Seeking Justice, Argentina’s Cross-Dressers Press Government for Reparations

Norma Gilardi says she was often arrested for being a cross-dresser and on false charges of prostitution. Gilardi and other activists are supporting a bill that would require the government offer reparations to her and others for their treatment by police. Her sign says, “#RecognizeIsToRepair.” Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

People who are transgender in Argentina were often arrested without cause in past decades, but now the government might have to atone for those actions. A new bill proposes that sexual minorities who were mistreated by police be granted a financial settlement.

BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — The Congress assembly hall is already jam-packed, but people continue to arrive and cram the hallways. It’s noisy because new legislation is about to be introduced.

The session begins with a videotaped interview. On the screen, Marlene Wayar, an activist and cross-dresser, recalls the time that she heard police officers scream an obscenity at a fellow cross-dresser who wouldn’t give her name.

The police kept asking for her legal name, Wayar remembers in the video, but the woman only replied, “Sandra, Sandra Saravia.”

This went on for 20 minutes, Wayar says, adding that she heard what sounded like someone being hit.

“They brought her in, tired of beating her. But she never tired of saying that she was Sandra Saravia,” Wayar says.

INSIDE THE STORY: It was common until recently for transgender and cross-dressing people in Argentina to be detained without cause. Those detentions no longer occur, but the people who endured them still bear the scars, both physical and emotional, of that abuse. Read the blog. 

The eyes of people in the hall fill with tears. Transgender people and cross-dressers there say the story is familiar. Some say they’ve experienced similar scenarios first-hand.

“Back then, police would detain you, fabricate records, place drugs in your purse, a case was made and if you didn’t sign, you were electrically shocked,” says Norma Gilardi, referring to the late 1990s.

Gilardi, who is now the secretary and co-founder of the Asociación de Lucha por la Identidad Travesti y Transexual, an activist organization, says she was often arrested beginning when she was 16 years old, both for prostitution and for being a cross-dresser, regardless of where police found her or what she was doing.

Until 1996 in Argentina, internal police regulations allowed for the arrest of prostitutes, homosexuals and people who dressed in clothing of the opposite sex, without judicial orders. Now, organizations that advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, among other sexual minorities, are fighting for passage of a bill that asks the state for reparations to those who suffered violence at the hands of law enforcement.

The bill was introduced in Congress on Oct. 7. Lawmakers have until November 2017 to consider it, says Emiliano Litardo, one of the attorneys who drafted the legislation.

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Supporters and authors of the bill met for an official presentation of a bill that would offer reparations to cross-dressers and others who were treated poorly by police.

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

“Police edicts were regulations that police used to maintain order among the citizenry, avoiding contamination of public space by people who were considered immoral or sick,” Litardo says.

Under the proposed law, the state would pay out pensions to people who suffered under those practices. The payment would be roughly 8,000 Argentine pesos ($504.20) monthly, which is the current equivalent of a minimum monthly salary for a government worker in Argentina, though this value may change should the law go into effect, Litardo says. In situations where it is determined that the person suffered very serious injuries or any offenses against sexual integrity, the reparation amount would increase by 30 percent.

Many of the people who endured such violence still experience the effects, says Ana Paula Fagioli, a physician at Centro de Atención a la Diversidad del Hospital Dr. Alexander Fleming medical center. She adds that she routinely sees evidence of past violence against her transgender and cross-dressing patients.

Back then, police would detain you, fabricate records, place drugs in your purse, a case was made and if you didn’t sign, you were electrically shocked.

“They’re almost all living on the street,” she says. “They all suffer violence. Police beat…those involved in prostitution.”

Global Press Journal sought a comment from Argentina’s federal police force but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Ana Carla Carrizo, a congressional representative who is not involved in the proposal, says public opinion will likely determine the final decision on the proposal.

“Congress will have to assume the costs and generate the change. We cannot conform ourselves to the status quo, that if public opinion doesn’t want it [then Congress will say] there is no need to do it.”

The transgender and cross-dressing community continues to suffer abuse and rights violations at the hands of police, according to a report by El Observatorio de Violencia de Género, an observatory of gender violence under the Buenos Aires province ombudsman.

It’s no coincidence that most transgender or cross-dressing women are sex workers, says Alba Rueda, an activist with Mujeres Trans Argentina.

“Prostitution remains the only option when family and friends turn their backs,” Rueda says. “The school is deeply expulsive, the family as well, and there’s nothing left to do but hustle. No one wants to employ a trans person.”

Seventy-nine percent of cross-dressing or transgender people in the Buenos Aires, Mar del Plata and Conurbano Bonaerense areas resort to prostitution as a way of life, even though the vast majority of them would choose another way of life if they felt they could, according to a 2005 study cited by the Organización Internacional del Trabajo.

Prostitution remains the only option when family and friends turn their backs. The school is deeply expulsive, the family as well, and there’s nothing left to do but hustle. No one wants to employ a trans person.

Rueda says she always felt this discrimination. She postponed her college studies after a professor threw her out of the classroom because of her gender identity. Because she cross-dressed, she says, people wrongly assumed her only option could be that of a prostitute.

“I was very angry,” she says. “It seemed as if I would really have to stand on a corner and that was what was going to be OK.”

Gilardi says her family threw her out when she was 9 because she identified as female. She then lived on the street or was in police custody for much of her childhood and adolescence. She believes she’s lucky to be alive.

“I must be one of the few survivors from that generation,” she says. “At 63 years old, I don’t know if there is a companion from back then who is alive. We have a hard time getting work just for being trans. I don’t know why they fear us. I don’t understand.”

Myriam Bregman, a congresswoman, says the proposed law is a step toward combating all forms of discrimination. Her political party, Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas, supports the proposal, she says.

“It’s necessary that this proposal be analyzed and approved, and let it be known what the police edicts were about, which continued to govern until not so many years ago,” she says.

Claudio Bernardo Avruj, secretary of the Secretaría de Derechos Humanos y Pluralismo Cultural, the Argentine government’s top human rights authority, acknowledges that sexual minorities are vulnerable to abuse.

“I think we’re halfway there and that there is much more to overcome,” he says.

The battle is more crucial in the country’s interior, where society is more conservative and justice isn’t as accessible, he says. There, the state must use all its resources to ensure that sexual minorities aren’t marginalized. One of Avruj’s proposals is to help such people receive training for equal job opportunities.

“Their situation on the street and in life is far from ideal,” he says.

I must be one of the few survivors from that generation. At 63 years old, I don’t know if there is a companion from back then who is alive. We have a hard time getting work just for being trans. I don’t know why they fear us. I don’t understand.

Avruj acknowledges that the toughest challenge ahead is training for law enforcement.

“Local police, [that] is the main feature to work on, fundamentally for the disrespect that often occurs in public streets and during arrests,” he says.

Avruj sees the legislation as a step forward in the Argentine legal system, but says the monthly payment should be categorized as a historical subsidy. A subsidy, he said, could be seen as a government handout. But regardless of what it’s called, he’s not optimistic that it will be approved.

“The bill is going to require a deep debate because there, too, you have to do a lot of education, a lot of teaching,” he says. “I am hoping at least for a debate.”

Rueda says she and other activists must fight for both past and future generations.

“It’s necessary to recognize and offer restitution to all survivors,” Rueda says. “The state needs to take responsibility for having tortured, prostituted and killed our companions.”

Gilardi believes the proposed legislation offers an opportunity for a better future for trans children, as well as for a tranquil life for trans women whose age is too advanced for them to stand on a street corner.

“To them I’d say to not lose the dream that they will have a better world tomorrow,” she says. “There are people fighting to make it happen.”


Lourdes Medrano, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

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