G20, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, LGBTQ

ARGENTINA: Progress in the Fight for Gender Identity

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 11 2011 (IPS) - “In my family, they always saw me as a girl, but at school they called me by my boy’s name, which is why I dropped out,” Paula Sosa, a transvestite who recently managed to change her name on her identity document, told IPS.

Sosa’s case appears in a campaign launched in 2010 by the Association of Transvestites, Transsexuals and Transgender People of Argentina (ATTA) pressing for a gender identity law that would guarantee the right to a legal name and gender change on official documents.

Although some 50 transsexuals in Argentina who have had sex reassignment surgery over the last few decades have obtained documents reflecting their new identities after lengthy legal battles, no law has been passed yet to guarantee that right.

The campaign has included the presentation of a handbook of information on trans people for journalists and other communicators.

ATTA and the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People (FALGBT) are working together on the campaign, with the support of a number of legislators from different parties interested in approval of the law that would protect the rights of the transgender community.

Nevertheless, progress has been made without an actual law. Three trans people who have brought legal action in Argentina achieved a legal name and gender change on their documents in little over a month, without the need to undergo sex change surgery or extensive medical and psychological testing, as required in the past.

The first case was that of popular TV personality Florencia de la V — her artistic name — whose identity document used to read “Roberto Trinidad.” Since November, her name is legally Florencia Trinidad.

“This document recognises my dignity as a person, and reflects what I am and what I have always been,” the 35-year-old Florencia de la V said shortly after receiving her new identity card and modified birth certificate.

For Marcela Romero, head of ATTA, the process was much more difficult when she went through it a number of years ago. Although she underwent sex reassignment surgery at the age of 23, it was not until she was 33 that she obtained an identity card that matches her appearance and carries the name she goes by, rather than the one she was given at birth.

And although she had had surgery, the court ordered Romero to appear in court on multiple occasions and undergo examinations by psychologists, psychiatrists and medical doctors. “They checked everything, even my vagina,” Romero told IPS, describing what she went through to “prove” her new identity.

Today, the legal precedents that have been set ensure respect for the rights of trans persons to change their name and gender on their identity documents without requiring surgery or extensive exams.

“Everyone’s identity is respected, and they don’t force anyone to have the operation,” Romero said.

As a result, even without specific legislation on the issue of gender identity, Argentina has become the first Latin American country to recognise the identity of trans people through a fast administrative procedure that does not invade their privacy.

In neighbouring Uruguay, a law on the right to gender identity was passed, but the name change procedure requires the involvement of a family court and an evaluation of the person in question by a multidisciplinary team at the civil registry office.

“In Colombia, people can get their names changed on their documents, but not their gender, while in Brazil rulings are being handed down in favour of the identity card change, but only for transsexuals: in other words, people who have actually had surgery,” Romero said.

The climate in Argentina has become increasingly favourable to an expansion of recognition of the rights of sexual minorities. In July 2010, a new law passed by Congress made this the first country in Latin America to legalise same-sex marriage. Approval of the new legislation followed a campaign of legal action by couples demanding the right to be married.

The bill on gender identity is aimed at guaranteeing the legal recognition and dignity of the trans community by means of legally changing the name and gender on their documents, in order to pave the way for respect for other rights.

The bill, which states that gender is one of the most basic aspects of a person’s identity, protects the right of transgender people to non-discrimination and to access to health, education and the formal labour market.

Sosa, whose name change was approved this month, says she is going to finish secondary school, which she dropped out of because of how traumatic it was to live as a girl but be publicly identified as a boy. She hopes to go on to study odontology.

In the meantime, she makes a living as a hairdresser and is happy because her high school diploma will be in the name she goes by. “My family has always supported me. But I didn’t want to have an operation, and now I have my new document anyway,” she said, smiling.

Romero explained that the life of a trans person changes enormously when their identity card is modified to reflect their name and gender identity. “You gain access to the full exercise of your rights as a citizen,” she said.

For example, “many trans people have never voted (even though it is compulsory and those who fail to vote are subject to a fine) because they don’t want to go through the humiliating experience of standing in the line for men, and risk being verbally harassed,” she said.

The difficulties begin as soon as the contradiction between a trans person’s sex and gender identity emerges. School dropout rates are high among trans people, because of the problems of integration, which means very few go on to find jobs in the formal sector of the economy.

A study on transvestites published in 2006 by a local human rights group found that 64 percent had not completed primary school and another 20 percent had not graduated from secondary school.

The report also pointed out that many are rejected by their families and forced to leave home at an early age.

Given the lack of education and formal employment, a large majority of trans people live under the poverty line, and have no access to decent housing or health care. “We don’t have options, and many of us end up in prostitution, which leads to even greater persecution, discrimination and marginalisation,” Romero said.

With respect to the deaths of a number of transvestites, the report found that 62 percent had died of HIV/AIDS, 17 percent were murdered, and the rest committed suicide, were killed in traffic accidents, or were the victims of drug overdose, illnesses or medical malpractice in cosmetic surgery carried out in unhygienic conditions. Nearly 70 percent had died between the ages of 22 and 41.

The courts in Argentina, with the endorsement of many psychiatrists, considered the rejection of one’s biological sex as a psychological disorder known as gender dysphoria or gender identity disorder.

But in European countries like Spain and France, trans communities have been campaigning hard to fight the classification of gender identity disorder as a disease, as homosexuality was classified until a few decades ago, and are making progress towards that goal.

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