Parading Towards Equality: Transcolombia Awakes

Ever since 1513, when the Conquistador Vasco Nuñez de Balboa decided to set his dogs on 40 Quarequa indigenous people for engaging in transvestism and homosexual acts, Colombia´s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) sector has enjoyed a stressful relationship with the dominant society. Following the conquest, indigenous cultures which tolerated gender and sexual diversity were violently discouraged, and the rigid gender and sexual constructions advocated by the Catholicism of the time were quickly and methodically imposed on society. As in the rest of the continent, machismo and social conservatism became the norms, forcing the majority of LGBT individuals to hide their sexual and gender orientations as much as possible. Since 1991, though, increasingly progressive laws have been passed in recognition of gender and sexual pluralism, and few would deny that society has gradually become more accepting of sexual difference. Today, one could read the recent law changes in favor of the LGBT population, attend a gay rights march, or go out for a night in Bogotá´s gay district in Chapinero and easily come away with the idea that all was well for the country´s LGBT population.

Sadly, such a view would be premature, and would overlook two key factors. The first is the same issue which continues to define virtually all areas of Latin American society: class. For so many reasons, the experience of being a middle or upper class lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender simply cannot be compared with the reality of being a poor one. The second factor is that society´s prejudices are disproportionately born by the “T” of LGBT, the transgender populations of Colombia. Popularly known as “travestis,” this population faces significant discrimination in the workplace, a situation which pushes many into the world of prostitution, leaving them vulnerable to all kinds of abuses and dangers.

Even within the LGBT movement, transgendered people have often, in spite of being the most committed foot soldiers to the cause of gender and sexual plurality, been considered as a source of embarrassment, a freaky anachronism that could tarnish LGBT politics simply by association. Many feminist groups, like their counterparts in the developed world, have rarely missed the opportunity to denounce transgendered women for being ersatz, retrograde, male imposters, more deserving of humiliation and contempt than any recognition or rights. Perceived as being too associated with modernity and globalization, and too exhibitionist and aesthetically obsessed to be considered a “political” movement, transgender populations receive little of the academic or NGO attention afforded to other minorities. For all these reasons, the lives, hopes and fears of Latin America´s transgendered population remain some of the great untold stories of the continent.

In Bogotá, however, transgendered populations are managing to gain greater visibility and enjoy constructive relations with the leftist administration of the Polo Democratico. Intrigued, I arranged interviews with two of the most charismatic representatives of transgendered Colombia: Afro-Colombian prostitute and activist Diana Navarro, and Cuban exile Charlotte Schneider Callejas. Both Charlotte and Diana have, while maintaining heavily critical stances on a number of matters, allied themselves with the leftist District administration of Bogotá.

“Soy negra, soy marica, y soy puta”: Diana Navarro
I first met Diana Navarro during the fourth gala against homophobia in August 2008. She was receiving an award for her years of activism in defense of the transgendered prostitutes of Barrios Santa Fé and Martires, and delivered a fiery speech celebrating the progress of transgendered people. Regardless of their opinions of her, few would accuse Diana of being an armchair activist. After her father made it clear that “Diana” wasn´t exactly what he had had in mind for his son, she ran away from her home in Barranquilla at the age of 14 and promptly found herself working by night on the streets of Bogotá. With the money she made from prostitution, she paid for a university education, studying law at the University of Antioquia in Medellin. On returning to the capital in 1999, she found the predicament of her fellow transgendered prostitutes to be so dire that she resolved to use her studies to give a voice to this most marginalized of marginal groups. She currently runs the NGO Corporacion Opción, and is an active member of the Polo Democratico´s LGBT group, the Polo Rosa. With her impressive stature, fiery demeanor, and eloquent yet passionate discourse, the Afro-Colombian has become a force to be reckoned with in Bogotá´s political circles, proudly celebrating her multiple identities with the comment “Soy negra, soy marica, y soy puta” (I´m black, I´m queer, and I´m a whore).

Charlotte Schneider: The Colombocubana putting transgendered people on the map
I met Charlotte several months later, when working in a project organized by the Mayor of Bogotá, at a meeting between different minority groups from Bogotá. Charlotte crowned off the event by performing a remarkable procession with other trans women. In spite of my, and other people´s fears that the different populations (Afro-Colombians, senior citizens, and feminists) present would react against the spectacle, the procession was probably the most popular event over the two days. Far from being restrained by traditional conservative views, 80-year old women could not keep their eyes off Charlotte and her travesti companions as they glided down the aisle in glittering night gowns, imperiously high heels and luscious make-up.

Charlotte Schneider, known affectionately as “Cubi” by her friends, also has the distinction of being a Cuban political refugee. She describes her experiences of ritual humiliation at the hands of the Cuban police with bitter regret, whilst at the same time recognizing what she gained from being born in Cuba: as a biochemical graduate from the University of Havana, Charlotte has a far greater educational level than most transgendered Latin Americans. Maybe that is why, despite her maltreatment at the hands of the Communist government, she continues to identify with the political left. Despite recent improvements in Cuba´s treatment of transgendered people, Charlotte´s refugee status means that return is not currently an option.

Still, her high level of education and leftist politics have made her a natural choice to be contracted by the District to help formulate health policy regarding the LGBT sector. She has her work cut out: transgendered women are often given inferior health care, or forced into humiliating scenarios like having to use male hospital wards. Moreover, in their desperation to achieve what they see as the prefect “feminine form”, trans women often indulge in dangerous activities such as injecting industrial silicone, or even cooking oil, into their thighs, hips, buttocks and breasts.

Transgenderism: A labyrinth of gender and sexual constructions
Many people have long made the logical but erroneous assumption that the travestis that inhabit most Latin American cities, frequently working in the sex industry, are essentially transsexuals, that is, women trapped in men´s bodies, struggling to raise enough money to undergo sexual reassignment surgery. This assumption was comprehensively rejected by Dan Kulick´s seminal study of Brazilian travestis, where he claims that the overwhelming majority do not have such aims. Clearly, the word “travesti” encompasses considerable diversity regarding the extent to which travestis identify as effeminate gays, or as women, their sexual preferences, and their desire for corporal alterations.

The deeper explanations of how and why such diverse gender and corporal identities come into being is far beyond the scope of this article, suffice to say that they defy simplistic, overarching theories. Such variation makes it unclear whether “transgendered” people really share a common identity. The mindset of a transsexual, in totally identifying as a woman and aiming to recognize this with sexual reassignment surgery, may differ strongly from the other end of the spectrum, where an effeminate homosexual or even heterosexual man may just be fascinated by the experience of taking on female form on a short term basis. Charlotte and Diana agree that such differences should not obscure the fact that trans people have a lot in common. All transgendered people reject standard biological assumptions about gender, they all share the experience of “transforming” from one gender to the other, and most importantly, they all share the experience of being discriminated against on account of their challenging of gender orthodoxies.

Transgender Culture and Society
Diana and Charlotte claim that transgender ways of associating with themselves and with society constitute a unique culture. Diana sums up this culture as being defined by the experience of corporal transformation, an experience which is obviously best expressed aesthetically. Many transgendered people express their femininity by taking great care of their persona. However, it is unclear whether this “trans culture” is something inherent to transgendered people, or whether it is simply a defensive reaction to the society´s prejudices. Most transgendered women in Latin America cannot hope for any employment outside the traditional circles of the beauty industry, performing in bars and clubs, and prostitution.

Clearly, such limitations as those above, place a high economic pressure to match up with society´s image of “beautiful” women from an early age. Diana agrees that this is a factor, but maintains that there is indeed something essential to the transgendered experience which prioritizes aesthetics. Surely, though, emphasizing a “trans culture” related to aesthetic appearances only contributes to the idea that the trans population is essentially exhibitionistic, without possessing anything more to contribute to society? Such tendencies have often provoked virulent criticism from prominent feminists across the world, most notably from Germaine Greer, who infamously scorned transsexuals as being “pantomime dames.” In fact, even many transsexuals actively distance themselves from more “exhibitionist” transgendered women in order to gain acceptance in wider society as real women.

Neither Diana nor Charlotte see their celebration of trans culture as being inherently damaging to either transgendered people or indeed to the place of women in society. As Charlotte points out, feminism is about “power relations, not whether or not you like wearing dresses.” She believes that where such culture exists, transgendered people need to take advantage of it, imbuing it with new meaning and taking it to new spaces. She explicitly links her parades to her political proposals to the transgendered struggle for visualization and rights in society. Charlotte has performed processions in various areas of the city, including some of the poorest, like Ciudad Bolivar. Contrary to what one might expect, the reception is usually positive. Not only do people respond to the beauty of the performance, says Charlotte, they also recognize the bravery of doing it, and often change their minds about transgendered people. Diana goes further, claiming that the poorest Colombians are generally more accepting of transgendered people than elites: “You might not expect it, you might have thought that the more educated people would have become more accepting and understanding of transgendered people, but it´s just not true. The poor appreciate that we´re another oppressed group, and show solidarity with us.”

Prostitution and Transgendered Populations
Among the working opportunities widely available to transgendered women, prostitution is by far and away the most lucrative, and provides employment for a significant majority (78% in Cali, for example). The issue of transgenderism in Latin America simply could not be dealt with effectively without addressing the thorny issue of prostitution as well. In many ways the treatment of travesti prostitutes reveals the contradictions of Latin American constructions of gender and sexuality; demand for their sexual services is consistently high, with men arriving in their droves to spend the night with a “travesti.” Such demand does not translate into human rights, though, as travestis are regularly brutalized by urban militias intent on “social cleaning.” Abuses are particularly common in Cali, known as the “tumba de los trans”, where 16 transgender women were assassinated in 2006 and 2007. Neither can victims of attacks turn to the virulently transphobic police force, which Diana Navarro accuses of outdoing even the urban militias in their malice and hatred towards transgendered women. Even though there have been some initiatives in Bogotá to train policemen in trans issues and improve their treatment, Diana maintains that there has been no progress on this front. At an institutional level, political authorities have frequently treated them as an inconvenience to be kept away from “respectable” areas, and they are often the unseen victims of “urban regeneration” projects.

Beyond the abuses committed against them, the closeness of prostitution to criminal activities leaves transgendered people living precariously in a world where drug abuse and petty crime are commonplace. Many Colombians associate travestis not just with prostitution but with crime and delinquency. As Diana admits, this reputation is not entirely without foundation, but “these are consequences of the discrimination and marginalization forced on us by society, not the cause.” Despite such pitfalls, Diana insists that prohibiting it only hurts them even more. She fervently campaigns for legalization and regulation of prostitution, leaving her at loggerheads with people who believe that any form of sex work is inherently exploitative and undignified:

“The ILO says that prostitution is not dignified work. Well, let´s look at my example. I ran away from home at the age of 14 with hardly any studies, skills, or job prospects. I became a prostitute, and with the money I made, I saved up and studied law. Now I´m head of an NGO which supports my community and I coordinate policy with the District. Who the hell can tell me that prostitution isn´t dignified?”

Diana insists that she does not encourage people to be prostitutes, and neither does she see it as positive that so many travestis are involved in the sex industry. She merely believes that anyone who decides to do it has the right to carry out the activity in a safe, legal, and regulated environment, just like any other job. She has been instrumental in the designation of the Barrio Santa Fé as a “high impact” zone, where prostitutes can carry out their activities without being criminalized, and she claims this has led to reduced levels of violence against them. Despite this, there is a long way to go: “I can´t say that I´m a sexual worker, because if I was a sexual worker I´d have legal protection, health insurance and a pension. Damn it, I´d even be paying taxes. Without legalization, I`m a whore. There are no “sexual workers” in Colombia, there are only whores.”

I asked her if guaranteeing the status of the travestis as “sexual workers” would not just consolidate their position in society, increasing their stigmatization in the eyes of mainstream society and dissuading them from breaking out into other areas. Diana herself admits that travestis are often afraid to assert themselves outside of the world of prostitution, and this has a ghettoizing effect which only increases their marginal position. Moreover, such tight communities, whilst providing the emotional nourishment craved by so many transgendered people (the majority of whom have been expelled from their families at a young age), can also generate negative dynamics. Older travestis frequently encourage younger ones to prostitute themselves as much as possible, in order to make more money, pay for more corporal alterations, and maybe even save enough to go to Europe and prostitute themselves there.

Moving Beyond Prostitution
With this in mind, Diana aims to create opportunities for transgendered women to leave prostitution, and advocates a series of Government funded programs to do this. She highlights a pilot project in Santiago, Chile, where 15 travestis who had already decided to end their lives of prostitution were provided a house, travel and food expense, and most importantly, training programs to learn new trades. Of those 15, 10 are currently the legal owners of the house, and sustain themselves with a variety of legal economic activities. Critics would immediately point out the potential dangers of a benefit culture if such projects were adopted on a large scale. Perhaps such schemes could work, but only with travestis who have already made the decision to move away from prostitution.

Diana also argues that the level of transphobic discrimination is so high that even transgendered people who have completed training programs face huge barriers to getting jobs. This is one area in which the transgendered are fundamentally more disadvantaged than homosexuals and lesbians; once they make the decision to accept their gender and sexual identities, they cannot then hide what they are. To counteract discrimination, Diana advocates widespread affirmative action policies to ensure greater transgendered involvement in other economic activities, and in the formulation of public policies which affect them. This includes in the political sphere, where she herself has benefitted from the Polo Democratico´s quotas for minority groups. She feels that whilst some policies may cause resentment from people who lose out under such schemes, they are worth it for the effect they have of empowering the transgendered population and encouraging them to become agents in their own destinies.

The LGBT Movement and the Polo Democrático in Bogotá
In the last several years, Colombia´s LGBT movement has come of age. The fruits of years of struggles can be seen in recent Constitutional Court rulings in favor of allowing homosexual and lesbian civil unions and allowing transsexuals to change their genders on their ID cards. Nowhere are LGBT advances more evident than in Bogotá, where LGBT groups have enjoyed constructive relations with the leftist District Administration since Luis Eduardo (Lucho) Garzon´s election as Mayor of Bogotá in 2003. This manifested in Decree 608, which established the framework for a public policy on LGBT issues in December 28, 2007, allowing for renewed efforts to prevent discriminatory practices in both public and private sectors.

Despite the many advances in Bogotá under Garzon and his successor, Samuel Moreno, no progress is without its pitfalls. The District´s management of minority issues has often led to the fracturing of civil society movements, something which is contrary to the goal of fostering solidarity amongst civil society organizations.

Despite concentrating on the particular problems faced by transgendered people, neither Charlotte nor Diana are looking to indulge in tribal, segregationist forms of identity politics. They have built alliances with women´s and ethnic groups, and prefer to emphasize common causes and issues rather than competing for the title of the most victimized population. They therefore fear that the District´s policy of offering funds to competing minority groups and organizations has fostered what Diana refers to as the “atomization” of politics. Nowhere is this more evident than with the LGBT, where the different groups often work solely for their own interests, despite the fact that many of the issues affect them all. “In some ways, it was easier to work when we were all maricones and areperas,” complains Diana. At least everyone supported each other, not each to their own like it is now.”

Parading Towards Equality
Similarly to LGBT movements in other parts of the world, Colombia´s is often caught between the option of using marches and public events as celebrations of diversity, or as political events. LGBT activists often bemoan the fact that any political messages are often lost in the carnival atmosphere. It is understandable, Diana says, that people want to use such events as a type of catharsis from the stress of being LGBT in Latin America, but it is not always the best way of getting heard. She bemoans the tendency of transgendered individuals to bear their breasts, saying that it sends out all the wrong messages. “I dream of the day when trans women would just go to these marches dressed in their everyday clothes. I think that would be a far stronger statement about our culture and identity.”

Things, however, are improving on this front, as marches become increasingly political and less overtly exhibitionist. At the same time, the exhibitionism for which transgendered people are known remains their greatest political tool. As Charlotte pointed out, the issue is the way in which it is used: “I think that what we have to do is to take our own culture, that is to say, what we have specialized in and what we are known for, and take it into new spaces. We have to get out of the gay bar, and move into the hetero bar, then out of the hetero bar, and into the park, into the plaza, into the theatre … When we do that, we find we can change people´s minds about us, and find new opportunities.”