I wasn't shocked that roadside prostitutes in Cochabamba, Bolivia were taunted by passers-by; this was still-macho, provincial Latin America after all. But nothing could have prepared me for the strength of character of these transgender sex workers who, against all odds, have organized to argue for their right to health care treatment -- and, more important, their rights as human beings.
I lived in Cochabamba, the third largest city in Latin America's poorest country, this past summer in between my junior and senior years at University of San Francisco, through a program with the Foundation for Sustainable Development. Considering Bolivia's socially conservative reputation, I had no expectation of working with sex workers or the transgender community during my internship with an NGO based in HIV prevention. But, as so often happens, my emphasis shifted when I became acquainted with a community of marginalized transsexual women.
As a transgender man, my preparation for my internship in Bolivia was rooted in my desire to blend in. My desire to "pass" as male, even though I had not started hormone therapy, was riding on my understanding that Bolivian society would not have a concept of gender androgyny. I was right. Based on my artificially flat chest, short Bieber-esque haircut, and hairy legs, most Bolivians perceived me as a pubescent male, rather than a 21-year-old female-bodied university student. Although I was excited to delve into the work my host organization, Institute for Human Development (IDH), performed in Cochabamba's sprawling rural communities, my interest was specifically peaked when I started talking with several openly gay IDH employees about the underground LGBTQ community that goes largely unnoticed by traditional Bolivians.
To be clear, Bolivia is not a safe country for LGBTQ-identifying people. Anti-discrimination laws are largely unenforced, hate crimes are not infrequent, and societal norms are built on machismo-style family structure. I knew I wanted to find out more about the queer community, though, so I took the advice of my co-workers and sought out one of two explicitly LGBTQ establishments in Cochabamba. There was no sign outside of the bar -- just a dark stoop with faint music floating down from second story windows. Upon entering, I noticed many transsexual women, but no transsexual men. I worried that I stood out like a sore thumb, but my fears were fleeting as I realized that most of the trans women perceived me as a young, gay boy and were quick to give me their attention (and phone numbers). This night marked my first connection to the transsexual community that would become the defining part of my time in Cochabamba.
In conversations with my co-workers the following week, I found out that the male-to-female (MTF) transsexual community in Bolivia is, not surprisingly, incredibly stigmatized. The rate of HIV infection in the community is extremely high and most community members engage in sex work to survive. I contacted a transsexual woman named Rayza who had received some press in Latin America for her fight with the government for a legal name and sex change on her documents (which has still not been granted). She is the leader of a community of transsexual activists in Cochabamba.I met Rayza center of the city at her office, a small fluorescently lit room with two desks a few books shelves. As soon as Rayza started speaking about her work as an activist, her personal struggle with discrimination, and the daily marginalization experienced by trans community members in Bolivia, my plan for the summer shifted.
It was unbelievably humbling to sit across the table from a woman who does not share my native language, does not share my skin color, biological sex, or religion, does not have a remotely similar socioeconomic background, and yet feel so much more connected to her than the English-speaking, white, middle-income Americans I might pass on the street every day of my life in the States. Our connection, based solely on shared struggle with gender identity, made it clear to me that I was going to do something to aid this community that I identified with so deeply. As a film student, a documentary about the trans community's fight for justice seemed like the best option. I pitched the idea to IDH and was, however, immediately struck down.
"Transsexual sex workers? That's too progressive." "That's not what we do at IDH." "Something like that will alienate us from the communities we serve." Convincing my host organization that the transsexual community, with its soaring rates of HIV and constant exposure to sexual violence, was worthy of their time was not easy. The directors of IDH could see my passion about the issue, however, and eventually agreed to let me start on the project with the condition that I reserved some of the time at my internship for other more established, less controversial projects.
I started outlining the documentary with the intention that the final film would convey the struggles of transsexuals in Bolivia and detail their call to activism. At this point, I had experienced my fair share of discrimination based on my gender identity (like getting kicked out of a gym for using the bathroom), and wanted the film to target the discriminatory nature of Bolivian society. I started with interviews of transsexual women, who spoke candidly about getting kicked out of their families, engaging in sex work to eat, and being denied services at health clinics based on their transsexual identity. I followed some of the women to the corner of El Prado where they work late at night. The film includes an interview with a lawyer, who reveals that there are no rights for sex workers included in Bolivian laws and no guarantees that a transsexual can fight discrimination.
The film, La Identidad de Justicia: Mujeres Trans en Cochabamba, has been distributed by IDH to local high schools and universities and screened at HIV prevention events. The sense of pride I feel to be part of the international transsexual community is immeasurable, and the women I worked with this summer taught me more about resilience, self-worth, and hope than I could ever imagine.
Follow Lucas Waldron on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lhwaldron