Reading the various online news feeds these days, it’s impossible to ignore the recent sharp rise in violent hate crimes against trans women, a trend which seems to be worldwide in its scope. I’m not suggesting that there is some sort of international conspiracy of hate against us, but it gets harder to read the news and not wonder who will be next.
In the past couple of months alone, I’ve written about transphobic hate crimes carried out in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, India, the U.S, Serbia, Canada, Peru, not to mention what seems to be open season on trans women in Turkey. The list is long and it’s depressing to have to add Venezuela to the roll-call of countries where being trans is apparently a crime punishable by death at the hands of self-appointed vigilantes of cis purity.
Via BBC News in Caracas, I learn of a similar increase in violence against trans people. In the words of Estrella Cerezo, a founding member of the Venezuelan transgender rights group Transvenus:
“We’ve registered over 20 murders of transsexual people in Venezuela so far this year, which is more than twice the number seen in the second half of last year,” says Ms Cerezo […]
But she says the real number of attacks is difficult to keep track of. “Many attacks against transsexual or transgender people – especially against transsexual prostitutes – go unreported. The police aren’t interested in investigating them properly. They just define them as crimes of passion, file them away, and leave it at that.”
It is not just violence either. Transsexuals are regularly humiliated and insulted in the streets.
For Ms Cerezo the problems stem from the fact that transsexuals in Venezuela, as in other parts of Latin America, are forced to the margins of society because of deep-seated prejudice. “In general, transsexuals only have two areas in which they can work – either as beauticians or as prostitutes.”
She says her own situation is a case in point. “I am a trained nurse, but as soon as I graduated I came out as the woman I really am. Once I did that, all the doors began to close. I couldn’t find any work in the public hospitals or healthcare centres – not even work experience.”
This is a hugely important point and is, I’m sorry to say, an all-too-common experience for too many trans women across the world. We are systemically excluded from legal protections, we are demonised, marginalised and invisibilised to the point that for many sex work is the only realistic option to raise the money, not only to pay the rent and grocery bills, but also to pay for the various medical services we need. Although it’s something of a truism that many of us transition, not as a “lifestyle choice” but as a matter of survival, the corollorary for too many of us is that it’s a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire” – and Ms Cerezo’s own experience seems to back that up.
As the BBC News report points out, progress has been made in other countries in the region: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico all have better records on trans rights than Venezuela – although the leftist government disagrees.
President Hugo Chavez has referred to gay rights several times on his TV programme Alo Presidente, and a change to family law has been introduced in the national assembly which would include the right to marriage for gay couples.
The socialist MP who presented the project, Romelia Matute, says the trans community has suffered in the Venezuela, particularly because of the country’s religious tradition.
“They were considered ‘the devil’, and in many circles, they still are,” she said. “Our response as the government has been this legal project which, among other things, would grant access to sex change operations on the public healthcare system.”
At first sight, this seems quite encouraging, as far as it goes – but in the meantime, attacks on sex workers continue undiminished, sometimes apparently at the hands of the police. Then, scarcely pausing for breath, Ms Matute completely undermines her earlier words with a breathtaking example of victim blaming which must surely be cause for concern to all trans people in Venezuela:
“[…] the transsexual community must do more for themselves too,” Ms Matute says.
“There has been no visible group or march to support this proposed change in the law. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if this is rejected by the national assembly, it would be the fault of the LGBT community for being too timid, for not organising themselves properly,” she says.
How many times do we have to explain to cis people – ordinary citizens and lawmakers alike – that, for many members of our community, it is not so simple? ‘Coming out’ as trans is a luxury that many trans women simply do not have. As well as having potentially serious repercussions regarding employment, housing, benefits, etc, the fact is that without properly implemented legal protections, being out can expose us to extremes of transphobic violence. (And even then, our safety isn’t guaranteed). Furthermore, according to Dr Tamara Adrian, a trans university lecturer:
“That change in the law has not even been discussed by the assembly yet and it seems the head of the family commission is staunchly opposed to anything which would grant equal rights to transgender people,” she says.
As for the president, she says, “we have been trying for years to get close to Chavez on this matter. We are pretty much sure that unless he addresses this personally, it will not happen.”
Across the planet, we are fighting for the basic human rights and civil liberties which many cis people take for granted: access to healthcare, legal and employment protections – but above all, we are fighting for the right to live our lives without fear of reprisal from transphobic cis bigots who believe that violence is an appropriate response to the existence of trans people. And now is the time for our cis allies and governments everywhere to stand with us against this hatred.