In the United States, trans people are required to make psychiatric visits to demonstrate they have “gender identity disorder,” and in most states must submit proof of surgery, before they’re allowed to legally change their gender on their birth certificate. Meanwhile, in June 2012, Argentina passed a law that allows people to alter their gender on official documents without first having to undergo surgery or receive an official diagnosis. Approved in the Senate by a unanimous vote of 55-0, the gender identity law “is the most advanced of all our existent laws,” Susy Shock, a trans artist from Buenos Aires who fought for its passage, told Hyperallergic. “First, because it was thought up and proposed by the same trans community it implicates. Also, it differs from other laws because it doesn’t pathologize; you don’t need more than your own consent based on your self-perception. Finally, the law does not obligate you to get an operation if you don’t want to or don’t need it.”
It’s been two years since that legal battle was won, yet trans and non-binary people in the country remain vulnerable to different forms of violence. “I think that Argentina has advanced a liberal law, but we come from a continent which is entirely machista and very patriarchal,” said Shock, who’s also a member of a Buenos Aires collective that works closely with the FALGBT (Argentine Federation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans People) to assure trans inclusiveness. “Argentina is not exempt from this [social environment], but even so, what I have gathered traveling to other Latin American countries is that LGBT organizations and local feminist groups view this process taking place in my country as something almost utopic.”
De-gendering the Social Environment
In December of 2013, six months after the gender identity law passed, I contacted Buenos Aires–based trans artist Effy Beth. We exchanged emails, and I began to follow her work through social media. Beth’s series Transita Rapido/Transita Lento (Transition quickly/transition slowly) was, to my knowledge, the only comic published in Latin America at the time by a trans artist. The strip narrated Beth’s daily experiences: looking for work in the city, dating, trying to find safe spaces, her fear of getting harassed or beaten up on the streets, her friends, and the constant task of legitimating a place for herself in the art world.
Expressing how the gender binary affected her, Beth’s comic titled “Sobre Moldes” (About molds) shows the discrimination she faced both as a man and a woman. Although she hadn’t changed much, what had shifted was the mold she was being compared to. The image titled “Antes” (before the transition) illustrates how, held to a male standard, her body had been considered “too skinny,” her voice “not coarse enough,” her back “too small.” After the transition, “Ahora,” when she was held to a female standard, Beth’s body was now considered “too big,” her voice “too coarse,” her back “too big for her to get breast implants,” and her face “too masculine looking.”
The comic gained a large following on Facebook and on her website, where she was publishing it. And it was only one of the various works she developed as a trans artist and activist. “I didn’t need to allude to a theory but rather point out the reality which exists and invite the viewer to stop, laugh, and feel the horror,” she said. Employment discrimination was also a topic she covered in comics, as she explained to me: “Having an ID still doesn’t exonerate me from marginalization, and up until now, no company I have interviewed for has ever called me back after they have seen me in person.” So far, in Argentina, no national law exists that deals with discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
In 2013, the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Trans People showed that the average life expectancy for trans individuals is between 35 and 41 years (the same figure for a non-trans person in Latin America is 75 years). The study also revealed that the number one employment alternative for trans people in Latin America is sex work, because transphobia operates as a major obstacle in the job search. “Transphobia is strongly alive despite there being advanced laws, and my major difficulty still involves generating an income to feed myself,” Beth told me.
As a way to generate more dialogue about gender, a group of activists, artists, and students from the University of Buenos Aires organized an annual festival beginning in 2013 called Degenerando Buenos Aires (De-gendering Buenos Aires). A weeklong session of panels, music, and performance art, the festival is geared towards adding gender studies topics to the public university’s curriculum. Last year’s inaugural edition addressed questions such as: What is queer? What does it mean to be trans in Argentina today? “We wanted to give visibility and a voice to our trans community” said Sandra Aguilar, a student at the University of Buenos Aires and one of the organizers of the festival. “For example, when talking about gender equality laws at work, we focused on the experience of trans people first and developed an analysis from there,” added Aguilar, who’s also a member of an anti-patriarchal Buenos Aires collective that produces a weekly radio show, Desde el Fuego, and organizes other regional events.
Capturing Transphobia on Camera
Outside Buenos Aires, the social environment of the provinces tends to be even more conservative when it comes to traditional gender standards, machismo, and Catholic beliefs. Three film producers from Rio Cuarto, Cordoba — Melina Demasi, Eliana Pontoriero, and Julieta Orlando — decided they wanted to capture “how transphobia gestates into discourse” by portraying stories of trans activists and documenting what transphobia sounds and looks like.
While finishing their studies at the University of Rio Cuarto, the film producers met Eliana Alcaraz and Claudia Pía Baudracco, two leaders in the Argentine trans front. As a friendship grew between all of them, the producers decided to film scenes of Alcaraz’s, Baudracco’s, and other trans women’s daily experiences. “We went inside the lives of our trans friends and community members to portray their permanent battle against heteronormative discourse, which is structured by the male/female binary,” the producers told me over Skype.
They explained how they came up with the idea for the documentary, which is titled Se Dice De Mi (the longer version translates as What Is Said About Me: Transphobia’s Heteronormal Discourse): After the gender identity law was passed, “the legal framework [was] there [in Argentina]” but little was being done at the social level, to challenge the popular stigma against trans people. “There is a lack of information about how to refer to trans people, and the majority don’t understand what gender identity means,” they said. In the documentary, first-person stories from trans women are contrasted with the voices and opinions of heteronormative people in the community. By recording what others said about trans women, the producers “wanted to open a dialogue about gender identity recognition and respect of human rights,” they said.
Both Eliana Alcaraz and Claudia Pia Baudracco had been fighting for a better quality of life for trans people since the nineties. Alcaraz focused on HIV and housing issues in the trans community, while Baudracco, facing prostitution charges from a very young age, had to finish high school in jail, where she was raped and abused. Once free, she organized sit-ins at local jails to protest the unfair incarceration of trans sex workers. Baudracco was also one of the founders of the Trans Association of Argentina (ATTA). What the producers caught on camera were a slew of condescending and transphobic comments from neighbors and family members directed at Alcaraz, Baudracco, and the other trans women they followed:
“Make up your mind! I don’t know if I should treat you like a man or a woman.”
“I respect a gay or a lesbian person more than a trans person. A gay man at least assumes responsibility for the gender he likes … But if you like men, and you transform yourself into a woman … I don’t know — it’s different.”
“If you are a man and you put make up on and dress like a woman, you are wearing a costume.”
Such misconceptions speak to the urgent need to address how society understands gender. “The concept of transphobia that Claudia taught us about is the key to everything,” said the producers. “For us, transphobia goes beyond being trans — it implicates all of us.”
In times when love and loss are announced so drastically through social media, I found out this past April that Effy Beth had committed suicide. I never had the chance to meet her in person, yet we grew up in Buenos Aires a few years apart, walking those same city streets and attending similar college classes at the University of Buenos Aires. She was only 25 years old.
I can’t help but wonder if a different social environment in Argentina would have helped her stay alive. A local radio show from Buenos Aires said that her body was her canvas and alluded to her suicide as a “last performance.” Although I know that narrative is common in regards to performance artists who link their bodies to their work, it also denies the damaging effects of transphobia. “Not all performance artists are trans, and thus, not all have to assume the daily consequences of putting their bodies out there, the way Effy and other trans people do in their daily lives,” said Aguilar. “I see Effy’s loss as a huge warning sign for our community. Because there is a lot of work to do for the world we desire. Regardless of what we may think, equality and inclusion do not get sanctioned by law,” she added.
Both protagonists in the documentary What Is Said About Me, Eliana Alvarez and Claudia Pía Baudracco, are also now gone (the causes of their deaths are reserved). The quest to create a more livable social environment for non-binary and trans people in Argentina (and Latin America, and the world) persists. Alvarez died in February 2014, two months before the documentary was released in local theaters. Baudracco died in March 2012, three months before the gender identity law she had fought so hard for was passed. “Our documentary became a double tribute for two warriors of diversity,” said the producers, who sounded heartbroken as they Skyped with me.“Eliana always wanted to make it to New York City” said the producers — “maybe her story will.”
All interviews in this piece were conducted in Spanish and translated by the author. In memory of Effy Beth.