Realities of Trans Women: “Human Rights Cannot be Placed in Quarantine”
By: Wendy Matamoros, FCAM Cross-Sector Alliances and Communications Coordinator
To speak of the contexts in which members of the LGBTI community live, and especially LBTQ women, and further, trans women in Central America, is to speak about a context of violence, discrimination, exclusion, marginalization, abuse of power and poverty. Structural violence has intensified under COVID-19, which is why highlighting the visibility of human rights violations experienced by members of this community is increasingly urgent.
We spoke with four trans women, leaders of their organizations and human rights activists working for gender and sexual diversity in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. In this conversation, they identified common problems and unique circumstances in each country, and the groups shared what they are doing to respond to the crisis.
Thank you Galilea Bracho, director of the Guatemalan Multicultural Trans women’s Network (Red Multicultural de Mujeres Trans de Guatemala, REDMMUTRANS); Mónica Linares, director of the Solidarity Association to Promote Human Development (Asociación Solidaria para Impulsar el Desarrollo Humano, ASPIDH) from El Salvador; Bianka Rodríguez, executive director of the Communication and Training for Trans women Association (Asociación Comunicando y Capacitando a Mujeres TRANS – COMCAVIS TRANS) from El Salvador and Ludwica Vega, president of the Nicaraguan Trans Organization (Asociación Nicaragüense de Trans, ANIT).
- COVID-19 emerged in Guatemala in the second half of March.
- The government implemented a national curfew.
Obligatory use of masks
- In April, the government mandated use of masks.
- Those not wearing masks can be fined U.S. $1,000 – $20,000.
- The government implements 10 support programs for citizens.
- Members of the LGBTI community were not consulted about these programs, were not taken into consideration and do not benefit from them.
- The scarce available government support has been given to heterosexual families, and to middle class and upper class families that have some kind of connection with government officials.
Sex Work has been Devalued, and Risk is Increased
By working as sex workers and in the informal economy – as hairdressers, stylists, and food and market vendors – in a repressive context under curfew and with businesses shuttered, trans women are totally vulnerable and in extreme need.
The situation is worrisome. Trans women have needed to continue doing sex work since the curfew started (now working during the day) in order to eat and pay for their rooms (most live in rented rooms or hotels). In addition to the risk of being arrested, they run the risk of contracting the virus while engaging in sex work when their clients refuse to wear masks. Out of economic necessity they have had to accept these conditions, as well as accept that their clients pay them less money. If they usually paid $15 or $20 per sexual service, they are now only willing to pay $5 or $10.
Health System Focused Exclusively on COVID-19
Before the pandemic, basic antiretroviral treatment was available for people with HIV. Treatment ran out as COVID-19 spread, which increased the vulnerability of trans women who were no longer being served by the public health system. The system is entirely focused on COVID-19, which is not to say COVID is less important, but it does result in HIV treatment priorities being abandoned and exposes the lives of HIV-positive people – and in this case, trans women – to increased risk.
Currently everything is focused on COVID-19, and from a heterosexual perspective. LGBTI people in the country are not receiving adequate attention. Stigma is another problem, because when we go for health services we are seen only as HIV positive (they link our existence exclusively with HIV) and all they do is send us to the HIV testing area, and give us condoms and lubricant. So far we have reported two trans women and one gay man that have died due to discrimination and violations of their human rights when they became sick, because the public health system does not have the capacity to serve the entire population and when it comes to treating LGBTI people – and especially trans women – their vulnerability is even greater.
REDMMUTRANS Faces the Emergency
As an organization we were not economically prepared for this emergency, so we have had to be creative, be flexible, expand our contacts and knock on different doors to highlight the real situation that trans women are living in order to secure the support we need to provide humanitarian assistance.
What we have achieved:
Basic prevention kit
- With support from one partner we secured $4,000.
- This allowed us to make packets that included masks and antibacterial gel.
- We put together 350 packets and distributed them in 11 departments of Guatemala, benefitting 300 trans women.
Complete prevention kit
- Thanks to a strategic alliance with two international organizations, we obtained 250 kits that included towels, shampoo, soap, mask, antibacterial gel, laundry detergent, toothbrush and toothpaste.
- Trans organizations distributed the packets to benefit 300 trans women.
- We have received individual donations from anonymous partners and trans Guatemalans that live in the United States, raising a total of $1,000.
- With the money raised, we bought 70 bags of groceries for trans women in the department of Guatemala.
We feel that it is critical to document the reality of trans women, so we decided to carry out a survey when we distributed the dignity kits and humanitarian assistance bags. We asked how COVID-19 is affecting them, what kind of work they do, how attention in the public health system has been, among other questions. We hope to complete a study in the next three months that we can share and show through indicators the ways in which COVID-19 is affecting trans women.
We know that the current need under this crisis overwhelms the support we have provided. According to a population-level study, in the entire department of Guatemala there are at least 7,700 trans women. Compared to this number, we have given very little, but we are doing something.
Setbacks in progress on rights
- Before the government of Nayib Bukele, there was a Secretary of Inclusion that had an office on sexual diversity.
- The office ensured compliance and oversight of executive decree number 56, which at least reduced stigma and discrimination towards LGBTI populations.
- The office has all but disappeared, and is now under the Secretary of Culture.
- While there is no curfew in El Salvador, there are health controls in place and specific days in which people can go out to buy food.
Exclusionary solidarity baskets
- In response to the pandemic, the government gave every family a $300 bonus.
- The majority of trans people do not live with their families or do not have dignified housing, and were left without that support.
Census does not include LGBTI populations
- In El Salvador, there has not been a census since 2007.
- In 2014, an international organization did a population survey of trans women, but only in three or four of the 14 total departmental seats.
- The total number of trans women counted through this survey was 2,200
Increased Risk and Reduced Income for Survival
Many trans women survive by doing sex work and working in the informal economy, and the government has not responded to provide them with food security or access to their right to healthcare, among other rights.
Similar to Guatemala, in El Salvador sex work is done clandestinely, in conditions without health protections from the virus and with a power relationship defined as client over sexual servant.
Clients are not willing to pay $20 for the service received, offering half instead, and threatening to find another sex worker if said trans woman will not accept their demands. Nevertheless, many give in because they do not have food, they have significant debt, and they need to pay for the place they are renting to live.
Exclusionary and Inaccessible Health System
The health system does not have statistics on trans people infected with COVID-19, because they only collect data on cisgender categories of man or woman, without a specific distinction for trans individuals. This means that trans women are being counted as men, and trans men are being counted as women, further violating their right to gender identity.
There are those that have modified their bodies with mineral oils and are not seeking care in the health system, because now the system is only focused on COVID-19 cases. Trans people that suffer from chronic illnesses or other illnesses that were already impacting their health, such as renal insufficiency, cardiac problems or lung problems, are also more vulnerable.
Violence and Hate Speech on the Rise
Abuses of power are being expressed through anti-human rights groups and religious groups that use faith to spread messages of hate. There are people saying that COVID-19 come about because God wanted to clean up the perversion of LGBT people, who represent a sin of the nation.
Other groups are using the LGBTI population to spread more disinformation, for example, saying that in the midst of the pandemic they are going to approve marriage equality or gender identity laws. These messages are also spread by decision-makers like members of Congress.
Hate speech by conservative sectors of society marginalize, stigmatize and take advantage of the LGBTI population. Paster Toby Jr. used trans sex workers to raise funds for food aid, and when it was distributed they were told that they would not receive any support and to make matters worse, they were physically attacked by members of the church.
Violence by the armed forces has also intensified. At health checkpoints the national civil police throw documents back at trans women to taunt them and discriminate against them. Armed forces have also been observed in areas where sex work is prevalent, and sex workers are threatened and told that if they show their breasts they will be taken to detention centers, where abuses have also been reported.
ASPIDH Faces the Emergency
We have been putting out combined fires, between those that already existed and the ones that have intensified. As an organization we were not ready for this pandemic, but we did not stand here with our hands tied, we decided to mobilize.
What we have achieved:
- Through the Secretary of Culture, we obtained nearly 50 bonus payments of $300 for the LGBTI population. We gave 30 of the 50 bonuses to trans women.
Basic food packages
- With $2,000 received from donors, we purchases and delivered 100 basic food baskets for 500 LGBTI people from several departments.
- We are authorized to pick up medications from the hospitals for people with HIV and deliver them to their homes. This is possible because we have a good channel of communication with the head of HIV at the Ministry of Health.
COMCAVIS TRANS Faces the Emergency
Due to quarantine many critical concerns affecting our populations have been made invisible. We have seen young people flee from their homes because their parents do not accept them or because they have to live with the aggressor that abuses them for being gay, lesbian or trans. These are issues that no one is taking about, which is why we have decided to focus on them.
What we have achieved:
- Calls for the government to guarantee the rights of the LGBTI population, and trans women in particular.
- Psychosocial support for lesbians, gay men and trans people that are experiencing abuse and violence in their homes.
- Psychosocial support for trans women sex workers that are desperate and experiencing a desire to end their lives because they cannot find work, and are being reproached for not making an economic contribution where they live.
In Nicaragua, like in Guatemala and El Salvador, trans women (sex workers, domestic workers, vendors, those with HIV and the elderly) are living in situations of increased vulnerability and poverty, and housing instability – because if they do not bring resources into the home where they are living, they are kicked out, in addition to emotional, mental and physical trauma.
Increased Violence and Risk of Infection
By mid-June, ANIT counted 15 cases of violence and aggression towards trans women, 10 of whom are sex workers. This number might actually be double or triple because the reports that we have received are more frequent and because many trans women are afraid to report the violence they are experiencing.
We have reports from five departments where cases of aggression have occurred, and one femicide of a trans woman. We receive news about cases on WhatsApp and Facebook. The murder of a trans woman in Jinotega was not made public, it was not even mentioned. We had the intention to publish it, but we were scared. Nevertheless, we do have it registered.
The majority of trans women are out on the streets because we have to find a way to guarantee our food, transportation, medicines, our survival and that of our families. This makes us more vulnerable and increases the possibility that we will get COVID-19, because furthermore during sex work clients often refuse to wear a mask.
A Discriminatory, Absent and Elusive Health System
Nicaragua’s Ministry Resolution 671-2014 was passed with support of The Global Fund as part of a national project to respond to the HIV pandemic. It was developed with the objective of reducing discrimination of vulnerable populations and includes sanctions for medical personnel that discriminate against these populations. However, this resolution that was passed in 2009 and reformed in 2014 (to include gender identity, and call trans people by their chosen names), is not followed. Trans women are abused when they are not called by their chosen names, and when they are ridiculed.
Within the health system, stigma and discrimination towards trans women prevails, targeting their gender identity and the fact that many live in poverty. If one trans woman presents at a health center seeking attention, poorly kempt and dirty – because many do not have anywhere to live or bathe – they are seen as thieves and troublemakers. They are kicked out without even asking what kind of attention they need.
COVID-19 has caused a lot of fear among trans women because the Ministry of Health declared that now people with HIV can only go once per month to pick up their medicines (to control their viral loads and their CD4). They are afraid because the routine includes a medical checkup, physical exam, and labs, all of which is not being done because of the risk of infection.
In addition to the fear of being infected in hospitals, they are confronting worsened treatment. Health personnel will not touch them. They do not want to see them. Some trans women report having their prescriptions thrown at them. They even change the dates of their appointments so they do not all come together at the same time to support one another and advocate for their rights. We cannot generalize because this does not happen with all doctors, just the ones that have another mentality. There is a lack of awareness due to a lack of information.
For many trans women, this situation (COVID-19) has caused instability and insecurity due to their existing psychosocial trauma. Out of fear of being infected, many feel they have the symptoms, but it is the crisis itself that is causing some of them to feel those symptoms.
ANIT Faces the Emergency
We are working hard to face this pandemic. While economic resources are scarce, we have given a lot of humanitarian resources. We try to involve and strengthen knowledge and capacity of trans women about the risks of this situation, focusing on self-care and emotional support of one another.
What we have achieved:
- We delivered packages of masks, bleach, disinfectant, gloves and gel alcohol. We have run out of these packages.
- We organized self-help groups among ourselves to share how we feel and encourage one another to continue in the struggle, the idea is to not give up
Medical visits and accompaniment
- We visited trans women that were hospitalized or their families, to provide informational materials on what to do and what not to do.
- We accompanied trans women to their medical appointments.
Talks and trainings
- We carried out talks about prevention of COVID-19 and also highlighted issues of incarcerated trans women, trans women sex workers and domestic workers, and trans women with HIV.
- Thanks to a partnership with the food bank, we are able to obtain food at a reduced cost and we try to support trans women members of ANIT that are in greatest need.
Many say that in this moment, what matters most is life and the right to health. It is easy to say when your body is not on the line, facing the realities faced by the most vulnerable, excluded and marginalized populations. For as long as others do not step outside of the comfort of their privilege and try to see other realities through a lens of empathy, solidarity and social justice, they will not understand that human rights cannot be quarantined, and that one right cannot be held above others.