Transgender Rights: Signs of Progress in Latin America

By Emily McGranachan

Marcha de Orgullo, Buenos Aires, Argentina / Photo credit: blmurch / Foter.com / CC BY

Marcha de Orgullo, Buenos Aires, Argentina / Photo credit: blmurch / Foter.com / CC BY

Social and structural discrimination limit the economic, health, and social prospects of transgender individuals, often leading to precarious lives fraught with human rights violations.  According to Argentine psychologist Graciela Balestra, transgender people around the world have an average life expectancy of only 30 years.  In Latin America, they have the highest rate of HIV infection (35 percent) and frequently face violence and insecurity.  According to the 2012 Trans Murder Monitoring Project report, of the total reported murders of transgender people in the world between 2008 and 2011, 79 percent took place in Latin America.  International HIV/AIDS Alliance and Red Latinoamericano y del Caribe de Personas Trans (REDLACTRANS) published similarly startling statistics in a 2012 report titled “The Night is Another Country.”  While the report focused on the experiences of transgender women, it also reveals that transgender men also experience high rates of discrimination and violence throughout Latin America.  Of the transgender women interviewed in the study, about 80 percent reported experiencing violence or threats by police and other officials.  Throughout Latin America the prevalence of transphobia – defined as the fear or hatred of transgender people – has led to impunity for violence and discrimination against transgender people, and these crimes, including murder, are seldom prosecuted.  The transgender community also faces challenges of social discrimination and the lack of access to health care and jobs, marginalizing transgendered people in society.

While the current situation is stark, some societies have shown greater openness to transgender people.  Whereas Brazil and Colombia allow identity card changes only after surgery and board evaluation, Argentina in 2012 became the first country in Latin America to pass a progressive law easing the rules with regard to gender identity and identification.  Now a person in Argentina can change the name and sex on their identity card without having to go through the long and discriminatory process of sex reassignment surgery or going before a judicial review board.  In 2009, Uruguay slightly loosened its controls when it began requiring only board approval for identity card changes.  Government initiatives, like that of Argentina, have direct impacts on the lives of transgender people, who are able to access jobs and other securities, according to Balestra.  Greater inclusion in society and stronger legal protections by the government can signify or signal a change in social values within the broader society.

The Obama Administration has been a vocal supporter of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights as part of a broader human rights agenda in international diplomacy.  Among its initiatives are the Global Equality Fund to support local LGBT organizations and advocates, a greater recognition of refugee rights for LGBT people, and a general promotion of rights abroad through working with NGOs and states.  Recognizing the situation in Latin America, the State Department highlights its work trying to establish a special rapporteur for LGBT human rights within the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights.  As some aspects of LGBT rights progress in the United States (the U.S. still has a high rate of violence against transgender people as well), it is expanding its understanding and definition of human rights.  While the right to security, health care, employment and dignity have long been international human rights, only recently has the discrimination and violence transgender people face become an important part of the human rights platform.  The incorporation of LGBT human rights into U.S. foreign policy, backed by a strong U.S. example of justice and security for transgender citizens, will encourage other countries to follow suit. 

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