Marcela Romero, trans community activistSunday, February 16, 2014
‘Argentina’s Gender Identity Law is the best in the world’
Position: President of the Argentine Transvestite Transsexual Transgender Association (ATTA); coordinator of the LatAm and carribean Trans Network
Education: San José Obrero Catholic primary school
Media: I watch most channels
Books: Anything about Nelson Mandela
Forty-nine-year-old Marcela Romero — an activist, a transsexual woman, and a mother — has lived a life that most people could hardly imagine. Born in Chaco province in the country’s northeast, she came to Buenos Aires at the age of 14 but was met with the heavy hand of the military dictatorship, which detained her several times in an institution for minors. At 22 she underwent gender affirmation surgery, later becoming the proud adopted mother of her late partner’s son.
The Herald sat down with Marcela at the headquarters of the organization she leads, the ATTTA, to dissect some of the realities currently experienced by Argentina’s diverse trans community, including the ground-breaking Gender Identity Law that, since 2011, allows trans people to legally change their identity without the permission of a judge or doctor.
Your organization was heavily involved in the Gender Identity Law of 2011. Have you noticed any changes within the trans community since it was passed?
Even before the Law we worked hard on social inclusion, on eliminating the need of trans people to turn to sex work, and on labour rights for trans people, on education. But all of this was done with an immense degree of difficulty and a lot of legal action that focused on transfobia and all the things it entails. A window of opportunity was opened to us with the 2011 Law. To give you an idea, we’ve helped 20 trans people into work in retirement homes, and since last year we’ve been working with the City government to have 10 of our peers enter positions in government. So far, four have started.
Do we know the current unemployment rate for the trans community?
Ninety-nine percent. That’s why we’re working on capacity building, starting with education. But there has been a change in Argentina. I see younger trans people with new hope about the future. There’s enthusiasm about studying, about the prospect of entering the work force, and not having to turn to prostitution. Our activism is focused on people who have been totally excluded from the workforce for years. We don’t have the skills, which is precisely why we’ve been explaining to the government that we need support from the authorities, we need education, we need training programmes.
What are your thoughts on the recent uptick in efforts to stop human trafficking as a gateway to criminalizing all prostitution?
Look, I’m against sexual exploitation. But people who participate in sex work need to be autonomous, they need to be provided a lot of information and have benefits like any other worker, otherwise they’re forced underground and treated as suspects. The ones who get targeted are the poorer prostitutes so this is really about poverty. I always say that when there’s more poverty, there’s more prostitution. Sex workers are totally marginalized; we’re talking about some of the most vulnerable members of society.
So would you say the national government’s ban on sex classifieds in newspapers place pressure on the autonomy of sex workers who might, in fact, be trying to work off the streets?
I’d like to know how many traffickers they catch on a daily basis through classifieds. There aren’t any. The majority of people involved in sex work who are picked up by the police each day are trans sex workers. It’s the wrong approach.
And the City government’s initative to concentrate sex work in one section of the Palermo parklands?
That was actually one of our initiatives. People mistakenly believed we wanted a red light district. We didn’t want a red light district. In Buenos Aires there’s sex work everywhere, not just in Palermo. It was simply an idea. The issue in Buenos Aires is that there’s a lot of demand, a lot.
Despite the Gender Identity Law and same-sex marriage legislation, many trans people continuing working the streets. Does that not suggest that there’s little correlation between rights and realities?
Sex work has always existed and always will. Now the government needs to work on creating options and possibilities for adolescent trans who have the chance of studying and graduating, and entering into the workforce. Other generations have not had this opportunity. It requires a lot of work and a huge focus on gender-based violence. What happens to a young girl who wants to learn and graduate when she’s suffering gender violence at home? This is a reality for trans people.
What do you make of Florencia de la V’s publicized back-and-forth with other celebrities who joked about her gender?
I think it proves that discrimination exists in all types of social environments. I don’t speak with or for her, but perhaps it’s a case of her being a trans with a lot of money, with greater spending power, with a better lifestyle. And perhaps for those reasons it seems surprising to society that she suffers discrimination. But what happened with Florencia shows that discrimination exists in all environments. She might not want to get involved in activism, but in the long run what happens in her world is similar to what happens in the lives of our more marginalized peers who suffer discrimination.
I think she’s accompanied us. But we were the ones who fought in this struggle for rights. A lot of people have died because of discrimination based on gender identity. We worked on this law every day. It was the achievement of the entire community, of the trans organizations. I think her image helped, just like the image of certain ministers, senators and lawmakers helped. It would have been great to see her more involved on a technical level, but each to their own. It’s a personal decision that she took.
What are some of the experiences facing trans people when they use public health services?
There’s a lot of transfobia, a lot of discrimination in public health services. I’d like you to highlight that in your article and make it very clear: there’s a lot of discrimination. We have the Gender Identity Law and still in health services they continue treating us poorly, they continue attending to our needs poorly. They purposely refer to us as “he,” they try to inflict pain on us. I was recently at the Muñiz hospital and I witnessed in emergency that they didn’t attend to the girls who were there. Sometimes I go and wait for friends. They call us “transvestites,” “wait over there, pal,” and that generates a lot of pain.
What would you say to someone who has doubts about his or her identity?
You can’t doubt. There are things in life that you can’t doubt. And you can’t let stereotypes influence you. People need to understand that the Gender Identity Law in Argentina is the best in the world, and that there’s a huge degree of diversity in our community. People don’t tend to see that.