EDIT: Since originally writing this article I’ve watched (the amazing) documentary “Disclosure” and I learned A LOT from it about the role media plays in trans-shaming and fear-mongering.
My intention in writing this post was to bring awareness to the issue of violence and discrimination against trans people, and attempt to “help” in some way. If you are struggling with transitioning, or you are uncertain about your identity, please do not be scared to be YOU.
Watch the documentary if you haven’t, or check out GLAAD’s list of resources to find somebody to talk to. You are loved, you are beautiful, you are perfect, however you identify. ❤️
Being transgender in the US and Europe is tough enough, but being trans in Latin America brings a whole load more danger and violence.
According to Forbes, the Trans Murder Monitoring Report estimates that 331 transgender people were murdered in 2019—the majority of deaths occurring in Brazil (130), followed by Mexico (63) and the US (30).
Since the report began in 2008, 3,314 deaths have been recorded, but the true number is believed to be much higher as oftentimes trans murders go unreported or the victim is misidentified—Human Rights Campaign reports that 74 percent of victims of anti-transgender violence were initially misgendered in initial police or media reports.
“In most countries, data on murdered trans and gender-diverse people are not systematically produced, and it is impossible to estimate the actual number of cases,” according to Transrespect.org. “Trans and gender-diverse people are victims of horrifying hate violence, including extortion, physical and sexual assaults, and murder.”
Aside from the number of homicides, what’s startling is how violent the deaths often are, with hangings, burnings, stabbings, and lynchings commonplace.
The majority of victims work in the sex industry and women of color are affected disproportionally with an estimated 75 percent of all transgender murders occurring against black or Latinos.
Despite the appearance of high-profile celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox violence against the community is rampant, with TMM reporting, “stigma and discrimination against trans and gender-diverse people is real and profound around the world.”
As violence against trans women in Mexico continues to skyrocket, the government has promised to take action, with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador vowing to carry out “effective” investigations into LGBTQ hate crimes, when he took office in December 2018. But, the trans community has yet to see any change and with just 3% of murders resulting in convictions since 2013, LGBTQ activists are taking the fight for justice into their own hands.
Kenya Cuevas heads up the activist group Casa de Muñecas (house of dolls) which campaigns for protection for trans women. Cuevas started the group in 2016 after her friend, Paola Buenrostro, a trans sex worker, was murdered in front of her. Buenrostro was shot in the head after getting into a client’s car, Cuevas ran to help her friend and narrowly escaped death herself when the driver of the car pointed his gun at her but failed to shoot after the gun jammed. She managed to hang on to the man until cops arrived at the scene, but despite witness reports, and cellphone footage that Cuevas had recorded, the man was released from custody after a few days.
A month later a funeral wreath with Cuevas’ name arrived at her door. The message was loud and clear—put up and shut up or face the same fate as your friend.
Cuevas refused to keep quiet though, and despite multiple death threats, she is now one of the most visible and prominent activists in Mexico. “When that happened to Paola, I protested and I did it publicly, asking for justice the entire time,” Cuevas says. “I don’t want special treatment. Just give me justice — do your job.”
As is often the case with capitals, Mexico City is more accepting of diversity—it legalized same-sex marriage in 2009, six years before the USA passed similar legislation, and in 2014 it became the first place in Mexico to allow transgender people to alter their gender and names on official government documentation, 31 other states have since followed suit.
Mexico City is currently trying to pass legislation allowing trans youths to change their name and gender too, but it’s a proposal that’s faced opposition from lawmakers and swaths of the general public, with groups taking to the streets in protest—a sign of how the country remains staunchly conservative and religious at heart outside of the seemingly liberal and progressive capital.
Something trans women in Mexico need no reminder of.
Francesca is a 42-year-old trans woman from a small town located in the southwest of Estado de Mexico, just outside of Mexico City. Francesca was born Alfonso and raised male, but she knew from a young age that she was “different” to her older brother and the other boys in her life.
“I never felt right, I never felt like everyone else,” Francesca says. “From the age of four of five, I just felt different, like I didn’t belong. My parents would dress me in shirts and pants, and it just felt wrong, I hated having my hair cut, and I never wanted to play with boys, I always wanted to hang out with the girls.
“I would sneak into my parent’s room when nobody was around and dress up in my mom’s clothes, it made me feel pretty, and well, normal…. but I knew I had to keep it a secret, and that I couldn’t tell anybody. I learned from a very young age to pretend, and I did everything I could to fit in and not be different.
“I hadn’t heard of transgender at that age, it wasn’t something I was aware of, I just thought I was a freak, and that something was wrong with me, and I believed that if I tried really hard to be a boy then I would. I spent hours and hours praying to be ‘normal’ and I buried all those feelings deep down inside me.
“I did everything in my power to be more masculine, and I would spend ages in front of the mirror trying to walk more like a ‘man’ and to curb the feminine gestures that came naturally. When I started going through puberty I began to have feelings about boys, I would dream about them and my first sexual experiences were with male school friends. I lost my virginity to a boy and fell deeply in love with him, but he was disgusted by me and after we slept together he didn’t want anything to do with me. He threatened to tell everybody that I was gay if I didn’t leave him alone, and I learned that I had to suppress the feelings I had.”
Alfonso became a pro at living a double life, in private he would dress in women’s clothes, but publicly he tried everything in his power to be “a man”. He went on to marry—three different women in total—and he had two children, but his marriages were short-lived as the pressure of living a lie became too much for him. When he was 32 he began to transition.
“I was still married when I started transitioning, and my wife was really supportive. I had been so miserable living as a man that I was drinking heavily and even became suicidal at one point, I felt like I didn’t belong, and that there was no point in living anymore. My wife told me that she just wanted me to be happy, and if it meant me living as a woman then she would be there for me in any way she could, I was really lucky.”
Alfonso was also lucky when it came to his parents, his father was initially shocked by the news but came around after a couple of months, while his mom was accepting and loving, as was his brother, and the family has supported him throughout his transition.
Francesca puts a lot of weight on the fact that her parents are middle class, educated, well-traveled, and not religious. Her father is a successful businessman and her mother is a teacher—they’re liberal and open-minded, with a wide circle of “arty” friends that includes gays and lesbians, and they raised their children outside of the church. Francesca is also lucky when it comes to her options for making a living. Her parents are financially supportive, and in addition, she has her own small business selling shoes from a catalog.
Francesca knows how fortunate she is and her story is definitely not the norm, as her best friend, Diana shows.
Diana was born Joaquin, in Sitalá, Chiapas—one of the poorest towns in Mexico’s poorest state, where an estimated 86% of residents live below the food poverty line and illiteracy rates are amongst the highest in the country. Her dad was a farmer, growing beans and corn, and the children were all forced to finish their meager schooling by the age of ten in order to help their father in the field.
Growing up in Sitalá demanded Joaquin toe the line, there was no diversity around, and the only expected path was to marry a girl and start a family of his own. Just like Alfonso though, Joaquin knew from an early age that he was “different”, he struggled to fit in and felt like he was suffocating in the ragingly machismo culture. The pressure to conform was immense though, and when he turned 18 and still showed no interest in girls his parents were alarmed. They sat their son down to ask him what was ”wrong” so he told them that he believed he was a woman, that he was born into the wrong body, and that he couldn’t live as a man any longer.
Joaquin’s parents were absolutely horrified by the revelation, his mom became hysterical and his father violent. Being different in any way was just not an option, and to go against the grain was akin to stabbing them in the heart. They locked Joaquin in a room for two months, with just a bucket to defecate in, feeding him sporadically while attempting to “cure” him with the help of a local priest’s indoctrination.
However, Joaquin refused to break, he told them he would rather die than continue to live a lie, so eventually, they released their son after informing him that he was “dead” to them, ordering him to move far away and telling him that they never wanted to see or hear from him again.
Joaquin made his way to Mexico City where he was homeless for eight months before finding a trans support group that gave him a room to live in and training to become a hairstylist and beautician. When he was 19 he began his transition and by the age of 20 he was living every day as Diana.
Diana has not spoken to her parents or siblings since moving away, and she’s resigned herself to being on her own for the rest of her life. “My parents are not bad people,” she says. “But they don’t understand transgender, it is so outside their realm of life. They have always lived in poverty, their world view is so narrow that anything that doesn’t fit is alien, they only know what the church teaches, and to them I’m an abomination and shameful.”
Diana now lives on her own in the Zocalo area of Mexico City, supporting herself by cutting hair and doing manicures and pedicures. She misses her family but realizes that they will likely never accept her as she is. She believes that living an authentic life outweighs the price she has to pay in never seeing them again.
“Even if I wanted to reach out to my family it would be next to impossible,” she says. “They don’t have cellphones or email, I wrote to them several times after I got settled here, but I never heard back. Traveling to Chiapas, as Diana, to see them in person, just isn’t an option, I know it wouldn’t end well. It’s better for all of us if I just stay away.”
Sadly, Diana’s story is much more common than Francesca’s. Still, she’s fortunate enough to “pass easily” though and she has the interpersonal skills to eke out a career for herself as a beautician. Many transgender women, rejected by their family and friends and without any source of support or income are forced to work in the sex industry to make a living—Francesca’s roommate is one of them.
Silvia is a gregarious and larger than life character. She had to make her own way in life after she was disowned by her family at the age of 16. “I was always flamboyant and different as a boy, my parents assumed it was just a phase I was going through and that I would grow out of it,” Silvia says. “When I told them that I’m a woman they told me that I’m a freak of nature, that I disgust them and that they would rather I die than shame them in this way.”
Sylvia was banished from her hometown and her family cut-off all contact with her. Arriving in Estado de Mexico at 16-years old, scared, alone, and hungry she turned to sex work as a way of making a living. “I needed to make money quickly and the only option that I saw was selling myself,” she explains.
Sylvia began turning tricks on the street, soliciting men in cars, but quickly learned that the work didn’t come without danger. “In the first year, I was beaten badly too many times to count, men would have sex with me then just beat me up and throw me back out on the street,” she says. “I was young and vulnerable, I had no legal recourse, they knew that and took advantage of it.”
Things changed when Sylvia met her boyfriend, a heavily tattooed biker named Juan.
Juan makes a huge deal out of the fact he’s “straight” and insisting that he’s not a pimp, claiming instead that he just “looks after” Sylvia and offers her protection. That protection comes at a price though, Sylvia hands over a whopping 80 percent of her earnings to Juan, and their relationship appears to be volatile and chaotic.
“Sylvia is really insecure and jealous,” Juan claims. “She thrives on drama and constantly accuses me of cheating on her, I can’t even talk to a woman without her going crazy. People like Sylvia only understand one thing— violence—if she’s not treated with a heavy hand then she just plays up, she craves it, plain and simple.”
It was a heartbreaking confession, and as fucked up as it was, sadly it appeared to ring true. However, it isn’t surprising given the startlingly low level of self-esteem Sylvia has. After being told repeatedly that she’s the lowest of the low, and after years of being valued for nothing other than her sexual worth, it’s a no brainer she believes that narrative.
It’s a narrative that’s only too common amongst trans women in Mexico. Even Francesca, with her privileged journey, struggles when it comes to being valued as a woman.
“Dating as a trans woman is a total nightmare,” she says. “There are plenty of men who want sex, but they treat you like a dirty little secret, and they wouldn’t dream of being seen publicly with you. The men identify as straight and view you as not being a real woman, you’re just a freak to them and after they have sex they’re revolted by you, they want you gone so you’re not a reminder of what they’ve done.
“As a trans woman in Mexico you’re not seen as a woman, or as a person even, you’re viewed as some kind of monstrous sexual temptress. Men will have sex with you but then they feel dirty and they blame you—it’s really fucked up and I’ve gotten to the stage now where I don’t date at all, it’s just too dangerous.”
Francesca’s fears are well placed, amongst the recent trans murder victims discovered in Mexico one had been tortured to death while her family listened over the phone, another was found dead in a trash can with her face beaten beyond recognition by a rock, another was discovered naked and strangled in her bedroom, another was found half-naked with signs of torture and barbed wire around the neck, another was discovered suffocated to death with a white plastic bag around her face.
The life expectancy for trans women in Latin America is just 35-years old, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.