50.50: Feature

How trans rights are being ‘weaponised’ by Latin American right-wing populists

From efforts to limit medical care for trans people to bans on inclusive language, LGBTIQ rights are under threat

Mariana Carbajal photo.jpg
Mariana Carbajal
29 August 2022, 12.07pm

Transgender Peruvian women stand in front of the prosecutor‘s office in Lima to protest against violence, June 2022

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Fotoholica Press Agency / Alamy Live News

At least ten Latin American countries are advancing initiatives that could fuel further violence against trans and gender-diverse people.

Proposals include banning inclusive language and gender perspectives from classrooms, giving parents the power to veto sex education, persecuting teachers who discuss sexuality with their students, and further pushing LGBTIQ people to the fringes of society.

Leading human rights groups see such actions as an “anti-democratic opportunistic attack on a minority group” in efforts to win over conservative voters or galvanise public opinion in times of political crisis.

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The Americas is already reportedly the most dangerous continent in the world for trans people – with an Amnesty International report finding that the region accounted for 70% of the 375 murders of trans and gender-diverse people reported worldwide in the year to September 2021.

Sonia Corrêa, co-coordinator of Sexuality and Policy Watch, a global forum of researchers and activists, believes it is important to distinguish between public campaigns against trans rights – which right-wing activists might engage in to capitalise on what they see as increasing conservatism – and anti-trans policies implemented by a government.

“Although anti-gender social mobilisations promote or advocate for legislative changes or public policies, [they] cannot be compared to this ideology installed in the state apparatus. This difference has to be made quite firmly,” she insisted.

The latter is the case in Brazil. “It is one of the countries where anti-gender, anti-trans and anti-abortion ideology is state policy at the federal level, in a systematic and structural way,” Corrêa told openDemocracy.

Corrêa said the same thing is happening in a number of countries across the world, including Hungary, Poland, Russia and Serbia, with similar trends found in Turkey, Guatemala, Uruguay, some Spanish regions and some US states.

This anti-trans wave is an anti-democratic trend: an opportunistic attack on a minority group in times of crisis

Cristian González, Human Rights Watch

Cristian González, LGBTIQ rights researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), describes the region-wide attack on trans identities as an “anti-democratic trend: the opportunistic attack on a minority group in times of crisis”.

While the region is experiencing serious issues of inflation, violence and corruption, “some politicians are using gender and sexuality issues to distract their citizens... in a nefarious manipulation at the expense of marginalised people in society,” he said.

For González, this should be of concern to all citizens of the region. “The subject of manipulation today is gender and sexuality; what other rights will be politically weaponised in future crises?”

Proposed legislative changes in Latin America also undermine sexual education, a tool to combat sexual violence and child and adolescent pregnancy. Latin America and the Caribbean already has the second-highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the world – almost 18% of births in the region are to mothers under the age of 20, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

“Many of these pregnancies are the result of lack of information, limited access to contraception and sexual and gender-based violence,” the agency warns.

Anti-trans attacks from the state

Brazil is by far the most dangerous place for trans and gender-diverse people, according to research by Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide, which found that 125 trans and gender-diverse people were killed there between October 2020 and September 2021.

More than any other government in Latin America, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration has orchestrated a federal policy to limit equal rights for LGBTIQ people.

“Bolsonaro destroyed what little we had and went on a purge of the existing trans policies,” said professor Marco Aurélio Máximo Prado, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

Courses to combat prejudice among teachers are no longer offered, outpatient clinics for trans people have been defunded, and the National Council against LGBT Discrimination has been scrapped. The life expectancy for trans people in Brazil is just 35.

Pro-government lawmakers have also put forward legislation against medical care for trans youths and children, including bills introduced in São Paulo state and Rio de Janeiro city to ban health services from providing hormone therapy for trans people under 18 and sex reassignment surgery for those under 21.

So far, none of these initiatives has been approved. But the bills’ rhetoric is often used “to mobilise society at certain political moments”, Prado explained.

He added: “There are projects that aim to frame the provision of hormone treatments for trans children and young people as ‘institutional violence’... because they consider that children are being violated by what they call ‘gender ideology’.”

Targeting education

Schools are a particular target for anti-LGBTIQ activists and politicians. In Brazil, 217 bills have been introduced since 2014 – a few of which have passed – to ban teaching on gender and sexuality in schools, according to a HRW report published in May.

Such bills “keep coming, despite the Supreme Court [having] issued several rulings overturning them,”,González told openDemocracy.

“Politicians… use these arguments of ‘gender ideology’ and ‘indoctrination’ for their political purposes,” explained González. In the 2018 electoral campaign, Bolsonaro claimed that if former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party won, ‘gender ideology’ would be imposed in schools.

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Teachers and healthcare staff claim that since 2020, the Call 100 hotline – which was established by Brazil’s Ministry of Women and Human Rights in 1997 to allow people to report rights violations – has been distorted. They say it is being used to monitor those engaging in gender-related debates in public and private institutions, with people encouraged to anonymously report those who dissent from the government’s views on issues such as COVID-19 vaccination, gender identity and sexual orientation.

In 2021, the Brazilian press reported that a philosophy teacher and a headteacher were investigated by police following anonymous complaints to Call 100 accusing them of discussing gender, racism and diversity in their classes. The cases were later dropped.

“People end up saying they ‘don't want their children to be taught this’, although Bolsonaro never talks about what is actually being taught in Brazilian schools: gender equality, prevention of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies,” said González.

The issue has returned ahead of October’s general election, in which Bolsonaro is seeking re-election. HRW has documented accusations and attacks, on the streets, on social media and even in the judiciary, against teachers who engage in sex education.

Similar censorship is happening in Peru’s schools, with a law passed this year giving parents the authority to decide what can be said – or, crucially, not said – in schools. The legislation says organised groups of parents must be consulted about educational materials and school curricula, regardless of whether they have any knowledge of the subject. It establishes sanctions for teachers and principals who do not comply with these provisions.

The law was introduced by Education Committee chair Esdras Ricardo Medina Minayas, an evangelical pastor and a member of Peru’s ‘Don’t Mess With My Children’ movement, which seeks to eliminate gender-perspective and comprehensive sex education (CSE) from public schools.

It passed by 91 votes to 18, a blow three years after the Peruvian Supreme Court rejected an attempt by conservative group Parents in Action – as part of a campaign by Don’t Mess With My Children – to remove gender-perspective education from the national curriculum.

While Argentina’s federal government recognises the rights of transgender people, there are efforts from conservative local authorities to resist federal policies or distort them.

Last year, the government of the northern province of Chaco finally issued a decree to enforce a 2006 federal law implementing comprehensive sex education, but stated that it would be “grounded... in fundamental social values” – without defining those ‘values’.

Shortly afterwards, Chaco authorities endorsed an optional training conference for teachers, called ‘comprehensive sex education based on science and values’, which was organised by the Metropolitan Evangelical Board and held at the Church of Jesus Christ.

A thousand teachers attended the training, in which diverse gender identities were described as ‘pathologies’ – at odds with the CSE law.

After fierce criticism from Amnesty International and the Network of Feminist Educators, the Chaco government tried to distance itself from the controversial conference. But its decree enabling the ‘social value-based’ CSE remains in force.

A war on language

Dozens of bills have been introduced across Latin America – mostly in Brazil, but also in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay – to prevent any attempt to shake the male-oriented and rigidly binary structures of Spanish and Portuguese languages.

Some 34 bills to prohibit and punish the use of inclusive language in schools have been introduced in half of Brazil’s 27 states and in the federal Congress. Such bans have passed in the states of Santa Catarina, Rondônia and Mato Grosso do Sul, although the Supreme Court could suspend them as unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, in Argentina the minister of education for the city of Buenos Aires announced in June that the practice of using ‘e’, ‘x’ or ‘@’ to make gendered Spanish words gender-neutral would be banned in schools. The decision, which was condemned by linguistic specialists and teachers’ unions, is subject to an ongoing court challenge, having been accused of breaking the 2012 Gender Identity Law.

Two members of the legislative assembly of Buenos Aires province (the neighbour of the homonymous capital city and the most populated district in the country) have since introduced a similar bill.

For Sonia Corrêa, these bills are not rooted in genuine “ideological belief”, but an effort to “lure the constituency of [far-right politician] Javier Milei” – whose support is increasing ahead of Argentina’s 2023 elections, if polls are to be believed.

In Uruguay, public education authorities decided in April that “the use of inclusive language must conform to the rules of the Spanish language”, meaning ‘e’, ‘x’ and ‘@’ cannot be used in schools.

A bill introduced by a legislator from Uruguay’s far-right Cabildo Abierto party – part of the ruling coalition – seeks to extend that by imposing an effective state-wide ban on inclusive language in public institutions. The draft was accused of plagiarism as it is almost identical to one introduced in Chile last year.

Paraguay, meanwhile, has become the first country in the world to ban any reference to ‘gender’ from appearing in public education.

Following an intense campaign by conservative groups, supported by the US-based Alliance Defending Freedom, a 2017 decree “prohibited the distribution and use of printed or digital materials related to gender theory and/or ideology in public educational institutions”.

A department in the education ministry was given 60 days to review all school books and lessons and to “issue a report with proposals for the corresponding amendments”.

The ban “built up a taboo against the very word ‘gender’,” said Mirta Moragas, a human rights lawyer and feminist activist who studied the results of the review. This has made teachers “reluctant to address certain issues, such as violence against women and girls.”

This was particularly worrying as Paraguay has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the South American Southern Cone – a region that traditionally covers also Argentina, Chile and Uruguay – and sexual violence is widespread. Almost every day, two girls between the ages of 10 and 14 give birth, official figures show. The first four months of 2022 saw a daily average of seven reports of sexual abuse against children.

Teachers “ended up frozen… and then somehow complicit with the continued terrible situation of sexual violence against children and adolescents and teenage pregnancy,” said Moragas.

To make matters worse, when Moragas examined the review, she found the prohibited educational materials had “contained almost no mentions of gender” in the first place.

“The review itself was vague and inconsistent,” she said. Although it said textbooks and school lessons should be changed, it didn’t make concrete suggestions as to how.

The ban was adopted six months before the 2018 elections. “Likely, there was a purely populist motivation, without any legitimate concern about the issue,” Moragas said. The minister of education who signed the decree, Enrique Riera, promised to personally “burn the books in a public square if they contained gender ideology”.

Banning trans identities

In some parts of Latin America, trans people still face total discrimination and renewed attempts to suppress their identities.

In 2017, conservative legislators in Bolivia won a constitutional ruling denying equal rights for trans people, despite discrimination based on gender identity having been banned by the country’s 2009 constitution and two subsequent laws – a 2010 act against racism and all other forms of discrimination and the 2016 Gender Identity Act – that expanded on this principle.

The legislators filed a judicial challenge against the gender identity law. Although the constitutional court partially dismissed the case, upholding trans people’s right to change their name and registered gender, it ruled that a segment of Article 11, which granted equal rights for trans people, was unconstitutional. An example of a real-world consequence is that trans women running for elected office in Bolivia now face more obstacles than cis women as they are not entitled to electoral quotas.

This is a “shameful constitutional ruling”, Ronald Céspedes, executive councillor of the Latin American GayLatino Network, told openDemocracy. It “recognises people’s right to gender identity, but deprives them of their fundamental rights... It's like saying to a trans person ‘you can change your name and registered gender, but you don’t have equal rights’.”

In Guatemala, a draft bill to “protect children and adolescents from gender identity disorders”, introduced last year, is a “completely discriminatory” initiative, according to HRW’s González.

The bill’s Article 1 claims that “children and adolescents have the right... not to have their identity violated according to their sexual gender [sic] at birth”, while Article 2 establishes that children must be “protected” from all content that “represents, promotes or shows alterations to the identity of the sex at birth, gender reassignment, or variation of the natural sexual identity”.

The bill seeks to ban information on gender identity in schools and to force the media to label programmes that show or talk about transgender people as off-limits to children under 18.

The draft, passed by the Education Committee and moving slowly through the parliamentary process, is also intended to “distract the public” whenever a pressing political issue arises, according to González.

“With this initiative, transphobes have a free hand to discriminate against trans people,” activist Stacy Velásquez, director of the trans rights group Reinas de la Noche, told openDemocracy.

On 8 March, the Guatemalan Congress passed the Bill for the Protection of Life and the Family, which, among other things, legalised homophobia and stiffened punishments for abortion. However, it was not signed into law by President Alejandro Giammattei as its flawed provisions were considered unconstitutional and at odds with international human rights treaties.

Over the period 2019-20, 18 trans people were murdered in Guatemala, according to the Documentation Center on Trans People in Latin America and the Caribbean. None of these cases is being investigated by the authorities.

The president of Reinas de la Noche, Andrea González, was shot dead in June 2021; two days before, an activist from the group Redtrans, Ceci Ixtapa, was beaten to death. Both women had reported threats to the authorities. The National Human Rights Observatory recorded seven other murders of trans people in 2021.

Violence against LGBTIQ people is a persistent problem in El Salvador, according to HRW’s González.

That violence led to the forced displacement of 166 LGBTIQ people in the country last year. And the persecution of transgender people got worse after the controversial state of emergency approved by Congress in March and extended for the fourth time on 19 July, because it suspends constitutional freedoms.

“Before President Nayib Bukele came to power, there had been some progress,” said González.

For example, authorities had established a sexual diversity unit within the Secretariat of Social Inclusion, which was eliminated by Bukele and replaced by a gender unit in the Ministry of Culture.

“Many activists saw this change as an attack on their rights because violence against LGBTQ people and inclusion are not necessarily a cultural issue, but a social inclusion one,” he explained.

A gender identity bill, aimed at increasing trans rights in El Salvador, was also shelved after Bukele took office.

“The current law says a person’s name must match their sex. If you have a vagina you cannot be named Pedro, you must have a name ‘in accordance’ with your sex,” trans activist Ambar Alfaro explained.

In February, however, the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber ruled that trans people do have the right to change their names, and gave legislators a year to act accordingly.

If you or someone you know is affected by the issues raised in this article, the following organisations can help:

Switchboard

Information, support and referral service for anyone who needs to consider issues around their sexuality.

Phone: 0300 330 0630 (10am-10pm). Website: Switchboard

LGBT Foundation

A range of services, support and information to lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.

Phone: 0345 3 30 30 30 (Daily 10am-10pm). Website: LGBT Foundation

Stonewall

Help and advice for people who may be LGBT on a range of subjects, including coming out and hate crime.

Website: Stonewall

Galop

Tailored support for queer people experiencing domestic violence, hate crime, sexual violence, 'conversion practices' and other problems.

Website: Galop helplines

The Rainbow Project

A range of support services including professional counselling for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Northern Ireland.

Phone: 028 9031 9030. Website: Rainbow Project

LGBT Helpline Scotland

Information and emotional support to people who may be LGBT and their families, friends and supporters across Scotland.

Phone: 0300 123 2523 (Tue & Wed 12-9pm). Website: LGBT Helpline Scotland

Mermaids

Share information about gender dysphoria.

Website: Mermaids. Helpline: phone, email or chat

NHS

Information about gender dysphoria is available on the NHS website.

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