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Thursday, April 17, 2014
- With 35 students, the first secondary school specifically for transvestites and other members of sexual minorities who face discrimination in mainstream schools opened in March in the Argentine capital.
The “Mocha Celis” Popular Baccalaureate is the name of the tuition-free school supported by nonprofit organisations, which caters especially – but not exclusively – to transvestites, transsexuals and transgender persons over the age of 16.
The school is named after an illiterate transvestite who worked as a prostitute and was an activist with the Association of Argentine Transvestites. A week after Celis went missing, her body was found, showing signs that she had been beaten and shot to death.
Activists suspect that Celis was killed by a federal police officer who had previously threatened her.
In an interview with IPS, Francisco Quiñones, the head of the new school, explained that the idea was “to create an inclusive school, free of discrimination, that takes into account and values the different trans identities, where they can manage to finish secondary school.
“Public schools, which are governed by rules that cater to heterosexuals, drive these people away,” and they end up dropping out of school at much higher rates than the rest of the population due to discrimination, which can even go as far as physical violence, he said.
For that reason, the Mocha Celis school was welcome news. “For me it’s like a door to the world,” said Laura Barrionuevo, 29, who had to drop out at the age of 15 from the vocational high school she was attending.
“I was from Ituzaingó, in the (northeastern) province of Corrientes. When I started to dress as a transvestite, a tsunami was unleashed in the school and in the town, and I had to leave. When I was older, I registered in other schools, but I felt like people looked at me as if I were a monster,” she told IPS.
She now rents a room 35 km from the Mocha Celis school in Ezeiza, a district in the southern part of Greater Buenos Aires. It takes her a total of nearly six hours a day to commute to and from school, Monday through Thursday, but she says she is happy.
Barrionuevo enjoys sewing, and she and other students plan to save up money to buy sewing machines and material to make their own clothes. “I wasn’t made to work standing on a street corner; if I was any good at that I would have earned a fortune by now,” she said, alluding to prostitution.
Once the school gains recognition from the Education Ministry of the City of Buenos Aires – a process that is taking longer than it should, according to Quiñones – the students will be able to graduate after three years, with a high school diploma showing that they specialised in community development.
The coursework at the school prepares the students to be community leaders or to set up cooperatives. But once the school gains official recognition, the diploma will also allow them to continue their studies.
“I like radiology, and journalism too,” Barrionuevo said.
The school is operating in a building that is on loan from the Asociación Mutual Sentimiento, a community development NGO, and was registered by the Fundación Diversidad Divino Tesoro, a non-profit organisation that defends the interests of sexual minorities.
Classes are taught by 25 teachers, who also helped refurbish the building.
The symbol chosen for the school was Argentine statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (1811-1888), a former president who was the driving force behind the development of public education in this South American country. But the painting of him on the wall has undergone a transformation: he is wearing a blond wig and pink lipstick.
In the first-year classroom, the seats are arranged in a circle rather than straight rows of desks. “Here, what the students know is as valid as the teacher’s knowledge,” Quiñones said.
The curriculum is the same one that is used in conventional adult education classes, but “with a broader focus,” he clarified. There are a few additional courses, such as classes on cooperatives or “trans history”, that take a look at the activism of the trans community.
The idea for the school emerged from an assessment of the conditions faced by transvestites in Argentina, which was published in a 2005 book, “La Gesta del Nombre Propio” (roughly, “the epic struggle for a name of one’s own”). The book described the intolerance, humiliation, marginalisation and attacks suffered by transvestites.
One of the chilling statistics provided by the book was that 64 percent of the 302 transvestites interviewed had not completed primary school. And of those who had managed to finish, only 20 percent graduated from high school.
That lack of education effectively bars members of the trans community from gaining access to quality jobs, and pushes the majority (79 percent of the study sample) into prostitution as their main source of income.
The study also found that while only 11 percent of the respondents were studying at the time, 70 percent said that they would have liked to, but that they were not willing to hide or deny their true sexual identity.
The report showed that as a result of the discrimination they face on so many fronts, many members of the trans community die young. Of 420 who had died in recent years, mainly of AIDS or murder, 69 percent were between the ages of 22 and 41.
But the idea is not to limit the school to members of the trans community. “Of the 35 students registered in the Mocha Celis school, there are 10 who do not identify as trans, but are people who live on the streets or are very poor, who feel excluded from mainstream schools,” Quiñones explained.
“Although we made it clear to them that they would have to take classes like ‘trans history’, they told us that for them it wasn’t easy to find a warm place free of discrimination where they could finish secondary school, which is why they have come here,” he added.