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The danger of being transgender in Latin America in times of quarantine

The measures implemented in Panama, Peru and Colombia have subjected LGBTI people to harassment. Also, they do not work. Español Português

Manuella Libardi
21 April 2020
A person participates in a rally organized by members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transexual (LGBT) community, in Bogota, capital of Colombia, on July 2, 2017.
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Jhonpaz/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The trend started on April 1 in Panama, when President Laurentino Cortizo announced that men and women can only leave their homes on different days in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Peru followed suit the following day, and Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, last week.

Almost immediately, the orders proved to endanger the lives of transgender, non-binary, and queer people who present as visibly gender-nonconforming. The same day the order took place in Panama, where women can go out on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and men on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, police stopped Bárbara Delgado, a transgender woman, according to Humans Rights Watch. She was detained for three hours and ordered to pay a US$50 fine.

That’s because Delgado’s national ID card has the “male” marker, which was assigned to her at birth. In Panama, people cannot legally change their gender on identification documents unless they undergo sex reassignment surgery. Plus, authorities have the power to request an ID card to confirm gender.

These measures violate trans people’s human rights because Panama fails to recognize self-perceived gender identity, which goes against international human rights agreements and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The orders open ample opportunities for confusion when addressing the cases of transgender people whose appearance does not match the gender listed on their ID cards.

Since its implementation, the order has led transgender and other LGBTI people to take to social media to denounce harassment. LGBTI advocacy groups in Panama began circulating a Google Form to allow people to report their cases.

Exceptions in the measures do not prevent harassment

Even in places where authorities cannot confirm people’s gender by checking the ID card, transgender people’s harassment is still happening.

Bogotá’s city government stated that transgender and nonbinary people can go out on days assigned to the gender with which they identify. The office emphasized that police cannot ask to check their ID to check for gender.

But the gender-friendly measures are doing little to prevent harassment. A transgender man in Bogotá reported being thrown out of a grocery store on Wednesday, a men-only day, three days after the order was implemented. The man, who is identified in the news and social media only as Joseph, recorded a video in which he described being approached by an establishment’s employee who continuously addressed him using female pronouns.

The employee asked Joseph to present a permit to show he was allowed to be out, even though the government measures require no such thing. The employee called the store manager, which attracted the attention of other male customers who began to direct insults at him. The manager eventually threw Joseph out of the establishment, according to Joseph.

The situation is similar in Peru. President Martín Vizcarra stated that the government is “progressive” and that the armed forces and national police had been instructed to handle the situation and protect members of the LGBTI community.

However, instances of harassment were still reported. Alexandra Arana said she was stopped by the police on her way to the grocery store with her friend on April 4, a day designated for women. As a transgender woman, the sex on Arana’s national ID card has the “M” for “male”. She was ordered to go back home, she said.

The measures don’t work

While the fight against the new coronavirus is real and requires governments to take extraordinary measures, Latin America’s gender-based quarantine should be criticized not only because they violate LGBTI people’s human rights, but also because they simply do not work.

Vizcarra announced on April 10 that he was canceling the gender-based lockdown measures just eight days after being implemented. In a press conference, Vizcarra said the main reason for his decision was that the regulations proved to be ineffective in reducing the number of people in the streets at a time.

Interestingly, the measures apparently did not work because of the unequal division of domestic work among genders. Farid Matuk, who is a member of Peru's COVID-19 task force, said the regulations failed because women are typically tasked with more domestic work than men, which forced them to gather in large groups on their designated days.

In fact, the measures accomplished the exact opposite from the original intentions. On the days assigned to women, Peruvian cities saw even larger agglomerations than before the measures were put in place because women were restricted to those specific times to do home-related shopping.

The fight against the novel coronavirus requires strong leadership from our governments, many of which are facing the pandemic amid political and economic crises. The task at hand is far from simple. But leaders and citizens alike must remember that good governance involves passing measures that protect the health and integrity of their citizens, and not the opposite. It also requires passing regulations that actually work.

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