“We Have The Right To Be Happy” - Short film produced by James Lovage (@jameslovage) and Verity Sullivan (@DrVesSullivan) - with thanks to Nadir Fernanda Cardozo, Dr. Claudia Frola, Shona Waldron and Matias Coleff
“In the early morning, various individuals got out of a car and without any known motive attacked the victim, inflicting several wounds with a sharp weapon. Before dying, the victim stated having been attacked by a group of “ultra moralist” youths who assault trans people.” *
Imagine if being You meant that you were more likely to be murdered, catch HIV and to suffer at the hands of the authorities that are designed to protect you? A concept incomprehensible to many, this is the brutal reality faced by countless transgender (trans) people around the globe, as described in the horrific account above of a murdered trans woman in Argentina, 2014.
Argentina has a prominent transgender community. However, unacceptable levels of stigma, abuse and social isolation still torture this population. As is the case worldwide, a disproportionate number of its trans people are commercial sex workers (CSWs), with over 80% of trans women in Argentina reporting they’ve been CSWs at some time. The work is incredibly hard, with unprovoked verbal, physical and sexual abuse a daily occurrence for trans women working on the streets.
“The main reason sex work happens is because girls are kicked out of their homes young and don’t finish school,” says Nadir Fernanda Cardozo, a trans woman, activist and representative for the Association of Transvestites, Transsexuals and Transgenders Argentina (ATTTA). “They come searching for a new life in the city and the only work they can get is on the street.”
Unsurprisingly, high rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) exist, with HIV prevalence rates in trans women estimated at 34% in Argentina versus 0.4% in the general population. This combination of HIV, high rates of gender based violence and poor social support means that the average life-expectancy of a trans woman in Argentina is a shocking 35-years-old.
Whilst prevention efforts have had a significant effect, unbelievably high levels of discrimination within the health system itself remain problematic. This phenomenon exists in health systems worldwide to various degrees, often due to lack of knowledge and inexperience in managing the needs of trans people. Discriminatory behaviour can range from not being called from the waiting room by one’s chosen name to being sexually assaulted by a doctor. The result is low numbers of a high-risk population attending for HIV tests and care, leading to late diagnosis and more HIV passed on.
“These women just aren’t coming to the hospital,” says Dr. Claudia Frola, a HIV and trans health specialist. “We don’t understand enough about how their lives work and the health system needs to adapt to the needs of theses women which are totally different than any other.”
With Argentina’s new government within the first years of it’s administration, eyes are firmly on Macri’s cabinet to see that they continue to strive for the rights of the trans community. Argentina actually possesses some of the most advanced trans legislation in the world, with its 2012 Gender Identity Law allowing anyone to legally change their name and sex without the need for medical or legal approval. To date, over 10,000 people have changed gender on their official documents, although the true number of people identifying as trans in the country remains unknown. The positive impact of the legislation is indisputable with countries around the world modelling their own laws on Argentina’s success.
But on grass roots level much work still needs to be done. As is the case globally, discrimination and ill-treatment from the police is a huge problem for trans people, particularly sex workers, who are frequent victims of profiling, police violence and theft. There are even reports of police officers extorting money from clients by threatening to tell their partners that they’ve been found with a sex worker. Sex work itself is not formally criminalised in Buenos Aires, though a federal “anti-trafficking” law is in place to safeguard victims of coercion. A recent report from Amnesty International that uses Buenos Aires as a case-study has called for the decriminalisation of sex work and clear distinctions between what constitutes trafficking and the consensual selling of sex. Alongside a number of women’s rights groups such as AMMAR, they feel this will provide sex workers, both cis and trans, with more rights and reduce the unacceptable rates of police persecution.
Fundacion Huesped is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Buenos Aires working to empower trans people in terms of their health and human rights. Their projects include the “test at home” scheme, which involves a specialist team visiting groups of trans sex workers at home to perform same-day HIV testing and promote trans health. The project provides a safe environment for discussion and a positive HIV test result leads to speedy integration into specialist, non-judgemental medical care.
Another project is looking at the use of Pre-exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) in trans sex workers in Buenos Aires: preliminary studies have shown a significant interest in PrEP from this group and with the effects of PrEP in preventing HIV acquisition indisputable, a study like this is essential.
Argentina’s trans climate is a revealing one. With advanced legislation but a reality that lags regrettably behind, it starkly demonstrates how developing a safe environment for minority groups worldwide needs more than a bill passed. We need more highlighting of the trans community in the media, education for health professionals and other public service workers about trans issues and clarity over sex work legislation. This is alongside finding better ways of accessing the trans community itself.
So often victimised or portrayed as problematic, trans individuals are rarely acknowledged for the bravery that they have shown to pursue their identity. And even less so for the patience they demonstrate for other people’s attitudes and beliefs, something the non-trans community could do with a lot more of.
*(Transrespect versus Transphobia (TvT) 2014 research project: “Trans Murder Monitoring results, March 2014)