If the right to life is not respected, the others lack meaning.

is usually the case, I was searching for stories to cover for my columns.  I stumbled across an editorial in the Washington Blade, entitled We must protect rights of transgender people.  Well I’m all for that.  That is the theme about which I write most…especially so over the past week.

I do have to acknowledge some disappointment over the reception those stories have received.  In my world, human rights have priority #1.  Everything else comes tumbling after.

The Blade editorial focuses on two reports released earlier this month which “paint a disturbing picture of the global status of trans communities – a portrait of human rights violations, violence and marginalization.”

Well, duh.  If you haven’t gotten that much out of what I have been blogging about since 2005, then apparently we have been miscommunicating.

I’m going to cover one of those documents.  I guess I’ll save the other for a rainy day.

Let me note up front that the report covers life to the south of our own country, which concerns me because that usually means nobody will be interested.  But there is no reason to embrace American exceptionalism on this issue.  The United States suffers some of the identical problems as our Latin American neighbors when it comes to the treatment of transpeople.  Indeed some of them do much better than our country.

Yet these reports show how trans people are subject to especially extreme abuse, from many angles.  Lest anyone use these stories as reason to rejoice for not living in one of “those barbaric countries” it’s worth noting that the U.S. racks up one of the higher murder rates of trans people worldwide.  Routine police mistreatment and abuse of trans women in one neighborhood of New York City was recently documented – with stories remarkably similar to those told in Bogota, Johannesburg or New Dehli.

It is also important to note that much of the political agenda advanced in the name of LGBT rights – whether same-sex marriage or “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” – have little relevance to these communities.  A marriage license won’t stop a bullet.  As noted in a statement put out on Dec. 17 by 50 organizations, the LGBT rights movement needs to better address issues of criminalization of trans people.

Washington Blade editorial

While most of the world was celebrating Human Rights Day last week (December 10), the Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Personas Trans (REDLACTRANS), the Latin American and Caribbean network of transgender people which is based in Argentina, and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance issued a joint new report on the violation of human rights of transgender women in Latin America.  The Night is Another Country:  Violence and impunity against transgender women human rights defenders in Latin America is a 23 page report which analyzes the testimonies of 55 transgender women human rights defenders and HIV activists.

The decision to produce this report was born from the need to expose the numerous cases of violence and murders unjustly suffered by transgender women in Latin America.  In recent years, perhaps as a result of the growing transgender movement in the region, REDLACTRANS and the Alliance have witnessed first-hand the painful testimonies of human rights violations committed against transgender people, which have taken place in a climate of unacceptable impunity.

Although this report focuses on physical violence, transgender women experience violence on many levels as a result of social exclusion and discrimination.  With the exception of Argentina, the gender identity of transgender people is not recognised by law, and they are condemned to an existence that does not coincide with their gender identity.  This situation is made worse by the social rejection they face on many levels, ranging from the home and in schools, to the workplace and health

services. In proof of this, transgender women are the population with the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Latin America, averaging at 35%.

Human rights will not be a reality until all human beings can realise them.

The Executive Summary lists three basic findings:

Firstly, the testimonies and events it describes reveal the systematic nature and scope of the human rights violations committed against transgender human rights defenders and other transgender women by State actors.  These rights violations, which include extrajudicial executions, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and arbitrary detentions, extend beyond both the heading of hate crime, the label under which such cases are usually categorized, and the context of widespread violence that exists in many countries of Latin America.  Around 80 per cent of the transgender activists interviewed reported having been subjected to violence or threats to their physical integrity allegedly emanating from

State actors.  

As its second finding, the report shows that the penetration of transphobia, namely fear or hatred of transgender people, across State structures at every level, is facilitating a similarly systematic climate of impunity with regard to human rights violations committed against transgender activists and other transgender women.  The report presents evidence of such impunity which manifests itself in a culture of silence that impedes the filing of complaints, a failure to adopt a differentiated approach when dealing with such cases, ineffectiveness in the justice system, the existence of discriminatory legislation and the absence of legislation on gender identity.  

Although it was difficult to find official data on cases of murdered transgender people processed through the justice system, civil society organizations have provided compelling data: according to Colombian activists, 60 transgender women were murdered between 2005 and 2012 without a single person having been brought to justice.  In the same period 35 transgender people were murdered in Guatemala, with only one person brought to justice.  In Honduras, in the cases of 61 killings of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) individuals reported between 2008 and 2011, only ten people were brought to trial, none for the death of transgender women, despite the fact that the latter accounted for two thirds of the cases.  The analysis provided in this report shows that the impunity surrounding the violation of the rights of transgender activists and other transgender women is not solely due to the general impunity that exists in several Latin American countries but is largely motivated by transphobia.

The report’s third main finding is that transgender human rights defenders in Latin America are at extreme risk of being subjected to human rights violations, a risk that is exponentially increased in the context of sex work.  Ninety-five per cent of the transgender human rights defenders interviewed combine their activism with sex work.  In about 90 per cent of the cases covered in this report, the violence reported is related to sex work.  This happens when the police take direct action against defenders because of their activism, making use of the sex work context to take reprisals against them.  The case of the Colectivo Unidad Color Rosa de Honduras speaks volumes: of the seven members who set up the group in 2001, six have been murdered.

These findings show that the national, regional and universal measures and mechanisms established to protect human rights are failing in the case of transgender women..

It’s as if the night is another country; because during the day, the police have a bit more respect for us because of the complaints we have filed, which has given us a higher profile as far as complaints are concerned, [even] at international level.  But it’s different at night, you’re exposed when you are out doing sex work in the street, it’s as if you don’t exist, anything can happen.  If we didn’t have to go out on the street at night, if we had education and job opportunities, it would be another story.

–transgender activist from Honduras

The General Assembly of the Organization of American States has condemned acts of violence against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, especially calling member states to protect human rights defenders.

However, the perpetration of human rights violations on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity is common practice and entrenched in the region, to the point of being systematic, while discrimination on the same grounds is institutionalized.

[T]he situation of transgender women who are human rights defenders is particularly precarious owing both to their visibility, which openly challenges established gender norms, and to the work they do to promote and defend human rights.  There has been clear recent evidence of violence being targeted at transgender women in different Latin American countries and of the failure of States to take action to prevent, combat and eradicate it.

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.  

“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

Murders of transpeople in Latin America, 2008-2011

Argentina   28

Bolivia   8

Brazil   426

Chile   4

Columbia   67

Costa Rica   3

Ecuador   10

El Salvador   8

Guatemala   35

Honduras   42

Mexico   93

Nicaragua   2

Panama   3

Paraguay   3

Peru   11

Uruguay   3

Venezuela   65

Total   826


In Guatemala 29% of transwomen identify the police as the main agent of discrimination.  In Columbia 78.7% of transpeople say they have been victims of the police, while 51.1% say they have been victims of private security agents.  On Lima, Peru 46% of reported assaults were at the hands of the Serenazgo (the night patrols…local police), while another 31% were committed by the Policia Nacional (National Police), and 7% were the result of joint action by the two groups.

Following the 2009 political crisis I was left jobless and had to go back to doing sex work on the streets.  One night in October 2011 I was coming out of a bar when a car without plates stopped next to me.  Four individuals got out and shot me four times in the head and body without saying a word.  One of the bullets is still lodged in my neck.  No one asked me any questions in the hospital and there was no police investigation.  It wasn’t the only time.  I had already been shot three times while out doing sex work.  Altogether I have been shot nine times.  There are witnesses but they are also afraid to make a statement.  I myself have witnessed many other police attacks but I’m also afraid to report them.  This is what the police call “social cleansing”.  According to them, it’s because there are lots of complaints against transgender women doing sex work.  I think I’m on the list.

–specialist in public health and transgender human rights defender in Honduras

The human rights violations reported include:

1.  Extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings

The right to life and not to be arbitrarily deprived of life is a universal right that is protected in several international instruments, and its exercise is crucial for the realisation of all human rights.  If this right is not respected, the others lack meaning.

In Uruguay, six girls have been murdered within a very short time during 2012.  The first was shot three times and had her throat cut and was found in the Teja area of Montevideo.  Then there is the case of a girl who died after being shot five times near Roosevelt Park.  Another one turned up dead two blocks from there.  A fourth girl was found dead in the department of Cerro Largo, after being thrown into a well full of water and with signs of having been sexually assaulted.  Another girl was shot in the back as she was opening the door of her home in the neighbourhood of Tres Ombúes, in Montevideo.

–Transgender human rights defender in Montevideo, Uruguay, July 2012

2.  Torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment

All human rights treaties, both international and regional, absolutely prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  That prohibition is also reiterated in several international standards.

In July 2011 I was walking along and some police officers asked me for my ID card, I told them I didn’t have one because the authorities wouldn’t give me one on account of my female appearance.  They put me in the patrol car, took all my money and shared it out among themselves in front of me.  I then tried to leave but after a few metres one of the policemen pointed his pistol at me and the others started hitting me in the face and body.  A bank guard took down the number of the patrol car and, equipped with that, I went to file a complaint at the first police station.  They told me I had to submit it to the Fiscalía de Derechos Humanos, Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office, and come face to face with them.  That same evening some men in a red car tried to take me away by force.  I was so scared that I didn’t file the complaint.

–transgender human rights defender, Honduras

I alone know the suffering that can be caused by being held together with 300 men and spending whole days being raped and beaten, but I cannot describe it.

–transgender activist, Guatemala

3.  Arbitrary detention

International law recognizes and protects the right to liberty and the right not to be arbitrarily deprived of it.  Similarly, international standards identify and condemn the existence of legal provisions that can result in loss of liberty on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity, including indirectly.  In some cases, detention or charges may appear to be based on reasons other than identity or status as such, though those reasons may simply be a pretext for taking action against a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

In most cases in which women doing sex work are arrested, the police say that it’s for practicing prostitution.  When the women say that prostitution is legal and ask to be shown the law that says it is prohibited, the police say, “Go and study it for yourself!”.  It’s not us who are ignorant.

–transgender activist, Honduras, where there is a law against “breaching morality” which is used to specifically target transwomen

4.  Threats and extortion

In 2010, my housemate was beaten by the police, I went with her to file a complaint at the police station.  When we entered, the very policemen who had beaten her were coming out of the building and said, “You, what are you doing here reporting us?  Do you want us to kill you over there tonight?”

–transgender activist, Honduras

In Panama, police have reportedly forced themselves on transgender women as their pimps: the police who arrest them do not take them to the competent authorities but take their money in exchange for letting them go.  Those who refuse to hand over the money are subjected to humiliation and abuse.

5.  Violations of the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health

The right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health, which is explicitly protected in international human rights treaties, means that a certain level of physical and mental health is needed in order to be able to exercise all human rights and fundamental freedoms and thus participate in the civil, social, political, cultural and economic life of States.  It also means that the exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms is essential to the enjoyment of genuine physical and mental wellbeing.

It is therefore incongruous that, despite the prevalence of HIV among transgender women and the mandates and resolutions of specialist health care agencies such as PAHO, public health care institutions are not usually accessible to such women and do not cater for their needs.  

According to a Venezuelan activist, nine out of ten transgender people do not go to medical centres because of the stigma they face.  The staff are not trained to deal with sexual/gender diversity and so LGBTI people in general are often abused or ill-treated by health care providers or even forcibly subjected to therapies to “cure” or “treat” their gender identity or sexual orientation.

The vicious cycle that starts with education and employment discrimination often ends here.  

The discrimination that results in sex work being the predominant form of livelihood for transgender women also fuels social stigma by establishing a link in which transgender women are mainly associated with sex work and HIV/AIDS.  This point is illustrated by a case described by an activist from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, about a transgender woman who was the victim of a rape and the local health service refused her access to emergency antiretroviral drugs, claiming that she was responsible for exposing herself to the HIV virus because she was engaged in sex work.

The forensic doctors didn’t want to do an autopsy after she died because they suspected she might have HIV.  We had difficulty in getting her out of the morgue because of that.

–Transgender activist, Honduras

When HIV statistics are compiled, transgender women are almost always as men who have sex with men, which not only denies their gender identity but also erases transwomen from the specific needs and characteristics of the population, ensuring that programs to address the problem are not available.  In Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, there are no reported instances of transwomen with HIV/AIDS.  None at all.

So what can be done?  What will be done when the system is broken?  The problems are clearly evident.

1.  A culture of silence:  The violence is so common ans pervasive that reporting abuse is inhibited by the fear of more abuse.

2.  The lack of a differentiated approach:  The authorities report crimes against transwomen as “crimes of passion.”

the  influence exerted by discriminatory socio-cultural patterns may cause a victim’s credibility to be questioned in cases involving violence, or lead to a tacit assumption that she is somehow to blame for what happened, whether because of her manner of dress, her occupation, her sexual conduct, relationship or kinship to the assailant and so on.  The result is that prosecutors, police and judges fail to take action on complaints of violence.”

Access to Justice for Women Victims of Violence in the Americas

We have three motives why they [referring to transgender women] are killed: one, for being stood at a corner;  two, because they steal from a client;  and three, because they belong to criminal groups… Oh! And they also kill each other.

–Guatemala National Police

3.  The ineffectiveness of the justice system

About a year and a half ago it was our turn to bury a colleague.  The two killers were caught with her body in the boot of their car.  One of them has been released by the courts.  The other is facing trial but we are concerned he’s going to be set free because the prosecutor is looking for an eyewitness to testify and cannot find her.  We are afraid that the case will go unpunished because the witness fled out of fear after being threatened by relatives of the killer.

4.  Discriminatory laws and the lack of legislation on gender identity and sexual orientation.

In most countries of the region there is no legislation explicitly recognising or mentioning transgender identity, thus leaving transgender women legally invisible and dependent on how general clauses relating to their human rights protection are interpreted.

One very great difficulty in investigating crimes against [transgender women] is that they never carry identity documents.  I think it’s because they don’t like the fact that the document gives their male name and they do not physically resemble the photograph that appears on it.

[…] A Gender Identity Law? No, I don’t think that would be right because in this country only man and woman are defined and there can’t be anything else.  I am not familiar with the law governing RENAP [Registro Nacional de las Personas, National Register of Persons], but I imagine that that is how it is regulated because that is the correct thing to do.  [A Guatemalan organization of LGBTI people] should handle the registration of transvestite men [meaning transgender women].  They are the ones who have an obligation to do so, they should do it.

–Representative of the Guatemalan National Civil Police

5.  Transphobia as a factor that facilitates impunity

The widespread transphobia found among State authorities and actors is illustrated by the way in which they refer to transgender women.  All of the authorities from the security and justice systems of Honduras and Guatemala interviewed in the context of this research described transgender women as transvestite or homosexual men.  For example, a prosecutor from the Ministerio Público, Prosecution Service, in Honduras, referring to the cases in her charge, said that “we don’t deal with [t]rans women here, only transvestite men.”

I don’t want to be offensive but I have studied criminology and we do not call them transgender women but transvestite men because it is a form of deviant behaviour typical of criminals.  It is seen especially in the cases of transvestites and prostitution, which are the same thing.  But we don’t discriminate against them.

–Representative of the Guatemalan National Civil Police

Sometimes the police stop me and suggest I help them extort money from the client.  If I say no, they put me in the patrol car and take me to the [police] station, leave me there for 24 hours and then release me on the outskirts of the city.  

But sometimes I’m able to defend myself, I say that I’m a human rights defender, that they don’t have the right to arrest me and that I’m going to report them.  If I’m able to get their identity, they usually stop watching me and leave me in peace because they know we know more than they do.  For that reason all the training I’ve received has been very useful for me.  

A right that is not defended is a right that is lost.

–transgender woman in charge of HIV prevention programmes in San Pedro Sula, Honduras


The days when transgender defenders were murdered in the streets of Latin American cities with no one but their friends noticing are gone.  Today transgender organizations in the region are empowering thousands of transgender women, both sex workers and those working in other professions, with regard to the effective prevention of HIV and other sexually-transmitted diseases and so that they are able to avail themselves of their human rights.

Unfortunately, as this report shows, the progress made and results obtained as a result of empowering the transgender population are limited.  It is precisely the reporting of human rights abuses that is increasing their exposure to threats and reprisals in the context of sex work.  

Transgender women have demonstrated that they can defend and promote their rights and serve their societies in many ways.  In order for them to be successful, it is essential that national authorities, the international community and civil society organizations join efforts to tackle violence, discrimination and impunity.

Transgender human rights defenders have the right to express their identity, to have their physical integrity protected, to have educational and employment opportunities and to access justice.  Transgender women have the capacity to lead in the HIV/AIDS response and the prevention, treatment, care and support efforts that can only be successful if they do it themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, trans people must be at the forefront of the fight for recognition of our fundamental status as human.  As trans leaders are attacked, raped and murdered around the world, it is past time to give activists more support.

–Washington Blade


    • Robyn on December 22, 2012 at 12:05 am

    …it is not evident that transgender activists are being targeted in this country.  But there are some people/organizations I would not put it past.

    • Robyn on December 22, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    Human rights is not an issue for you guys?  Well…screw you.

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