Saturday, March 2, 2013

'The Night is Another Country' launch at Doughty Street Chambers, 1st March 2013

On the 8th of January Suzanne Moore made a crack that women were expected to look like  “Brazilian transsexuals”.  This throwaway remark struck a nerve in the transgender community; between 2008-2011 426 transgender people have been murdered in Brazil - the highest rate in the world.  An astonishing 80% of murders of transgender people worldwide between 2008-11 occurred in Latin America.  Beyond the physical threat, transgender people routinely face social exclusion and discrimination.  Why is this region of the world so dangerous for transgender people? More pressingly, what can be done about it?

So I was happy to accept the invitation of the The Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender People (REDLACTRANS) and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance to attend the launch of The Night is Another Country: Impunity and violence against transgender women human rights defenders in Latin America.  This report lays bare the chilling reality of life for transgender people in Latin America, with numerous personal stories and interviews that paint a depressing picture of intimidation, exploitation and victimisation in these countries. 

A short and powerful film shown by REDLACTRANS at the evening.

The launch, generously hosted by Doughty Street Chambers, featured an impressive panel of   activists and politicians.  Chairing the evening was Shaun Woodward MP, Labour representative for St Helens South and Whiston; the speakers were Marcela Romero, Regional Coordinator of REDLACTRANS; Monica Leonardo, author of the report; Christine Burns MBE, political activist, health advisor and former Vice President of Press for Change and Sue Breeze, representing the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Shaun Woodward MP was an impressive speaker, explaining both his moral and personal convictions in relation to transgender rights.  He famously crossed the floor from the Conservatives to Labour in 1999 after being sacked for supporting the repeal of Section 28, the regulation preventing promotion of homosexuality in schools.  As a result of this defection, the Conservative Party sicced the press on his transgender sister, resulting in a front page of the Sun covered in doorstep pictures of her.  His anger is palpable when he recounts this, and he seems a passionate and sincere defender of human rights (although interestingly he didn't vote on the gay marriage bill...).

He lays out some of the more alarming statistics in the report, the most disturbing being that rates of HIV infection are frighteningly high in the transgender community in Latin America. 35% of transgender people are infected, which, when compared to the average rate of adult HIV prevalence across Latin America, 0.5%, makes this the most unequal region in the world.

Cold statistics like these are shocking and effective, but the problem in this particular field is that there isn't a huge amount of data to work with.  One of the aims of REDLACTRANS is to put pressure on Latin American governments to legally acknowledge the existence of transgender people.  That they don't means that data is scarce, with transgender men and women being recorded in statistics as their birth gender rather than what they identify as.  So the conclusions of the report are primarily derived from interviewing transgender people from across Latin America about their experiences.  These voices tell some pretty damn grim stories, for example:
"About six months ago, I got in a car with a man who I know is a policeman.  He hired me to provide my sexual services, but afterwards he didn't want to pay and he wouldn't let me get out of the car.  He shouted at me, "Today you really are going to die, hueco!".  I told him to kill me, because I knew that sooner or later I'd end up dead, because for me, life is a bonus." - [Transgender activist in Guatemala, July 2012]
Things continue in this vein as Monica explains to us the levels of violence and murder against transgender activists and transgender women, crimes to which the state turns a blind eye.  Many transgender women in Latin American countries gravitate towards sex work; discrimination in society making it difficult for them to easily find other sources of income.  This places them in an intensely vulnerable situation, with little options available.  

A near universal theme in these interviews is intense distrust of the police.  There is countless testimony of the police exploiting transgender sex workers, blackmailing them for free sexual favours and attacking or even killing them if they resist.  After all, if you're viciously beaten by a policeman, who do you report the attack to?  In many cases the victim would be making the report to the colleagues of the person you're accusing.  In one example we hear how someone wishing to report a crime was told that "the computer system is down", and to go to another station to report it.  In each station the person visited, the same thing was heard.  To know that the police couldn't give a toss about your safety and that you have no means of reporting a crime leaves you feeling intensely powerless. 

A trailer for a project by Ivan D'Onadio shown at the event

Reading the report you feel the weight of misery pressing down on you.  Example after example of humiliation, disfigurement and rape, a litany of crimes committed by state actors, or with the state's sinisterly implied consent.  Changing the course of monolithic organisations like the police, the courts, the church and the government looks like an almost impossible task. So how can things improve?  

Predictably, the answer is slowly and with great difficulty.  One of the objectives of RELACTRANS is to get Latin American governments to allow people to change their gender and name in their identification documents.  This sounds like a fairly reasonable request, but laws like these provide the bedrock for further anti-discrimination legislation as proof that the state officially recognises their existence.  Earlier in the evening we're told that police find it difficult to identify murdered transgender women as they tend not to carry ID.  Under existing laws, any official ID they could possess would carry their birth name and gender, which isn't going to be particularly useful for someone who's undergone or is undergoing transition.  The most significant advance in this area of law has been in Argentina, whose Gender Identity Law came into force in May 2012; if the momentum from this can be harnessed it would be the first light in a very dark situation.

It's rare that I feel a sense of patriotism, but when the human rights activists speak glowingly of the UK's progress in human rights for transgender people I felt a slight glow of pride.  We were shown how far the UK has come since 1992.  Back then transgender people were unable to change their birth certificate, marry, have employment protection and most disturbingly, legally unable to be raped.  In 2012 all of these have been overturned, thanks to the efforts of organisations like Press For Change.  It's efforts like these that serve as a template for political action in Latin America.

It wasn't exactly a cheery night, but all the panellists spoke with clear-headed conviction.  For the transgender activists in Latin America it takes an enormous amount of bravery to stand up to a society that apparently doesn't care if you wind up dead in a ditch or not.  This report will function as a keystone in highlighting the danger and oppression that transgender people live under, and as a foundation for further activism in Latin American regions.

Many thanks to Doughty Street Chambers for hosting this, and to all the panellists for speaking so eloquently, intelligently and passionately. 

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