‘I knew I was different when I was a child,’ says Diane Rodríguez, a transgender activist. ‘I used to play with boys, not because I liked how they played but because I liked them. Now I realise it was because I had the mentality that I was a girl.’
Diane used to be Luis. Last year, after suffering discrimination at work, she set a legal precedent in Ecuador when she fought for the right to officially change her name from male to female. She is now fighting for the right to change her gender on legal documents too.
I meet her at the offices of Silueta X, in Guayaquil, Ecuador, the foundation she set up at the same time she launched her legal battle, which helps transgender people deal with legal, health and education issues.
A frequent problem she comes across is transgender people being kicked out of home, leaving them with no option but to turn to prostitution. As a result, the transgender community suffers from high levels of HIV.
It’s something close to Rodríguez’s heart, as she was banished from home by her stepfather. ‘I had to work on the streets for one week,’ she says. ‘If my mother hadn’t found me and taken me back, I would still be working on the streets now.’
Latin America has a particular problem with transphobia. As well as transgender people encountering discrimination with friends and family, they are also subject to high levels of violent attacks and murder.
Between January and June last year, there were 93 reported murders of transgender people around the world. Of these, 74 occurred in Latin America. However, Rodríguez says it’s just the tip of the iceberg.
‘There are no good statistics, because when the police find a transgender person dead, they just put “male” on the form,’ she says. ‘It’s a hidden problem.’
But it’s not just a male to female issue. Worldwide, there are 14million men who have become women and 4.5million women who have become men.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, recently conceded attacks on sexual minorities were rising. She stresses homophobia and transphobia are no different to sexism, misogyny, racism or xenophobia.
‘Whereas these last forms of prejudice are universally condemned by governments, homophobia and transphobia are too often overlooked,’ she says.
Anamaria Bejar of the HIV/Aids Alliance, says attacks in South America are happening with widespread impunity. ‘When a transgender person is assassinated, mostly their friends organise and pay for the funeral as, for many families, “they were already dead” when they left home,’ she says.
‘The police don’t take them seriously. Paramilitary and crime groups consider the assassination of a transgender person as “social cleansing”.’
There have also been reported cases of threats, harassment, intimidation and violence against those working to protect the human rights of transgender people and other sexual minorities.
I meet Caricia, who was a victim of a transphobic attack that killed her friend, Anita. She claims the attackers were two off-duty policemen. ‘My friend received the most punishment,’ she says.
‘The blood came out of her face. She was in hospital for a month but she died because of her injuries. I had to hide, because I found out [the alleged attackers] were police. I still don’t feel secure.’
‘There is a problem here in Ecuador. Many people see transgender as bad or strange. I think they might be homophobic or have psychological problems. Maybe that’s why they don’t accept other people who are different.’
Rodríguez says there are two main reasons why transphobia is so pronounced in Latin America. ‘The first problem is religion,’ she points out. ‘The second is machismo, a Latin-American term for an often extreme form of masculinity. Catholicism and evangelists cause a lot of problems.’
The solution, she suggests, is to talk about sex to young children in order to combat discrimination. ‘In Ecuador, children are raised with prejudice,’ she says.
‘They are told: “You can’t go with that man because he’s black”, or things like that. That goes for transgender people too. People think that. They think it’s because your parents didn’t raise you properly or you saw something on TV, some influence that made you want to do it.’
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