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ARGENTINA: Transgender Community Faces Uphill Battle for Rights

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Mar 23 2006 (IPS) - Noelia Luna was born a man, but lives as a woman. She is unemployed, has lived with the same partner for 15 years and has three children. Her life seems fairly uneventful. But compared to other transvestites, transsexuals and transgenders in Argentina, she is a relative rarity: she is a survivor.

“I was able to go to school and have a family, but for the majority of us, life is extremely difficult,” Luna told IPS.

“It’s a cultural issue. For the typically ‘macho’ Latino male, ‘fags’ are something to look down on and laugh at from the time they are children, and this continues to be true later, in school or in hospitals, where we face discrimination,” she said.

According to a report on the situation of transvestites, transsexuals and transgenders in Argentina, for which 302 people were interviewed in the cities of Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata and in outlying suburbs of the Argentine capital, the list of friends in the transgender community who have died in recent years totals 420, most of whom died at a young age.

The report reveals that 62 percent of the total died of AIDS, 17 percent were murdered, and the rest either committed suicide or died in car accidents, of drug overdoses, as the result of medical malpractice during plastic surgery or other procedures to change their physical appearance, or of cirrhosis of the liver, cancer and other diseases.

Almost 70 percent of these deaths occurred when the victims were between the ages of 22 and 41, adds the report, titled “La gesta del nombre propio” (which roughly translates as “the epic battle for one’s own name”).

The study was published this month by the Association of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and coordinated by Lohana Berkins of the Association for the Struggle for Transvestite and Transsexual Identity.

Berkins was able to undertake tertiary level studies after successfully demanding official documentation in a name representing her chosen gender, which she achieved by filing a complaint through the Buenos Aires Ombudsman’s Office. But it is because of obstacles like these that barely three percent of the women interviewed for the new study have had access to higher studies.

Of the 302 interview subjects, only 11 percent are currently undertaking studies of one kind or another. A full 64 percent have not even completed a primary school education, while 20 percent began but were unable to complete secondary school.

In almost all cases, the reason they dropped out of school is related to the conflict that emerged in childhood or adolescence with regard to their gender identity.

Luna, who is a member of the Sexual, Ethical and Religious Identity Movement, helped to conduct the interviews. She defines herself as “transgendered”, because she identifies with a gender different from her biological sex, but rejects the term “transvestite” because it is commonly associated with prostitution in Argentina.

Both Luna and Berkins are convinced that their role as activists in the struggle to demand respect for the civil rights of individuals like themselves has led them to lead a very different life from most members of this highly discriminated community. Berkins was even a candidate for a seat on the Argentine Congress, representing the city of Buenos Aires.

But most are not as fortunate as Berkins. In fact, 79 percent of the transvestites interviewed for the study make a living as prostitutes. “This is one of the few alternatives which allows them to exercise their transgender identity and earn a livelihood at the same time,” states the report.

“The research clearly demonstrates the exclusion that affects our community, the difficulty in achieving the condition of full citizens, the problems with access to health care and education, police brutality, and sexual and domestic violence,” stresses Berkins.

Out of every 100 transvestites interviewed for the study, 86 have been the victims of some form of police violence. In most cases, the abuse occurs while they are working as prostitutes on the streets: sometimes they are beaten for refusing to pay bribes to the police, sometimes because they resist arrest for arbitrary causes, and sometimes for no apparent reason.

In the city of Buenos Aires, laws that criminalised the exercise of prostitution and cross-dressing in public were repealed in the late 1990s. But prostitution is regulated in such a way as to make the police a permanent threat.

In addition, a full 91.5 percent of the respondents said they had suffered some form of abuse as a result of their gender identity at some time in their lives. The most frequently mentioned abuses were taunts, insults, physical violence, discrimination and sexual abuse.

Despite the fact that Argentina guarantees free and universal access to treatment for HIV/AIDS, there are no programmes that recognise the particular characteristics of these sexual minorities, and they are often lumped under the health service category of “men who have sex with men.”

Resistance to being treated under this label, combined with the discriminatory treatment they report receiving in hospitals from doctors, nurses and administrative staff, lead many transgenders to stay away from HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programmes. As a result, medical care is almost always sought only when the situation has reached a critical phase, the study notes.

The report includes countless testimonials of systematic mistreatment in hospitals. Taunts, insults, the refusal to attend or refer to these individuals in accordance with their chosen gender identity, and the downplaying of the symptoms they present are just a few of the problems that transgenders face when seeking medical care.

There are also reports from doctors confirming the mistreatment and abuse suffered by members of this sexual minority when they are admitted to hospitals alongside individuals of the same biological sex but of the opposite gender identity.

The report also delves into the subject of surgical procedures and other treatments used to alter physical aspects related to gender identity. It was found that 88 percent of those interviewed had undergone some form of procedure for this purpose, and in almost all cases, the reason given for doing so was to appeal to potential sex trade clients.

The most common procedure was silicone injection, which can be lethal when the proper sterile conditions are not in place. Almost 100 percent of the interviewees said they hade received these injections in private homes, as opposed to clinics or doctor’s offices.

Some of the subjects had also received hormone treatments or undergone breast implants.

The book – whose title refers to the struggle that must be waged by those who want to be called by a name of the opposite sex – was inspired by the brutal murder of a transvestite in the eastern Argentine city of Bahía Blanca, in Buenos Aires province.

Alejandra Galicio died in 2005 of a vicious beating that left her with multiple fractures, including a crushed skull, severe cuts, bruises and internal bleeding. The attack was yet another example of the systematic and typically silenced aggression suffered by transgenders û a silence that the authors of the study urgently hope to break.

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