People who do not conform to established gender social norms, particularly trans people, experience a systematic violation of their fundamental rights in Latin America. Some of the most common factors that increase inequality, violence, and lack of opportunities for trans people in the region are barriers to accessing the health system and lack of legislation recognising their identity in official documents, as well as police and military violence and the rise of hate speech and misinformation.
People who do not conform to established gender social norms, particularly trans people, experience a systematic violation of their fundamental rights in Latin America. This is due to a lack of laws and policies that recognise their identities and to government bodies that fail to acknowledge their existence as equal citizens, the latter form of discrimination being more complex in nature.
Some of the most common factors that increase inequality, violence, and lack of opportunities for trans people in the region are barriers to accessing the health system and lack of legislation recognising their identity in official documents, as well as police and military violence and the rise of hate speech and misinformation.
Although many trans organisations in Latin America are doing fundamental work in providing support and guidance to individuals and in conducting research and strategic litigation to defend and advance their rights (Sentiido, 2022), the pace of cultural and institutional change is still very slow.
The waves of mass migration from Central America to the United States that began in 2017 are a clear indicator of the exclusion, violence, and lack of opportunities experienced by trans people. In 2021 alone, more than 8,000 people left San Pedro Sula, Honduras, at the height of the pandemic. This exodus included 300 members of the LGBTIQ+ community, of whom 100 were trans women (PBI, 2022).
The dangers that trans women face stem from the external conditions along the route, which affect all migrants, and from incidents and bias crimes against them specifically, such as trafficking, kidnapping, extortion, sexual violence, and torture, perpetrated by mafia networks and border authorities.
One form of resistance to such violence and exclusion was the first “trans-gay migrant caravan” (BBC, 2019). This was a group of trans women and gay men who organised themselves into a caravan to denounce the violence they experienced during their passage through Mexico to the United States. According to statistics compiled by the Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide (TVT) project, Mexico has the second highest rate of trans-murder in the world after Brazil.
In addition to this example, in Latin America there are other cases of forced migration and displacement of trans people that are important to mention here, even if only tangentially. These include Venezuelan trans migrants, many of them involved in the sex trade (including in border areas), as well as trans victims of armed conflict in Colombia, as has been documented in detail by several organisations dedicated to uncovering the truth in the country’s peace process.
Police and military violence
One of the most emblematic cases in the recent history of trans rights in Latin America is that of Vicky Hernández, a Honduran trans activist and sex worker who was killed by the army during the 2009 military coup (Human Rights Watch, 2021). The Inter-American Court of Human Rights found the State of Honduras responsible for the murder of the activist and ordered it to improve and create processes for monitoring and addressing cases of violence against LGBTIQ people and to implement changes in how it processes the data of these citizens when incidents of violence occur.
The case of Vicky Hernández opened the door for civil society organisations throughout Latin America to pressure their countries to acknowledge that trans people are subjected to unequal and disproportionate treatment, largely by state institutions like the police and the military.
Another challenge faced by Latin America is the vacuum that exists regarding the collection of differentiated data on trans people, especially since many countries still fail to recognise their identity and therefore do not incorporate it in the forms needed to apply for official documentation and to report incidents of violence (IACHR, 2020). Moreover, it is very problematic that the procedures for reporting incidents of police and military violence against trans persons go through these very same institutions, which means that very few cases are prosecuted.
Police violence against trans and gender non-normative people ranges from systematic harassment and illegal requests for documentation, to coercion to pay bribes to use spaces and engage in sex work, to illegal detentions, torture, sexual violence, disappearance, and murder.
So the state cannot be freed from the enormous responsibility of guaranteeing the right to life and identity, as it is responsible for ensuring that its institutions refrain from committing violence against trans people.
A significant trend that has emerged over the last six years is the discourse that opposes the participation of trans people in feminist movements. Although for many years there had been resistance from some feminists to trans women participating in mobilisational and organisational activities, it was the pronouncements of British writer J.K. Rowling that made this position more widely known.
Trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) discourses have propagated misinformation about gender transitions, questioning the existence of gender identities and ultimately setting feminist advancements back decades by placing biological characteristics once again at the centre of women’s identity and their position in the society.
In Latin America these discourses have revealed what appears to be a small number of feminists who found a way to reaffirm something they had never stopped believing: that trans women are not women, and that the trans movement should be separate from the feminist movement.
This kind of discursive violence, cloaked in dubious scientific and academic claims, has strengthened the common and persistent belief that trans people destabilise the social order and want to impose a “lifestyle”. It has also shown how TERF discourses are framed by the same prejudices and stereotypes throughout society, as trans people threaten the cisgender privilege that has always existed.
Conclusions: resistance, organisation, mobilisation
This brief description of some of the discrimination and violence experienced by trans people in Latin America is only an overview of an even more complex web of legal and cultural challenges. Countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay already have gender identity laws, while other countries such as Colombia and Brazil have passed legislation recognising trans and non-binary identities.
These advances are driving fundamental institutional changes. However, a challenge that lingers and that requires the efforts of both organisations and ordinary citizens is that of cultural change: creating a society where families, schools and universities, workplaces, and streets are safe spaces for those who are gender non-conforming. Achieving this also requires changes in the narratives around gender in areas such as non-profits, advertising, and education. It is not a matter of civil society organisations pushing for change, while citizens stand quietly on the sidelines. It is instead a matter of engaging in collective shared work over the long term.