Latin America: the most deadly region for transgender communities


On the night of 13 October 2015, Diana Sacayán, a prominent Argentinian transgender activist, died after being stabbed 13 times in her home. Sacayán had become a strong figurehead in the trans community, and had been the driving force behind a law setting quotas for the employment of trans people in the Province of Buenos Aires, amongst other achievements. So far, no date has been set for the trial of the two murder suspects.

On 28 July this year, during LGBTI International Pride Day, hundreds of activists and defenders of the rights of transgender people took to the streets of Buenos Aires to demand justice for the death of Sacayán and the dozens of trans people who have been murdered in Argentina in the past few years.

“We are seeing one transvestite friend a week being murdered; we live a marginalised existence, constantly at threat of violence, in conditions that are related to the fact that the government does not treat us like other people. Many from our community have been murdered, yet so far we have not seen a single trial,” said Romina Pereyra, an activist and member of the Commission for Justice for Diana Sacayán, speaking to Equal Times during the march.

What is happening in Sacayán is not unique to Argentina. According to the project Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide (TvT) run by the non-governmental organisation Transgender Europe (TGEU), a total of 2,115 murders of transgender people were reported worldwide between January 2008 and April 2016. Of these, 78 per cent occurred in Central and South America. Six of the ten countries with the most murders of trans people are in Latin America: Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Honduras, and Guatemala. Argentina is in eleventh place.

The most up-to-date figures, relating only to 2016, that the organisation will publish in November, have again put Latin America in the spotlight, although as the TGEU points out that “the trans communities in this region are very closely connected, so it is much easier to report a crime here than in Africa”.

According to activists, one of the reasons the murder rate amongst trans people is so high in the region is the deeply rooted machismo in Latin American society.

“The cases that occur in Latin America are very violent. We are a very macho and patriarchal society, so there is a lot of violence,” says Florencia Guimaraes García, president of the Association Campaigning for Transvestite and Transexual Identity in Argentina. “Recently we have seen an increase in violence against our community, in police repression and in hate.”

Like many of her fellow transgender people, Guimaraes García believed prostitution was one of the only possible means of earning a living. According to a study by the Association of Transvestites, Transsexuals and Transgender people of Argentina, in 2013 95 per cent of transgender people had performed sex work at some time in their lives.

Of those, 70 per cent of trans women perform sex work exclusively as a means of subsistence or to compensate for low incomes from other labour activities. Furthermore, a big percentage of transgender people say they turned to sex work after being expelled from their homes and their family surroundings.


Argentina: world leader in trans rights

Like Guimaraes García, Daniela Mercado, a transgender activist, was able to leave the world of prostitution, complete her university studies, and find work as an assistant in an office. Mercado and Guimaraes García attributed much of their personal achievements to the Gender Identity Law passed by the government of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2012.

The law is the only one of its kind in the world, the first to allow transgender people to change their gender on their birth certificates and identity documents without first having to undergo psychological or medical tests. The law also makes access to hormone treatment and surgery a legal right, and guarantees the availability of these procedures cost free in the public and private health systems. In June 2015, the World Health Organisation highlighted the Gender Identity Law as a leading world example in terms of the demands for the rights of trans communities.

“Before the law, it wasn’t possible for us to better ourselves. I tried to finish my secondary education twice when I lived in Mendoza but I couldn’t do it because we didn’t have a national Gender Identity law,” says Mercado. “After the law came into force, a lot of things changed. Now we can complain and we can defend ourselves. Although people may find it hard to understand, it is a law they are going to have to respect, because we are not going back on anything.”

According to the Fundación Huésped, an NGO, in the two years since the law was approved, the physical and sexual abuse of the transgender community by the police has fallen 10 per cent. At the same time, while more than half the transgender community avoided going to health centres before the law came into force, this percentage fell to 5.3 percent in 2014.


More to be done

Despite this progress, Mercado recognises that the struggle is not over yet. “We have several challenges. We have challenges regarding health, challenges over housing, employment and education. All of us trans girls have experienced a lot of violence, and it is hard to believe there is another way. Some are simply resigned to believing that the price of being a transvestite is prostitution.”

The same Fundación Huésped study admits that despite the advances in law, sex work is still the most frequent employment path followed by trans women (but not by trans men).

There are still major obstacles in Latin America. Since 2008, the number of transgender people in the region has increased by nearly 50 per cent. Only a minority of countries recognise the rights of trans communities in the way that Argentina does – Brazil, Colombia, Cuba and Mexico are the other countries that allow people to change their gender on their identity documents, for example.

Despite these continuing obstacles, transgender leaders remain optimistic about the progress they can make. In one of her last interviews before her murder, Sacayán stressed the importance of continuing to fight for the rights of the trans communities:

“Our agenda does not stop at the Gender Identity Law. We are looking ahead to the de-penalisation of abortion, the demands of the indigenous movement, and the environmental movement. Because otherwise, the only place for us would seem to be prostitution. I am still struggling to get out of it because it is horrible. We have to turn this debate around: we do not want to be condemned to remain in dark corners forever.”


This article has been translated from Spanish.