Tamara Adrián: “Latin America is setting the new standard in terms of LGBT rights”


The International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, celebrated every 17 May (marking the day, in 1990, when the World Health Organisation decided to remove homosexuality from the list of mental illnesses), will once again provide an opportunity to raise public awareness, internationally, about the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community and to denounce the abuses, discrimination and murders targeting this group.

During a conference held in Colombia by CIVICUS, Equal Times spoke with Tamara Adrián, the first transgender person elected to the Venezuelan National Assembly, about LGBTI issues in Venezuela and the rest of the continent, based on her own experience.

Adrián, who comes from a long line of social activists, was sworn in as a member of the National Assembly on 14 January, after being elected as a deputy in December 2015 for the Democratic Unity Roundtable (Mesa de la Unidad Democrática, MUD). Still, she has not managed to secure a decision from the Supreme Court of Venezuela regarding her request to change identity. She considers herself to be a feminist and LGBT activist driven more by political conviction than personal motives.

You filed for a change of identity in 2004 (following sex reassignment surgery in 2002). Has your status as a deputy in any way changed the stance of the Supreme Court of Venezuela?

The only thing that has changed is that on 1 March my petition, which had been sleeping “the sleep of the just” since 14 May 2004, was declared admissible. The specific procedure for the hearing has not yet, however, been established. In the meantime, a tragicomical thing happened: an evangelical church became involved in the case, not only presenting the same old argument (all children need a mum and a dad, etc.) but calling on the court to have me removed from office as a deputy on grounds of insanity.

Do you see the fact that your case is now underway as progress?

I think it is very positive, because, in Venezuela, the Supreme Court of Justice has been specialising in eradicating democracy and restricting human rights in many ways since 2004. It has been instrumental in imposing the will of a regime like the one we have in Venezuela.

The fact is that since 2004 the state has not lost a single case. The Supreme Court has never ruled against the state.

It was clear that they did not want to deal with the issue of sexual and reproductive health, or human rights, and not least LGBT rights, unlike the rest of the region. Colombia, for example, has marriage equality, recognises people’s identity following gender reassignment operations, and protects against discrimination across the board. Venezuela has none of this.

Would your case set a legal precedent?

Even that would be remarkable. Because I am always talking of a ‘re-involution’. Bear in mind that Venezuela was the first Latin American country to recognise the identity of trans people. Between 1977 and 1998 around 150 identities were recognised, with the standards of that era, following (sex change) operations in Italy. Since 1999 (the start of Hugo Chavez’s first presidential term), a change of identity has never been granted, and now, not even a change of name. That’s why I say there has been a ‘re-involution’.

Could the fact that you are a member of the National Assembly work in your favour?

It could serve as an excuse for talking about the issue. Bear in mind that the PSUV (United Socialist Party of Venezuela) has not wanted to address the issue. It has always kept it invisible, at the same time as using very insidious propaganda, propaganda boasting of the great advances made by the Bolivarian Revolution in terms of “sexual gender diversity”, whatever that means, when there has not, in fact, been any.

In the United States, a world power whose debates on civil rights do not go unnoticed, restrictive legislation regarding the transsexual community is being approved or proposed. What is your view on this?

The main point is that religious bigots are an immense minority. That is to say, there may be many believers, but the fundamentalists are very rare, and that is the same everywhere. They often represent just one per cent of a religion.

But there is, sometimes, a very sinister relationship between power, money and religion, which manifests itself and expresses itself in the form of bigotry (towards the trans community, for example). In the United States it is very symptomatic. That law in North Carolina (and others they want to pass) is the new spearhead of bigotry, now that marriage equality cannot be overturned.

What other LGBT group is being attacked? They cannot attack gays and lesbians, so they are left with the most unprotected, the most under-privileged of all: the trans people.

But they don’t realise that the world has changed. You only have to see that all the major artists are cancelling their shows and that big businesses are halting their investments there... I don’t think they (the ultra-conservatives) expected that kind of reaction.

What do you see as the best and worst examples in the LGBT file, from the lowest point from which to start building and the benchmarks to be followed?

The worst examples are, precisely, the fundamentalist religious groups, particularly those in the United States, that are funding acts of bigotry in Africa and some Central American countries. The result is that a country like Honduras ranks first, globally, in terms of the number of murders targeting trans people, per capita (80 murders, the equivalent of 9.56 per million inhabitants).

Venezuela is not far behind. It is fifth in the world in terms of absolute numbers (with 104 murders), after Colombia (with 108 cases) and Mexico (247), whilst in Brazil there have been 845 (between 1 January 2008 and 30 April 2016, according to the statistics of TvT). What’s more, the figures they have are based on the cases reported in newspapers (murders covered by the media). So, in all probability, these figures are only the tip of the iceberg.

And the same is happening in Africa. That is, there is a correlation between the presence of two or three North American fundamentalist evangelical churches and their missionary groups in Central America and Africa, and this has done substantial damage to the LGBT community and most particularly the trans community in those two places.

Also, for different reasons, Islamic fundamentalists, especially in those countries where the Sharia (Islamic Law) is applied.

Despite the high rate of transgender homicides in Latin America, this is the region that is stepping up to the mark in terms of civil rights for the LGBT community. It is setting the new international standard. How? By totally ‘de-pathologizing’ trans identity and decoupling legal identity from genitalia.

In Spain, for example, the 2007 Gender Law still requires the presentation of a medical report. In other words, a medical or psychological examination is required for the recognition of identity, so that medical science can say you are who you are.

The Gender Identity Law in Argentina, adopted in 2012, changed the paradigm. You can go to the civil registry and say: “I feel like a man and I want to be called Pedro Miguel”. And they will give you a new birth certificate, a new ID card and a new passport, without anything other than your identity coming into it, just how you feel, regardless of your genitalia.

This change has gradually spread to other countries of Latin America: Uruguay, Mexico (only Mexico City) and now Colombia. Exactly the same is being discussed in Chile, but there is more resistance in the senate there.

It has become a new standard. And yet European countries are following the North American standard. It turns out that it is the South now that is promoting the changes to be made in the North.

Moving on. Very few women make it onto the lists of the world’s richest or highest paid people. The highest paid female CEO is Martine A. Rothblatt, a transsexual. What is your view on this?

Women are screwed by their education, their upbringing. Limitations are placed on girls’ management skills, their proactive capacities and their bravery as they are brought up, perpetuating gender stereotypes. It is a sexist education that begins with the toys, and that limits a woman to her reproductive function and to the role of food provider within the home.

In those experiments (in the field of cognitive psychology in education) where non-sexist toys are given to boys and girls, it has been observed that girls not only equal the boys but often demonstrate better numerical and spatial skills. A more egalitarian education really provides more equal opportunities.

A trans woman, regardless of the fact that she thinks of herself as a woman, has been brought up as a male. In the same way as a trans man, regardless of the fact that he thinks of himself as a man, has been brought up as a female. Take politics as an example: (as recently observed at a congress in Massachusetts) the majority of transgender politicians elected are trans women.

Perhaps the answer lies there. Whether your identity is male or female, it doesn’t take much away from a sexist early education that limits your cognitive and organisational skills. I think the fact that the highest paid woman is a trans woman is linked to the education issue. Basically, what we are looking at is the need for a genuinely egalitarian upbringing and education.

You are a recognised feminist, how has your position evolved since your sex change?

My vision of feminism was, in fact, theoretical, empathetic, if you like; because having been born male, and as a professional, heterosexual, married man, I had all the privileges.

As I go through my transition, which is not detectable (unless I say it, out of LGBT activism, for political rather than personal reasons), the fact is that I am starting to feel, in a much more tangible way, the subtle and sometimes more obvious forms of discrimination against women: access to public places, including access to work. There is a deep-seated machismo in all those respects. And as a result I am starting to become a staunch feminist. I am starting to study feminist theory much more.

A man can become a feminist out of empathy, but men do not, indeed, suffer the discrimination.

We shouldn’t forget that patriarchy has always wanted to control people’s minds and bodies. The system of patriarchal domination implies that man controls the mind and body of the woman. In Venezuela, still now, and this has always been one of my battles, if you go to ask for your tubes tied you have to take your husband with you to sign.

What concrete measures do you plan to promote with the regard to LGBT rights in Venezuela?

In addition to the general economic and financial agenda [her area of expertise] to tackle the economic crisis in Venezuela, we are in the midst of proposing a specific reform of the Civil Registry Law.

It would allow: firstly, egalitarian registration of civil unions, secondly, the recognition of trans people, and, thirdly, recognition of international situations - if someone is married abroad, or has an identity abroad, it should be recognised in Venezuela.

Marriage equality has to move forward. Chavismo put a block on anything to do with marriage equality, from a number of fronts:

First of all, a decision was issued through the Supreme Court of Justice, the only one of its kind, stating that same sex couples are ontologically different from heterosexual couples, and, as a result, when the Constitution talks of marriage between a man and a women, it is only between a man and a woman. Consequently, there can be no marriage equality, nor equality in terms of civil unions. The only thing there can be (the decision says) are other types of civil unions exclusively for homosexuals or same-sex couples, different from marriage or a de facto stable union. In short, it is the most retrograde ruling ever seen on planet earth, and then they talk of revolution.

Secondly, there is the reform of the legislation regarding adolescents, forbidding adoption equality for same-sex couples.

Talking of marriage equality would imply overturning that decision of the Supreme Court of Justice. But the Court has declared practically all the laws enacted by the National Assembly to be unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, the political circumstances have changed and I am of the opinion that we have to expose Chavismo, to see where it stands, by adopting a marriage equality law. If they dare to declare it unconstitutional, we will be able to see the regime’s true colours with regard to the LGBT issue. Or, we could, perhaps, first secure a change in the Supreme Court of Justice to overturn that decision, and then talk about marriage equality in Venezuela.

Do you think Venezuela is ready to accept such changes?

I always turn the same question on its head: Could it be that we are less ready than Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile? I don’t think so. Because right now, all those countries have equality. Marriage equality.

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This interview was made possible by CIVICUS, organiser of the2016 International Civil Society Week. The conference was held under the slogan “Active Citizens, Accountable Actions” in Bogotá (Colombia) at the end of April. Over 30 events (focussing on peace, inclusion, enabling environment and participation) were hosted by leading civil society organisations during the conference.

This article has been translated from Spanish.

This article has been translated from Spanish.