The Prospect of Radically Inclusive Love in Latin America

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While holding Cuba’s first LGBTQ+ friendly mass, Alexya Salvador, a Brazilian transgender pastor, proclaimed God’s love to be radically inclusive. [1] Her words resounded through Latin America, and in the years following her historic contribution to the LGBTQ+ rights movement, victories for the queer community, including the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ verdict backing gay marriage and Bogota’s election of an openly lesbian mayor, swept the region. Though admittedly diminished by a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted queer communities, the momentum is still alive today. 

In 2020, activists secured key victories such as Costa Rica’s legalization of same-sex marriage and Bolivia’s defense of the constitutional principles of equality and non-discrimination. [2] Even so, the road ahead is a long one, especially for transgender persons like Salvador herself. Trans people in Latin America continue to have a life expectancy that is half that of their cisgender peers, and Brazil and Mexico are ranked as the two most dangerous countries for trans people in the world. [3]

COVID-19 has, in some ways, widened the gulf in quality of life between trans and gay people. Restrictions on social life, namely gender-based lockdowns, have directed staggering amounts of discrimination and violence towards trans individuals. At the same time, the trans community has had to contend with massive job losses amid the economic fallout from the pandemic. Trans people are struggling, and their struggles, relegated for too long to the footnotes in the story of the gay Latin American, deserve our attention. 

The premise behind gender-based lockdowns is the same one that underpins lockdowns seen in the U.S, France, and other coronavirus hot spots around the globe. Limit the number of people out, and you limit the extent to which disease transmission can occur. Gender-based lockdowns are distinct in that they attempt to avoid the tradeoffs associated with blanket lockdowns. They intend to prevent the spread of COVID-19 while still affording people some freedom to purchase vital goods and services in-person. 

Gender-based lockdowns aim to have it both ways by assuming a gender binary and imposing a quarantine on one of the two “valid” genders at a time. If men go out on even-numbered days of the week, women go out on odd-numbered days, and vice versa. This amounts to a system wherein civilians are allowed to “take turns” leaving their dwellings. Through this system, policymakers are purportedly able to balance public safety with the public’s ability to perform essential chores. 

In theory, gender-based lockdowns pose no serious threats to the trans community. Trans people living under such a lockdown would simply go out on the days that correspond to their chosen gender identity. After all, a trans man is, in fact, a man and a trans woman is, in fact, a woman. Yet many Latin Americans cannot or will not accept this. 

Despite progress made possible by advocacy groups on the ground, the conservative religious tradition continues to wield considerable influence in Latin American political and social life. So, when Colombia, Panama, and Peru, decided to constrain mobility on the basis of gender, civilians and law enforcement authorities were handed a convenient excuse to discriminate against trans persons. In the latter two countries, multiple cases of transphobia, one of which had a trans woman being fined $50 for leaving her home on a day designated for women, were reported after just a few days of “pico y género (peak and gender),” Spanish for gender-based lockdown. [4] Colombia’s capital city of Bogota similarly saw a spike in trans discrimination complaints after enacting its gender-based lockdown last April. [5] These incidents offered a preview into the slew of attacks and microaggressions that trans people would grapple with under gender-based lockdowns.

One of the most common microaggressions that trans people have faced is being asked for identification before entering grocery stores. [6] Not only has this reinforced toxic gender stereotypes, but it has also become a literal barrier to entry. As legal procedures for gender changes are generally improbable due to their financial and logistical costs, trans people, among Latin America’s most economically and politically marginalized groups, are often unable to obtain IDs that accurately reflect their gender identities. The lack of documentation “proving” their gender has led police to accuse them of flouting lockdown rules, bar them from entering stores, and ultimately curtail their access to essential goods and services.

More extreme acts of discrimination have used public humiliation as a tool of oppression. One such act was caught on video and widely circulated. The footage captured Peruvian police forcing trans women to shout “I want to be a man” as they did squats, a sort of sick punishment for leaving their homes on the day that corresponded to women. [7]

Another instance involved a Panamanian trans woman who decided to go out on a day assigned to her biological sex after having a negative experience on a day assigned to women. Much to her dismay, she was again met with discrimination, this time in the form of verbal and physical harassment. As she waited in line at a large supermarket, she was detained, searched, groped, and berated by a unit of six police officers. [8]

Many trans people have heard of such incidents or encountered variations of them themselves, and as a result have chosen to stay inside their homes and starve. They prefer that kind of torture to the more brutal, public kind that may await them outside their doors. [9]

Importantly, police officers and civilians alike have enforced gender-based lockdowns in accordance with their preconceived notions of gender identity. An officer in Panama punched a trans woman in the face for being out on an incorrect day. A man in southern Bogota stabbed a trans woman for the same reason. [10] Both police and civilian perpetrators are responsible for the rise in hate crimes targeting trans individuals that has occurred since “pico y género”’s establishment. [11]

As deadly as gender-based lockdowns have been, they are hardly the only problem to afflict Latin America’s trans community during the pandemic. COVID-19 has drastically decreased demand for services that require prolonged face-to-face interaction. Since many trans people make a living as sex workers, this trend has had an outsized effect on their community. 

To grasp the magnitude of trans suffering at the hands of the pandemic economy, it is crucial to understand the circumstances that have engendered high rates of participation in the sex trade among trans people. Given the constant abuse and discrimination that trans people experience, the vast majority are unable to pursue an education. Schools, unfortunately, are not impervious to the stigmas surrounding trans people. Instead, they often prop them up by prohibiting trans students from enrolling or turning a blind eye to bullying. [12]

The lack of educational opportunities available to trans people helps explain why so many resort to sex work. In Mexico City, about a quarter of sex workersthat is, 7,000 sex workersare trans. Participation is even more pronounced among trans women. An astounding 90% of trans women in Brazil depend on sex work to make ends meet. [13] This stands in stark contrast with the U.S., where the largest reported survey of trans adults to date found that roughly 15% of trans women participated in sex work. [14]

With COVID-induced quarantines emptying the streets of clientele, trans sex workers have struggled to earn sufficient income for basic necessities. Many have not been able to pay rent, and in El Salvador, the upshot has been widespread evictions in the trans community. The expulsion of trans Salvadorans from their homes has occurred in spite of a three-month moratorium on evictions, a likely testament to pervasive prejudice against trans people. [15]

Trans persons with other types of jobs, particularly those with jobs in the informal sector, have been hard hit as well. Their condition, however, has not triggered much action from the state. Although Latin American countries have extended some government relief, trans people have largely been left out. Take the case of El Salvador. By August, despite having been announced by President Bukele in March, a $300 bonus had not reached the pockets of 138 trans activists with Comcavis Trans, a group supporting trans women. [16]

Trans people in Honduras tell stories of their pandemic experiences that are parallel to those of their Salvadoran counterparts. They have gotten laid off en masse and have had little support from their government. “Historically, we have been discriminated against and excluded from any welfare programme,” said Donny Reyes, a leader of the Asociación LGTB Arcoiris de Honduras. [17] So dire is the situation for trans Hondurans that a significant number have been forced to join their peers in the sex trade in order to sustain themselves and/or their families. [18]

From Bolivia to Brazil, the wins of the LGBTQ+ movement have largely belonged to gay men and women, with prospects for trans liberation lagging woefully behind. The current public health crisis has made this all the more evident. Unseen violence and hardship have plagued the trans community and underscored its longstanding exclusion from queer advancement. 

But there is reason for hope. Local groups have stepped in to fill the vacuum left by policy makers who either do not care about trans people or do not understand the unique challenges they face. Red Comunitaria Trans, Trans Community Network, and other organizations have provided necessary coverage of the assaults, financial pains, and incidents of public shaming that have transpired throughout the pandemic. They have also put tremendous pressure on leaders to end gender-based lockdowns. [19] So far, their efforts, along with international outrage, have prompted both Colombia and Peru to walk back these harmful policies.

The work of trans rights organizations has created a rare window of opportunity for the cause. In the wake of their successful opposition, activists in the trans rights space have been sought after by the heads of government agencies and nonprofit organizations, who recognize that their triumph against “pico y género” signals their movement’s maturity. By forming relationships with trans rights defenders, these power players are indicating their willingness to engage in long-term discussions on the discrimination that trans people endure on the daily. [20] This bodes well for the new society that activists like Alexya Salvador have been trying to build in their homeland.

Might this moment, then, finally give trans people a seat at the table? Might it preempt the next anti-trans policy? Might it catalyze an expansion in the scope of the crusade for LGBTQ+ rights?

By the grace of God, a Latin America that practices radically inclusive love may yet be within reach. 


[1] Blumberg, Antonia. “Transgender Pastors Celebrate A Joyous, LGBTQ-Friendly Mass In Cuba.” HuffPost. HuffPost, May 12, 2017.  

[2] Corrales, Javier. “The 2020 Top Ten LGBT Stories from Latin America and the Caribbean.” Global Americans. Global Americans, December 28, 2020. 

[3] El Universal, Compañia Periodística Nacional. Mexico. “Transgender in Latin America.” El Universal | Transgender in Latin America, 2019. 

[4] “COVID-19 Measures Lead to Further Injustice against the LGBTQ+ Community in Latin America.” Fair Trials. Fair Trials, June 30, 2020. 

[5] Cobb, Julia Symmes. “Transgender People Face Discrimination, Violence amid Latin American Quarantines.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, May 5, 2020.

[6] Ibid. 

[7] “COVID-19 Measures Lead to Further Injustice against the LGBTQ+ Community in Latin America.” Fair Trials. Fair Trials, June 30, 2020. 

[8] Mohan, Megha. “Coronavirus: They Grabbed My Breasts and Said, ‘You’re Not a Woman’.” BBC News. BBC, May 17, 2020.  

[9] “Panama: New Trans Discrimination Cases Under Covid-19 Measures.” Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, July 13, 2020.

[10] Cobb, Julia Symmes. “Transgender People Face Discrimination, Violence amid Latin American Quarantines.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, May 5, 2020.

[11] Majumder, Indrasish. “Trans People in Limbo Amidst ‘Pico y Genero’ (Gender-Based Lockdown) in Latin America.” Opinio Juris. Opinio Juris, August 3, 2020. 

[12] Lopez, Oscar. “’Unable to Learn’ – Transgender Schools in Latin America Offer a Fresh Chance.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, October 7, 2020.

[13] Lopez, Oscar, and Fabio Teixeira. “As Latin America Locks down, Trans Sex Workers Struggle to Survive.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, April 24, 2020. 

[14] Fitzgerald, Erin, Sarah Elspeth, Darby Hickey, Cherno Biko, and Harper Jean Tobin. Rep. Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade . Red Umbrella Project, Best Practices Policy Project, National Center for Transgender Equality, December 2015. 

[15] Valencia, Astrid, and Josefina Salomón. “COVID-19 Is Making Life Even Harder for Trans Women in El Salvador.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International, August 12, 2020. 

[16] Ibid.

[17] Tosta, Hetze. “Honduras: ‘It’s More than Putting Food on the Table for LGBT+ People – It’s Inclusion’: World Food Programme.” UN World Food Programme. Unied Nations World Food Programme, October 1, 2020. 

[18] Muñoz, Sofía, and Jaret Waters. “A Pandemic within a Pandemic: Violence in Latin America against Women and the LGBTQ+ Community during COVID-19.” Latin America Working Group. Latin America Working Group (LAWG) and Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF), February 12, 2021. 

[19] Griffin, Jo. “’Separation by Sex’: Gendered Lockdown Fuelling Hate Crime on Streets of Bogotá.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, May 8, 2020.

[20] Bitterly, Jennifer. “Pandemic Pulls Latin America’s Trans Community into the Spotlight.” The Christian Science Monitor. The Christian Science Monitor, July 13, 2020.