Transgender revolution

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Transgender revolution

Today Argentina leads the world in recognizing the rights of transgender people. But it hasn’t always been that way.


‘Feminism taught us that there are a thousand ways of being a woman,’ says trans activist Lohana Berkins

I met Lohana Berkins in a park one sunny afternoon.

As we did the interview in a nearby café, her eyes looked at mine all the time.. She speaks in a clear, rather deep voice. She talks very clearly, directly, and honestly. She seems like a woman who knows exactly who she is.

Lohana has been a transgender activist since the 1980s. She has played an important part in introducing legal and social changes in Argentina that are very revolutionary. Not long ago, Buenos Aires had a bad name for being one of the world’s worst places for violence against transgender people. Killings and attacks were common, often by the police.

Lohana tells me that she has spent nine and a half years of her life in prison – 30 days here, 30 days there – ‘just for being a travesti’ ( a transvestite). And she was in the worst male prisons, with the most violent criminals.

Today, anti-trans violence has decreased. Now Argentina has the world’s most progressive gender law. The law was developed by activists such as Lohana and it gives new rights to trans people.

Death is always there in their lives

But Lohana is very clear about the situation for transsexual people. She says that their situation is different from the lesbian and gay community. We are the poorest sisters of the movement. The average life expectancy in Argentina is 70 – for trans people it’s just 30.

She says that death is always there in their lives. She says she has lost hundreds of friends, through violence, because the police killed them. She has lost friends through illegal surgery, HIV, suicide…

Life expectancy for trans people is very low because of discrimination and all that comes from it - poverty, little education, difficulty in finding a job, poor healthcare. Often transsexuals are seen by the health system as ‘men who have sex with men’. This description attacks their identity and stops them from looking for help. Lohana talks about the typical trans experience. She says that when a trans person is 13 years old, she is pushed out of home and into prostitution. She lives in hotels in very bad conditions. She is treated badly by adults and used by them for money.

Trans people feel bad about themselves and this is a big problem. She tells me that you do not believe that you are a victim, that there is a system that has ruined your life. You believe it’s because of you, because you are “too much”, because you have done something “wrong”, or you are lost to the world. So you feel treally bad that nothing will change, that nothing will make a difference.

Of prison she says: ‘You can imagine what happens to us in those places. We are raped, tortured. We have known all sorts of violence. ’ She never had a partner who beat her but when Lohana filled in a questionnaire on personal violence, it described her as a beaten woman. ‘That is the reality for us...’

Political situation

During the years of military dictatorship, trans people were often killed and put in prison. When democracy returned in 1983, nothing changed. But trans activists like Lohana were drawing international attention to the terrible abuse. International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International began reporting their problems.

In 2000, Lohana publicly announced that she was leaving prostitution – and that she wanted a job. She became the first trans person in Argentina to get a job in the public sector. In 2003 Néstor Kirchner was elected president. He was the first leader to do something about the situation of his country’s trans people. His widow, Cristina, has continued his work and this resulted in the new gender law in May 2012.

The new law makes surgery for all people who want to change their sex free and it is paid for by the state. It is also possible to change your legal and social gender ID without surgery. ‘For example, if you want to call yourself Robert and be a man,’ explains Lohana, ‘you can...’ The law is for everyone aged 18 and over. But under-18s are allowed to have their name changed and be known by their own gender identity.

Transgender people fought for the new law and developed it. Strict definitions of transgender are avoided. This allows for the possibility of new identities in future. Changing the law is one thing; changing the way people think is a bigger problem.

Nadia Echazú – work and school

A big step in changing how people think was starting a co-operative called Nadia Echazú. The co-operative is named after an activist who died aged 33. the co-op is run by trans people and gives training and jobs. They make things like the clothes children wear in state schools.

For its members, the co-op is something different from prostitution and life on the streets. Because trans people become accustomed to a high level of violence, Lohana says: ‘My main fear in setting up Nadia Echazú was “we’re all going to kill each other!” But we have learned that you can disagree, you can have a different opinion without aggression, and we’ve had none of that kind of trouble.’

The co-op now has 20 members. Before it had 60 members – but for the best possible reasons. Those who have left have started other co-ops. There are now around 200 trans people working in co-ops in the Buenos Aires area.

Also the activists have started the world’s first co-operative school for transgender students. Without this school many of these students might have left education. The most important thing for Lohana’s now is to make sure that trans people get education and jobs so they don’t have to go into prostitution. She wants trans people to get jobs outside the co-ops, too. Lohana is employed by the state in the Women’s Council. Now they are looking for trans people to take jobs in state departments and private companies, she says.

There’s a famous actor, Florencia de la V, who is open about being a trans person. That makes Latin American trans people different from many in other parts of the world. Lohana thinks that in Latin America trans people are more politically developed. They are more revolutionary. They do not exist in a closed group of activists. They are very much involved in other political problems.

Lohana is a feminist. She is a big fan of gender theorist Judith Butler. ‘Feminism taught us that there are a thousand ways of being a woman.’ You do not have to be a woman in only one way. You can be sexy or you can have a deep voice and big feet – it doesn’t matter.

She says that she didn’t know all of this when she was 18. She would not have changed her body as she did. And this is one of the most interesting things about trans liberation. As people get more rights and are accepted and people start to have new and different ideas about female and male, so the need for surgery is less. Lohana says trans people can be women without surgery.

There is still prejudice and abuse. ‘But I think we can say that Argentina is now leading the world in defending the rights of trangender people.’ When the 2012 gender law was passed, all the social movements which supported it were so very happy. ‘Everyone was hugging one another. But we were also asking ourselves: why did it have to cost so many lives?’

Today, Lohana looks at young trans people with pride and pleasure. They are so much more confident than those of her generation. When she see a trans kid who demands to go to school and to have a job; she thinks this is the best legacy we could have left.

‘And now, mi amor, I have to go,’ she says, as she leaves to go to one of the many important meetings she is regularly invited to now.

Lohana Berkins has made it – but the personal price she and her friends have had to pay was very high.

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