Why you should care
Argentina’s example is being followed by other Latin American countries.
Jesica Gómez has lost count of the number of times she was arrested by the police since she came out as transgender at age 17. “The police used to get us anywhere, grab us by the hair and arrest us, for nothing, just for being trans,” she says.
Now 48, Gómez is a leading activist for the rights of trans women in Argentina. And she isn’t alone: Argentina is on a path of change.
In 2012, a pioneering law was passed in Argentina that allows people to choose their gender by filling out a form and without the need to undergo a medical procedure. It also made access to hormonal treatments and gender reassignment surgery available through the public health system. That legal shift paved the way for the South American country to emerge as a regional beacon of progress on elevating gender issues in public life — even though violence and discrimination remain rampant.
One of the most popular high schools in Buenos Aires, the Mariano Acosta, has approved the use of gender-neutral language, as has the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires. The capital is also home to Mocha Celis, the first high school in the world specifically for transgender people, which opened in 2012 (another trans school opened, in 2018, in Chile). Congress is debating a bill to make gender-neutral language mandatory in parliamentary proceedings. Major hospitals are creating separate wards for trans people.
Today, we can be anything.
Carla López Masilla, transgender woman
Lizy Tagliani and Florencia Trinidad, two prominent TV anchors in Argentina, are transgender. One of the main storylines in 2018 on Argentina’s most popular soap, 100 días para enamorarse (100 Days to Fall in Love), focused on the storyline of a transgender teenager going through his transition.
“100 Days opened many doors — even for me, and I have a family that is very supportive,” says Carla López Masilla, a 41-year-old trans woman and aspiring social worker. “Watching it together made them feel they could ask me things they had not dared to ask before.”
Only Ireland, Malta, Norway, Portugal and Belgium have trans identity laws as far-reaching as Argentina’s. Since 2012, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela have allowed an individual to change their gender after physical and psychological assessments. In Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, adults are now eligible for a gender change. Brazil is currently debating a bill on allowing gender change.
Though statistics for the overall population aren’t available, official figures show that, since 2012, approximately 16 minors change their gender every year. In 2013, a 6-year-old called Lourdes became the first minor in the world whose gender change was accepted formally on her national identification card, without her having to undergo a surgical procedure. But the gains for Argentina’s trans community extend beyond those who have changed their gender.
At one of Buenos Aires’ largest public hospitals, eight women sit in a circle. With the sound of birds in the background announcing the arrival of summer, each woman reads a short essay out loud. Masilla goes first, emphasizing key words as she looks around the circle, as if gauging the others’ reactions. Her essay is about the time and effort it takes to overcome challenges. Once a week, a group of volunteers visit patients here. They share experiences and advice and often hold workshops in styling, knitting and, like today, writing.
When Masilla finishes, the other women applaud and congratulate her. One of them excuses herself. “I’m sorry, it’s time for my medicines. I have to go back,” she says, and smiles through a surgical mask. “Back” is to the hospital room she shares with a dozen patients, all trans women.
Before the 2012 law was passed, hospitalized trans women were forced to share rooms with men. Many say they were abused and discriminated against by other patients and by health professionals who called them by their birth names rather than their chosen names. In a 2013 study, 40 percent of trans Argentines surveyed said they avoided seeking health care because of fears over how they would be treated.
Just before the law was passed, Gómez and other trans women who had had the same experiences in hospitals decided to change things. They visited trans patients, bathed them and brought them clothes, makeup and magazines. They trained doctors and nurses on how to treat trans patients.
From the hospital, Masilla rushes to Mocha Celis, where she’s a student. The school serves as a safe space for trans women and men to study. It is flexible in subjects and schedule so that working students are able to attend. It’s a change for Masilla, who had dropped out of high school because she was abused and bullied by her classmates and teachers. The shift is one she sees happening all around her.
“I see that there are more trans women working in areas that before were unthinkable: assistants, teachers, nurses,” Masilla says. “This world is becoming more and more like the one I’ve always imagined should be.” She feels there’s less discrimination on the streets today.
The discrimination is still present, of course. At least 59 trans people were killed in Argentina in 2018, according to the Observatorio Nacional de Crímenes de Odio hacia Lesbianas, Gays, Bisexuales y Trans, an organization that documents abuses against the LGBTQ community.
Deep-seated discrimination also translates into limited employment opportunities, with most trans people surviving by sex work. “Change can be slow,” Gómez says. “We have a law that protects us … but a law is not everything; there is still a lot to do.”
Masilla says the next battle is to tackle entrenched biases in the job market. “Today, a trans woman doesn’t have to be a sex worker or a stylist. Today, we can be anything,” she tells me, folding her handwritten essay. “We just need a chance.”