“I have a name on my identity card that is not my name,” said Daniela Vega, the star of the Oscar-winning film, “A Fantastic Woman,” in a press conference following her March 6 meeting with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in Santiago.
Vega, like other members of the transgender community in Latin America, has spent a lifetime navigating both the gendered Spanish language and laws that don't recognize her identity.
“In the country where I was born, I do not have the possibility of having my own name on official documents. The clock is running; time is passing; people are awaiting this change,” said Vega, who was born in Chile.
Beyond the legal implications, this also means that 28-year-old Vega has been misidentified linguistically all her life. For example, in Spanish, adjectives agree with the noun that they describe in gender and number — such as in él es guapo ("he is handsome") — which means that the trans community, especially in conservative countries with little awareness of discrimination against LGBTQIA people, is constantly being mischaracterized. (In LGBTQIA, the I stands for intersex, and A means allies and/or someone who is asexual.)
In addition to the issue of gendered language, in Spanish, if there is one man among any crowd of people, the entire group is expressed using the male pronoun. For example, say a bunch of professors has gathered for a meeting and there are 25 women and one man — that assembly would still be addressed as profesores, which is masculine, as opposed to the feminine, profesoras. In essence, masculine words are considered gender neutral in Spanish. This is a problematic assumption when it comes to the LGBTQIA community and seeing language as a reflection of diversity.
To combat this lack of diversity in language, members of the LGBTQIA and gender-fluid community in Latin America have started using "@" or "x" as suffixes to create gender-neutral words. Rather than write Latinas in a text message, for instance, they would type out "Latin@s" or "Latinx."
The Peruvian short film, "Loxoro," from 2012, explores how the trans community in Lima uses language to fight back against discrimination. In the film, trans people add the syllables "xara," "xere," "xiri," "xoro" and "xuru" to words, as well as incorporating their own vocabulary. So, casa ("house") would be "cáxara saxara," and the director, Claudia Llosa, becomes "Clauxara Diaxara Lloxoro Saxara."
As awareness of the nonbinary nature of gender evolves, language and laws will have to change with it. Until then, some trans community members in Latin America seek to migrate to the US to escape violence and death threats.
In July 2017, I met up with the Trans Gay Migrant Caravan in Mexico City as 16 members of the LGBTQIA community made their way to the United States to request asylum. Later, they crossed the border in Nogales, and caravan members were sent to detention centers. This raised some issues because trans women were taken to men's detention centers, where they often experience violence, but several received asylum and are now living in the US.
Nakay Flotte, a trans woman and a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University, works with the group, Diversidad sin Fronteras (Diversity Without Borders). She organized and accompanied the caravan. A group of trans women and men from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Mexico, many of whom had suffered violence and discrimination, chanted, “Latin America will be trans feminist!” as they gathered around Flotte.
“The most important thing on this trip is to show mutual respect and to empower each other. We are here in solidarity,” said Flotte. She emphasized that aid organizations often overlook the needs of trans women and that countries like Mexico frequently deny trans women asylum, as was the case with some of the caravan members.
Flotte recommended that I speak to Karla Avelar, the trans woman who founded Comcavis Trans, a nongovernmental organization founded to protect and defend the rights of the LGBTQIA community in El Salvador.
When I interviewed Avelar in August 2017 in San Salvador, El Salvador, she was helping Alexandra Jiménez, a 31-year-old trans woman from Zacatecoluca, prepare for a court case. I spoke to them both at a local coffee shop.
Jiménez remembered that when she was 7 years old, she told a classmate she wished she had been born a woman. She emigrated to Italy at age 19 because, as she explained, “In El Salvador, I was not going to be able to have the freedom that I could have elsewhere in the world. I was afraid that something might happen to me here because a person close to me who was trans had been murdered.”
At the time, Jiménez had returned to El Salvador to challenge the law prohibiting her from changing her name on legal documents like her passport. Avelar explained that in El Salvador, “If you have a vulva, you are a woman. If you have a penis, you are a man. Here, there are no other identities.”
Jiménez, whose case is still in process, is hopeful that her home country will someday allow her to legally change her name: “We are fighting for what we want, for an idea, for happiness. We are fighting because we want to be an integral part of society."
In the US, there’s a process through the federal government to change your gender on your passport, but the current rules have only been around since the early Obama administration. And while changing your name is relatively simple in the US, that’s a state-driven process — as is changing your gender on a state ID, like a driver’s license. (The National Center for Transgender Equality maintains a state-by-state database of ID requirements.)
Despite court challenges on the part of several members of the trans community, El Salvador, however, still does not recognize the right of transgender men and women to officially change their names and gender on their national identity documents. Until such laws change, the trans community will continue to be misidentified legally and linguistically.
“Transgender people have existed from day one of human existence. And eventually, humanity arrives at a moment where it makes a gesture towards better understanding itself,” said Vega, the first openly transgender presenter at the Oscars, in her closing words to the president of Chile. The linguistic revolution needed to show respect for the LGBTQIA community in Latin America has begun, and as we embrace it, we will come to better understand the community and its needs.
Alice Driver reported from Mexico and El Salvador.