In El Salvador, transgender community struggles for rights and survival

May 19, 2023 GMT
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Fabricio Chicas, a transgender man, right, poses for a photo with his partner Elizabeth Lopez, and their pets, at their home in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, April 30, 2023. Even though the country’s Supreme Court in 2022 determined that the inability of a person to change their name because of gender identity constitutes discriminatory treatment, the 49-year-old has not been able to change his name from Patricia to Fabricio, nor his gender on his ID, a fate shared by many transgender people in El Salvador. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
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Fabricio Chicas, a transgender man, right, poses for a photo with his partner Elizabeth Lopez, and their pets, at their home in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, April 30, 2023. Even though the country’s Supreme Court in 2022 determined that the inability of a person to change their name because of gender identity constitutes discriminatory treatment, the 49-year-old has not been able to change his name from Patricia to Fabricio, nor his gender on his ID, a fate shared by many transgender people in El Salvador. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Fabricio Chicas knows exactly what will happen. As soon as he hands in his ID, the employee on the other side of the counter will look at him with suspicion, asking why he carries a document that identifies him as female.

Whether it is a bank, a hospital or a human resources office, the 49-year-old Salvadoran provides the same answer: I am a transgender man who has not been able to change his name and gender on his ID.

His fate is shared by many transgender people in El Salvador, a Central American country where the influence of Catholicism and evangelicalism is pervasive, abortion is banned, and the legalization of same-sex marriage seems unlikely for now.

In 2022, the country’s Supreme Court determined that the inability of a person to change their name because of gender identity constitutes discriminatory treatment. A ruling ordered the National Assembly to enact a reform that facilitates that process, but the deadline expired three months ago, and the lawmakers did not comply.

“It is part of a much broader pattern of weakening the rule of law and judicial independence,” said Cristian González Cabrera, LGBTQ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Since President Nayib Bukele’s party won a supermajority in the Assembly after the 2021 elections, democratic institutions have been under attack by him and his allies.”

In recent years, a transgender man and woman pursued name and gender modifications via the judicial system. The judges ruled in their favor, but municipal employees refused to change their birth certificates and filed an appeal at the Supreme Court, avoiding compliance with the ruling.

Neither of the plaintiffs know what will happen next.

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When he was little, Chicas’ mother agreed to dress him in masculine clothes and called him “my boy.” Things changed when he turned 9.

“I was abused, and my mom started to overprotect me,” he said.

Perhaps feeling that treating Chicas as a boy exposed him to harm, she dressed him again in girl’s clothing and braided his hair. “I was so depressed I didn’t want to live,” he recalled.

When he turned 15, he met a transgender man who advised him to get hormonal injections and start his physical transformation. The man also suggested pressing his breasts with an iron to prevent them from growing.

Chicas ended up in the hospital, with an infection produced by hematomas, and his mother made him swear he would never alter his body to look like a man.

Though he said yes, he promised something to himself: I’ll grow up, find a job and leave.

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Early in a transition, lack of support from one’s own family is often the biggest challenge, said Mónica Linares.

The 43-year-old transgender woman left her home when she turned 14 and started her transition. She currently works as an activist at the organization ASPIDH Arcoiris Trans.

“It hasn’t been easy, but when you really have an identity and you want to defend what you really want, you are willing to lose everything,” Linares said.

For more than 15 years, she was a sex worker. She lost friends to transphobic killings and saw others migrate because of gangs.

Part of her current work is collaborating with other organizations to support LGBTQ rights, especially pressuring lawmakers who show little interest in reviewing a gender identity bill that was presented by transgender representatives in 2021.

The bill would comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling from 2022 and go a step further, allowing trans people to change not only their names but also their gender on official paperwork.

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The lack of IDs that are consistent with the gender identity of transgender Salvadoreans can make their daily life troublesome. Sometimes these inconveniences are hurtful.

Some employees of internet companies refuse to resolve complaints made by phone, alleging that the voice of the person issuing the complaint does not match the gender they have on file.

Insurers don’t allow transgender people to register their partners as beneficiaries in the event of death, since their guidelines state that couples must consist of a man and a woman.

Chicas has had problems collecting remittances that his sister sends from the United States. He said banks have denied him loans, and some employers have not hired him because his applications reveal that he is a transgender man.

In hospitals, he said, nurses have made fun of him. Since Chicas still requires gynecological consultations, health personnel often call him by the female name on his ID or have delayed his appointments, claiming that they cannot treat “people like him.”

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In this religious country, discrimination against transgender people goes beyond paperwork.

Three decades ago, Chicas tried to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He attended their temples, read their texts, interacted with their elders.

“I admire that they are a family that takes care of each other, that they are very loving,” he said.

His mother warned him. saying that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t welcome sexual diversity. But Chicas wanted to be part of the congregation so much that he put away his pants, bought a skirt and allowed his hair to grow.

He spent time preaching alongside them, but always felt monitored.

“In a meeting, they started talking about the black herd and the white herd and I said, “Well, I am the black herd, but I don’t hurt anyone,’” he recalled.

One day, while toying with the idea of being baptized, the elders advised him as if he were a criminal. “You must reread the Bible ... Close your bedroom doors when your nieces are visiting.” They also wanted him to date another church member.

When he did not agree to date a man, he said, the congregation began to ignore him. Soon after, they denied him access to the worship hall, and he ran home to cry.

I told you so, his mother said to him.

“So I stopped going. I had to let go. I went back to dressing like a man. I went back to the world, rejected by Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

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A report that Human Rights Watch and COMCAVIS TRANS published in 2022 details how transgender people in El Salvador suffer violence and discrimination.

“Security forces, gangs, and victims’ families and communities are perpetrators; harm occurs in public spaces, homes, schools, and places of worship,” the report states.

Latin American countries such as Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Colombia and Mexico have issued laws that protect some rights of the LGBTQ community and allow transgender people to modify their official documents to match their gender identity. In El Salvador, though, since Bukele came into power in 2019, there have been setbacks for LGBTQ people.

Among other actions, the government dissolved the Ministry for Social Inclusion, which conducted training on gender identity and investigated LGBTQ issues nationwide, and it restructured an educational institute for addressing sexual orientation in schools.

Bukele has said that he will never legalize same-sex marriage and the Catholic Church has backed his position. The archdiocese’s office did not respond to multiple AP requests for comment.

Socially conservative organizations such as Fundación Vida SV also reject a change in legislation.

“The state cannot change the biological reality of a person,” said its founder, Sara Larín.

Violence against trans women in the country has increased in the last two years, said Rina Montti, director of investigations at the human rights organization Cristosal.

“The most dramatic thing is the impunity with which many state officials, particularly police officers, are operating,” she said. “Trans women are assaulted when they feel like it, they can abuse them, they can hire them and then not pay for their services.”

Victims who have shared their cases with Cristosal have said that if they go to the prosecutor’s office, authorities make them wait all day and never take their statement.

“The level of impunity and humiliation is much deeper, because they are not even taken as people who can complain,” Montti said.

A spokesperson for the presidency did not respond to several requests to interview a police representative or other government officials.

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In the backyard of Chicas’ house, Pongo and Polar Bear wave their tails and hop like kangaroos.

Behind the dogs comes Elizabeth López, Chicas’ partner for the last seven years. The couple met soon after Chicas’ mother died, when he decided to use hormones and start his transition.

At first, López seems distrustful. Too many strangers have hurt them beyond words.

She bitterly remembers a guard who ordered them to leave a public pool after Chicas said he was unable to remove his shirt, given that his physical transition was incomplete. They both recall the time when he had emergency surgery and health personnel forbid her to visit, alleging that they were both “women,” so they could never marry or become a family.

Chicas disagrees. Family, he said, are not the ones who share blood; they are the ones who support each other.

The couple has been sharing their home with a young transgender man who left his own home. Chicas offers care and advice.

Recently, the young man came home accompanied by his girlfriend and approached Chicas to introduce them. He told his girlfriend: “Meet my old man.”

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.