Transgender Argentines Confront Continued Murder and Discrimination


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Andrea Cantero, 29, a transgender woman, owns a hair salon in Buenos Aires. “Society hasn’t changed in the slightest,” she said.

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Anibal Adrian Greco for The New York Times

BUENOS AIRES — Diana Sacayán was found tied up in a 13th-floor apartment in Buenos Aires in October, stabbed to death. A month earlier, Marcela Estefanía Chocobar, 26, was decapitated and her body dumped on a vacant lot in Río Gallegos, in Patagonia. Also in September, in Santa Fe, a city on Argentina’s Pampas lowlands, the corpse of Fernanda Olmos, 59, was discovered on her bedroom floor, a plastic bag pulled over her head. She had also been stabbed.

The unsolved killings of transgender women in recent weeks have jolted Argentina, prompting soul-searching in a country that has introduced some of the most liberal civil rights legislation in Latin America, but that critics say remains mired in conservative and macho attitudes toward gender identity.

“Society hasn’t changed in the slightest,” said Andrea Cantero, 29, a hairdresser who until last year was called Andrés. “We’re people like anybody else,” she added, “but I feel it was a message to say, ‘You’re worthless.’ ”

Ms. Cantero, who says she is regularly insulted and threatened over her gender identity, spoke at a recent march of gay and transgender Argentines. She had tied her hands and ankles with rope, painted blood stains on her skin and written on her chest, “Liberate us from violence.”

At the march, protesters held handmade signs denouncing the murder of Ms. Sacayán, 40, one of the most prominent transgender activists in Argentina. She led a group that fights discrimination against transgender people and was a regional representative of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. On the street, someone had stenciled graffiti that read, “Basta de travesticidios,” or “Enough transgendercide.”

In recent years, legislators have passed a series of laws to protect the rights of transgender and gay people in Argentina. Although conservative attitudes on social issues persist and the Roman Catholic Church remains influential, the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has pushed for greater equality, seeing the issue as a crucial human rights concern. In 2010, Argentina became the first country in Latin America to allow same-sex marriage.

Three years ago, legislators passed a groundbreaking gender identity law that allows people to change their gender without a psychiatric diagnosis or surgery. It also requires state health care and private insurers to provide hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery.

In Buenos Aires Province, Argentina’s most populous, lawmakers passed a bill in September that requires public sector employers to allocate 1 percent of jobs to transgender workers.

About 6,000 people, including a 6-year-old boy, have changed their gender on official documents in the last three years, compared with a handful before the 2012 law, said Esteban Paulón, president of the Argentine Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People.

Government ministries have in some cases supported transgender people searching for jobs by subsidizing wages and helping arrange medical attention.

But despite these advances, many challenges remain.

The gender identity law has been carried out slowly, critics say, noting that the provision for hormone therapy and surgery was only enforced this year. And few cities have doctors trained to perform reassignment operations. Similarly, as activists like Ms. Sacayán hailed the provincial labor law, doubts were being voiced in some quarters, like trade unions, about whether it would ever be respected.

In addition, hostile and uninformed attitudes on gender equality remain commonplace, according to many transgender people. In 2011, Susana Giménez, a popular television host, offered a glimpse of these attitudes when she said on air that she would rather die than be lesbian.

Silvia Augsburger, a former congresswoman who drafted the gender identity law, said, “We have passed hugely important laws so that the community can express itself.” But, she added, “as a state, we still don’t have the resources to guarantee them lives free of discrimination.”

A 2014 report by the National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism estimated that 40 percent of Argentines held discriminatory attitudes toward transgender people.

A survey of nearly 500 transgender Argentines by the Huésped Foundation, published last year, said that discrimination had diminished in some contexts, like in schools and medical clinics, since the 2012 gender identity law was passed. But it also highlighted the challenges that transgender people face.

More than 60 percent of the people interviewed were prostitutes, pointing to the difficulties transgender people have finding other employment. A majority had not finished high school. Transgender life expectancy is 35, according to the foundation. In the general population in 2013, according to the World Health Organization, it was 73 for men and 80 for women.

“We are still victims,” said Daniela Ruiz, the founder of Artetrans, a transgender art cooperative.

Gay and transgender Argentines are now pushing for modifications to an existing law that targets traditional forms of discrimination, like those based on religious or political beliefs. They want provisions that would explicitly criminalize discrimination against transgender people.

Some are also urging transgender people to break out from the safety of their own community, which might speed up societal acceptance. “Because they don’t integrate much, prejudices persist,” said Cristian Reches, 39, a gay university student who was at the march. “There’s responsibility on both sides.”

Gender equality issues were also a factor in the campaign leading up to the presidential election on Nov. 22, won by Mauricio Macri, an opposition leader.

In the final weeks of the race, Daniel Scioli — the governing party’s candidate — and his supporters, including Mrs. Kirchner, sought to scare voters away from Mr. Macri, seen as socially conservative. Mr. Macri once called homosexuality a “disease” and, last year, defended the harassment of women. “Deep down, all women like being catcalled,” he told a radio station. “There can’t be anything nicer.”

But Mr. Macri, currently the mayor of Buenos Aires, said this month that he would not thwart the gender rights movement. “We have respected minority rights,” he said of his municipal government, which has supported same-sex marriage.

Despite the murders and the complaints about enduring discrimination, there are also signs that attitudes are changing.

In Chivilcoy, a city of 64,000 that has drawn attention for efforts against gender discrimination, a municipally funded medical center for transgender people opened last year, one of several similar facilities nationwide.

The center provides services like hormone and psychological therapy, vaccinations and speech coaching for transgender people to alter the pitch of their voice.

“When we would face up to our families, we were thrown out of our homes,” said Victoria Ocampo, 40, a transgender nurse at the center. “But that’s changing now.” She recalled two teenagers grappling with gender dysphoria who recently turned up at the center with their parents.

“I focus on the progress,” Lizy Tagliani, a transgender woman in her 40s who is a hair stylist and a local TV celebrity, said as fans huddled around her. “I don’t worry about what’s yet to be achieved. I always try to see the glass half full.”



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