Friday, March 08, 2013

You really wouldn't want to be mistaken for a Brazillian Transsexual

Marcela Romero

A couple of months ago an enormous controversy arose when the New Statesman republished an article by the writer Suzanne Moore on the power of female anger.

Most people seem to agree it was a well written piece … worth a second reading.

However, the article contained a line about women being angry with themselves for, among other things, not having the ideal body shape - "that of a Brazillian Transsexual".

I'm not writing now about the massive controversy which followed. It was awful on so many levels.

I had an early go at bringing sense to the argument myself in this blog. For the rest of the saga there is Google.

Lost in the noise

In my blog I had a go at asking people to reflect why using verbal imagery of Brazillian trans women might be a particularly insensitive thing to do.

It was not a consideration which was at the top of the agenda over the next two weeks though.

The argument was first derailed by a spectacular piece of hate writing in our own back yard, and then skilfully spun by parts of the media into a debate about freedom of speech.

Looking back on the affair I was struck by other similar events...

Last autumn, news about decades of serial abuse of vulnerable young women and children rapidly became a story about BBC governance and powerful men complaining of libel. The victims quickly became invisible.

More recently, allegations about inappropriate sexual advances made to female party workers rapidly became a story about the leadership of the Liberal Democrat party and political intrigue. Again the victims have mostly been invisible.

It seems to be the rule that the real injured parties in these stories are quickly forgotten. They are just the kindling. The inferno is about powerful people and how they act and feel.

Look back on the coverage of the Suzanne Moore / Julie Burchill affair and you'll find precious few trans voices … the people accused of threatening freedom of speech. With magnificent irony, their speech is hardly heard.

And you'll see even less about Brazillian Transsexuals.

New Report Launched

The irony of this was in my mind when I turned up to sit on a panel in London last week, chaired by the Rt Hon Shaun Woodward MP.

I was attending the launch of a report: "The Night Is Another Country" - A human rights report on the impunity in a culture of violence against transgender women in Latin America.

The event was organised by the International HIV/AIDS alliance in collaboration with the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender People (REDLACTRANS), and was hosted by human rights specialists, Doughty Street Chambers.

The other guest speakers on the panel (beside Shaun and myself) were Marcela Romero (pictured above), the regional coordinator of REDLACTRANS; Monica Leonardo, the author of the report; and Sue Breeze, Head of Equalities at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Besides our contributions on the topic of industrial scale violence against trans women across many Latin American countries, the audience were also shown clips from a short film which accompanies the publication of the report. The trailer is here (with subtitles).

Violence and Impunity

Monica Leonardo, the author of the report, is a Guatemalan lawyer specialising in Human Rights. Fluent in English, she delivered a detailed summary of her research leading to The Night Is Another Country.

The report presents three main 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 officials representing states in the region.

These violations include extrajudicial executions, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and arbitrary detentions which (according to the report) extend beyond 'hate crime' and the background level of violence that exists in the societies of many countries in Latin America.

Second, the report asserts that transphobia extends across state structures at every level and leads to a sense of impunity with regard to the violence.

The report presents evidence of a culture of silence which impedes the filing of complaints, a failure to recognise and target action against this particular problem, ineffectiveness in the justice system, discriminatory legislation, and the absence of legal means to recognise gender identity.

The authors point out that although it was difficult to find official data on cases of murdered trans people, civil society organisations had provided compelling data.

According to Columbian Activists, 60 trans women were murdered in that country between 2005 and 2012 without a single person having been brought to justice.

In the same period, 35 trans people were murdered in Guatemala, with only one person charged.

In Honduras, in 61 killings of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex people reported between 2008 and 2011, only ten people were brought to trial … none for the death of trans women, despite the fact that the latter accounted for two thirds of the cases.

The report claims that the sense of impunity surrounding the violation of the rights of trans activists and other trans women is not explained by the general impunity that exists in several Latin American countries but "is largely motivated by transphobia".

The report's third and main finding is that transgender human rights defenders in Latin America are at extreme risk of human rights violations themselves.

The risk is significantly increased in the context of sex work, which trans women are obliged to pursue when other means of finding a stable living and shelter are denied to them.

The report claims that, in 90 percent of the cases covered, the violence reported is related to sex work, citing one trans women's collective in Honduras where six of the seven women who set up the group in 2001 have since been murdered.

The report concludes that, in the context of the general stigma, discrimination and violence trans people face, it is virtually impossible to provide an effective HIV response focussed on the most-at-risk populations.

In Latin America, the violence and intimidation to which trans women are subjected, and the impunity with which such crimes are committed, undermine efforts to ensure that HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services reach transgender women … which, paradoxically, is the population [in the region] with the highest HIV prevalence.

The night is another country

The title of the report is drawn from the testimony of a transgender activist in Honduras in July 2012:

"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 have 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're 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."

Further testimony

Following the presentation by Monica Leonardo, Marcela Romero addressed the large audience through an interpreter. Hers was the first hand testimony of working as an activist within this climate, as the regional coordinator for the Latin and Caribbean network of transgender people.

In my own short speech, following Marcela, I set out first to help the audience 'connect' with the idea of trans women and men in their own community. I thought that was vital, as it is easy to think of these problems as something remote, and to buy into the idea that these womens' living circumstances were inevitable and normal for trans people.

If you don't know the many trans women who pursue very different lives in our own society then it's not so easy to grasp the possibilities denied to their Latina sisters.


I also referred to the accounts of the deaths of many of these women, which had struck me when I produced a Podcast to mark a year of deaths for the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance.

These are not 'normal' murders, if that term is at all appropriate. What strikes you is the exceptional frenzy often involved.

One bullet … one blow … one knife wound … seldom seems enough to the killers. The readers in my documentary described killings where the murderers have often seemed to want to completely destroy their victim, with bodies being dismembered and burned after repeated shooting and knifing.

As I said to the audience (many of them human rights lawyers) you have to understand what drives this kind of frenzy in order to begin to understand that intensity of transphobia.

Message of hope

I also provided what I thought was some small message of hope to our guests.

I described how trans rights in Britain had looked back in 1992, when the campaign group Press for Change was formed. (Two days previously it had been the 21st anniversary of that event).

I described the insurmountable nature of the challenge as it appeared back then. I explained how, over the next 20 years nor so, activists in the UK … using strategic legal cases, education, political lobbying and (ultimately) Parliament … had gradually chipped away at each obstacle. There is still work to do, but rights look substantively different now than they did back then.

Saying this, I was pointedly aware that the challenge facing UK trans activists seemed puny compared with the daily threat faced by Latin American trans women. Many may have stuck their necks out in Britain but (fortunately) only a few had ever feared for their lives.

Trans people get murdered in Britain for being trans; yet the events are rare compared with elsewhere in the world.

On the spot

I'm sure I was not the only attendee waiting to hear what the representative of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office would have to say.

Sue Breeze is the head of the Equalities Team in the Human Rights and Democracy Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

As well as LGBT issues, her team covers a wide range of issues including women's rights, child rights, and freedom of religion and belief.

One look at her CV shows her to be a very experienced career diplomat, fluent in French, Spanish and Chinese, with past postings to China and Russia. She had been the deputy Ambassador to Venezuela until early 2009.

You might very well expect a civil service style reply to being put on the spot and asked what levers Britain could use to support change.

Sue admitted that the plight of trans women in these areas was new to her but that she had found the report and the presentations immensely educational.

Shaun Sue Christine

I then leaned back to allow civil servant and senior opposition MP Shaun Woodward uninterrupted line of sight as they openly discussed very practical moves which could be taken through embassies in the countries concerned.

I added my own offer to help educate the officials concerned and assist, if necessary, in meeting local activists. I can't say what might come of these things. You can expect that the UK government would probably not officially invite someone like myself to become an intermediary in that way, although equally it doesn't sound as though they would create barriers either. We'll have to see.

Intelligent debate

A couple of hours on a Friday evening with an audience in barristers' chambers is not going to change the world.

The purpose of the event was to give Marcela and Monica a respectful hearing by serious human rights specialists, with the added kudos of a respected Member of Parliament and a senior civil servant.

There were no journalists present as far as I could tell. No columnists either … unless you count myself as a blogger. The event has therefore not been reported beyond the Alliance's web and Facebook pages.

Don't expect mainstream debate of these enormous human rights violations any time soon … unless, maybe, there is an angle for powerful interests to subvert in their narcissistic fashion.

Maybe a few people will read the report, however, and reflect that it would be a really, really bad idea to wish for a body like that of a Brazillian transsexual. Not if you value your life.


Enrique Restoy said...

What a good reccount of the event and the findings of "the Night is Another Country". Indeed, the report is unfortunately not going to change the world we live in, but it should contribute to maje sure that those who are not familisarised with the lives of trans people worlwide think twice before passing rushed judgement on them.

The report has been launched in Geneva, Brussels and Washington. It was published as part of the "Just Like You" campaign which REDLACTRANS and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance have just lounched for the legal recognition of gender identity accross Latin America. You can take action on

Christine Burns MBE said...

Thanks for that extra information Enrique. I do hope people will share and talk about the report. As you know, the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing