Huffpost WorldPost
Alexander Sanger Headshot

One Step Forward, One Step Back: The Fight for Transgender Rights in Latin America

Posted: Updated:

Recently, the highest court in Italy allowed a couple to remain legally married after one had sex reassignment surgery. In a surreal twist, the Catholic Church recognizes the couple as still married also, because it does not recognize gender reassignment. While it is hard to call this confluence the best of all possible worlds, it might be for now. The rights and freedoms of transgendered persons in other parts of the world, such as Latin America, are decidedly less clear.

Some countries, like Cuba, Brazil, and Uruguay, lead the way and allow people to legally change their gender in official documents after varying conditions are met. Places like Brazil and Chile are even ready to foot the bill for sex reassignment surgery. One of the most progressive laws in all of Latin America, however, is that of Argentina, which allows people to change their gender by filing some paperwork without surgery or a diagnosis.

The law was used immediately, even by children as young as six, such as in the case of Luana. Lulu, as she likes to be called, was originally named Manuel and was born with the body of a baby boy. Her mother noticed something was different about Luana when she started identifying herself as a girl the moment she started talking. When the law took effect, Luana's mother stood by her daughter while she requested that the government officially change her gender to female. Luana is now the youngest Argentinian to take advantage of the law, and she will be followed by many more.

These progressive laws offer hope for the future, but they belie a harsher reality that many transgendered people face. Latin America accounts for nearly 80 percent of reported murders of transgendered individuals. While legal progress has been made, homophobic and transphobic violence continues in the region, with people regularly being attacked or murdered for their gender identity. In Colombia alone, there were 60 reported murders of transgendered individuals between 2005 and 2012 and no convictions. It is not unheard of for police to deliberately ignore violence, or even to refuse to help a transsexual in the middle of an attack.

Many transgendered people, whether by their own volition or because of a lack of familial support and employment opportunities, become sex workers. Transwomen in the trade are particularly vulnerable. Clients, police officers, and medical professionals are far more likely to abuse and ignore them, so transwoman sex workers are highly at risk for HIV and are less likely to get any treatment once they have contracted the disease. As recently as 2006, 62 percent of deaths in the Buenos Aires transgendered community were attributed to HIV/AIDS.

The violence and preventable diseases are discouraging, but we shouldn't lose hope. The people who volunteer for us and our Member Associations work tirelessly -- in their advocacy and the provision of services -- to uphold the tenets of our Declaration of Sexual Rights. Among the rights laid out in our Declaration is the right to equality and freedom from discrimination based on sex, sexuality, or gender; the right to security of person and bodily integrity; the right to the benefit of modern medicine; and the right to accountability and redress in the case of wrongdoing.

IPPF/WHR and our Member Associations in the Caribbean and Latin America, work every day to guarantee these rights and educate people about, and provide services for, the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections and HIV, reaching the most vulnerable populations and educating them about their options. In the beginning of our efforts to reach marginalized communities in Lima's red light district, for example, sex workers were liable to grab free condoms and run away from our health promoters for fear of abuse. Now, with the help of kindness and acceptance from our staff, they feel safe and trust us with their healthcare and sexual education.

The battle for sexual rights must be waged in the legislatures and courts and in the streets. We will not rest until every person is guaranteed and enjoys their sexual rights and freedoms.

A special thank you to Julia Redden, for her collaboration in the creation of this piece.