting change, although it would not come without controversy.

“Dialogue is a great and necessary bridge to long-term changes, which leads us to reflection, reassessment of attitudes, conscious self-assessment, practical actions and much more,” Nogueira told the Los Angeles Blade from California, where he is now pursuing his PhD in economics at the University of California-Davis.

The roots of the fight for diversity in Brazilian soccer can be traced to the 1970s, when a group called “Torcida Coligay” decided to defy homophobes and the then-ruling military dictatorship by bringing together queer fans of the soccer club Grêmio. More recently, tangible outcomes have been achieved.

Since Brazil’s Supreme Court criminalized LGBTQ-phobic violence in 2019, fines and legal sanctions have been applied by sports authorities onto clubs whose supporters chanted homophobic slurs. Drawing from the heritage of Torcida Coligay, the collective “Canarinhos LGBT” has been pressuring restlessly for the enforcement of these measures.

However, as an important part of the Brazilian cultural identity, sports have also entered the cultural war that has dominated Brazil’s public life. Nogueira himself has been in the middle of a battle between two visions of what soccer should be. A fan of the club Sport Recife, Gil was invited by the club for a visit to the team’s stadium. The day after, an audio leak revealed homophobic slurs by one of the club’s advisors, sparking outrage among Nogueira’s supporters and media figures and reaching national headlines. Before the episode, it would be unimaginable to have soccer players showing support for LGBTQ Rights.

Since then, the club’s executive direction, younger and more diverse, and its governing council, older and male-dominated, started a civil war around the expulsion of the advisors. Possibly avoiding further backlash, Nogueira has not been outspoken about this topic in Brazilian media. Asked to comment on this article, he broke his silence.

“Conservatism, patriarchy and homophobia are issues that, in the sports universe, are potentialized because it is an environment where these key themes were rarely brought into the agenda, which is completely inconsistent, as sports are synonymous with inclusion. But the question is: Inclusion for whom?” Nogueira said.

“I see that we are lagging behind and there is little willingness to advance in these debates, and even less will to introduce practices that can foster the debate on gender identities, gender expression, sexual orientation, among others. I also realize that we lack dialogue, and we know that talking about the plurality of life is respecting it, inserting it, sustaining it in such an oppressive environment.” he concluded.

The battle for inclusion in Brazilian sports occurs in the midst of a highly hostile political debate.

About a month ago, Mauricio Souza, a famous volleyball player, was fired from his club after anti-LGBTQ comments on social media. Immediately, he became a symbol of Brazil’s far right, multiplying his followers and gaining support from President Jair Bolsonaro. Souza is now expected to run for the Congress in Bolsonaro’s party.

In this context, Nogueira ‘s contribution for diversity in sports becomes even more remarkable. His persona — evangelical, gay, academic, raised in poverty — defies the typical divide of the deeply polarized Brazilian society. Asked what he would say to other LGBTQ persons living in highly conservative environments such as the church and the soccer stadium, Nogueira states the answer is within.

“There are always answers within ourselves,” he said. “While everyone has the right to speak when, how and if they want to about their orientation or gender identity, genuinely belonging to ourselves is something we will question ourselves throughout our lives”.

Another remarkable characteristic of Nogueira is his firm belief in his dreams. Even having won national recognition, 15 million followers on Instagram and millions of dollars in advertisement, he chose to continue his life-long plan to pursue a PhD at UC Davis. This does not drive him away from his fight for inclusion.

“I intend to conduct relevant research that has a social impact directly related to minorities — in this case, the LGBTQIA+ community and racial issues — so that we can discuss and show that it is important to have diversity in all sectors of the country, and that this will not only bring more equality, but it will also bring development,” he said.

From California, Nogueira has his own segment in a popular TV show, explaining complex economic concepts to common people. This highlights his vision for the future of Brazil.

“I intend to use my theoretical knowledge as an economist … to show that we need to consolidate ourselves as a country that is diverse, respectful, not homophobic, not racist, because otherwise, we pay the price as human beings, but also as a country, as a whole,” he said. Nogueira’s activism and brilliance has shown that Brazilian sports culture is on an inclusive path, but there is still a long way to go. There are very few high-profile athletes who are openly LGBTQ, and in men’s soccer, Brazil’s most popular sport, there are none.

However, Nogueira’s impact, as Michael Sam and Megan Rapinoe in the U.S., is proof that society is changing and this includes formerly homophobic milieus, as the sports arenas.

Egerton Neto is the international coordinator at Aliança Nacional LGBTI+, a Brazilian LGBTQ rights group, and a master candidate at the London School of Economics. Caio Leite is a political scientist.

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Southern Asia

Trans mayor for a small city elected in majority-Muslim Bangladesh

Ritu is the first mayor in Bangladesh who is “third gender”, the official designation for transgender people in the Muslim-majority country

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Nazrul Islam Ritu (Screenshot via Al Jazeera)

TRILOCHANPUR, Kaliganj upazila, Jhenaidah, Bangladesh – A 45-year-old Transgender independent candidate beat a political rival late last month becoming the first elected first Trans mayor in this majority-Muslim, South-Central Asian nation.

Nazrul Islam Ritu garnered 9,569 votes against the Awami League-backed candidate, Nazrul Islam Sana who received 4,517 votes. Speaking with a reporter from Al Jazeera, Ritu said her victory showed growing acceptance of the “Hijra” community, an umbrella term for those born male but do not refer to themselves as either a man or woman.

“The victory means they really love me and they have embraced me as their own,” she added. “I will dedicate my life to public service.”

This nation of around 164.7 million people has a Trans population estimated to be approximately 1.5 million or less, a significant majority who are forced to live by begging or working in the sex trade, often faced daily with threats of violence and anti-Trans discrimination.

Transgender men are often times more at risk than their female counterparts.

In October 2017 Human Rights Watch interviewed six transgender men living in different parts of Bangladesh. All of them spoke of bullying at school, barriers to employment, difficulty accessing health care, as well as harassment and verbal abuse in both public and private spaces.

On top of these difficulties, they feared for their safety amid a climate of impunity for attacks on minorities by religious extremists and feared that, if they were targeted, authorities would deny that they were targeted because of their gender identity rather than come forcefully to their defense.

Interviewees also highlighted the difficulties that arise because their gender identity does not match the gender listed on diplomas, passports, or other legal documents, including their ability to get jobs and to travel.

There has been some progress as the country’s growing tolerance for the rights of sexual minorities has seen a raft of new laws under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

In 2013, transgender people were officially identified as a separate gender and, in 2018, they were allowed to use “third gender” when registering to vote. In November of 2020, Bangladesh’s first religious school for transgender people opened.

According to the BBC, more than 150 students will study Islamic and vocational subjects free of charge at the privately-funded seminary, or ‘madrassa’, in the country’s capital city of Dhaka.

This past June, the country’s government declared a tax rebate for companies hiring transgender people to boost the government’s social inclusion efforts, Al Jazeera reported.

“I propose to enact special tax incentives with a view to providing employment and ensuring rise in living standards and social and economic integration of the members of the third gender,” Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal announced as he unveiled the national budget for the 2021-22 financial year.

Speaking to reporters after her election, Mayor Ritu said that one of her main goals of is to “eradicate corruption and uproot the drug menace” in her town of 40,000 people.

 

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