A Missing Man is Forcing Argentina to Confront Transphobia

Tehuel De la Torre, age 22, went missing after he went to meet a man about a potential job.
Screenshot 2021-04-16 at 11
A graphic asking for information about the missing transgender man Tehuel de la Torre. Credit: Argentine Government.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — The disappearance of a young transgender man has brought into sharp focus the violence inflicted on a community that remains marginalized despite Argentina’s bold advances in human rights. 

Tehuel De la Torre, 22, left his home in San Vicente, a town of 20,000 in the province of Buenos Aires, on the evening of March 11. He was supposed to meet a man he knew about a job as a waiter. He was never heard from again. 

Advertisement

Police have arrested two people, and are accusing them of giving false testimony as part of a cover up. One of them is Luis Alberto Ramos, the man who had offered De la Torre the job as a waiter at an event that De la Torre’s family says never existed, and who reportedly has a criminal history. Local media reported that De la Torre’s cell phone was last active in the area where Ramos lives and when police raided his house, they found the cell phone, which had been burned, and a jacket that the family said belonged to De la Torre. 

The second man under arrest, Oscar Alfredo Montes, is a scrap dealer and Ramos’s friend.  Neither of the men has confessed. And the lack of answers has angered and saddened those who say deep-rooted discrimination and violence suffered by trans people is still largely ignored by the rest of society. 

“Tehuel is missing because he is a trans man. I’m sure of that. Because he’s male, with a vagina,” said Thomas Casavieja, a trans activist. “It’s what people who are not cisgender men experience in this society, and I’m not just talking about Argentina, but beyond … We are used to finding our friends in ditches.” 

The case has galvanized the public. Following his disappearance, an illustration of De la Torre, with the caption “Please Share As If He Were Cis” circulated on social media. Another campaign, in which people hold up a white sign that says “Dónde Está Tehuel?” (Where is Tehuel) has gone viral. Supporters held demonstrations this week across the country urging the mainstream media to pay more attention to the case. "We continue to demand that he be found and to make visible his identity as a trans man, which puts him at risk today," Eli Gómez Alcorta, Argentina’s Minister of Women, Gender and Diversities, tweeted on the one-month anniversary of De la Torre’s disappearance. 

Advertisement

The following day, the Ministry of Security in the Province of Buenos Aires announced a reward of up to two million pesos (around $21,000) for information on De la Torre’s whereabouts. 

Argentina is a trailblazer in Latin America when it comes to LGBTQ rights, thanks to a tireless collective of activists. The government legalized same-sex marriage in 2010. Two years later, congress passed a groundbreaking gender identity law that allows people to change their gender on official documents to reflect the gender they identify with, regardless of whether they have undergone surgery or hormone therapy. 

Provincial and federal governments have also imposed hiring quotas in the civil service to set aside one percent of jobs for transgender people. Last year, Casavieja became the first trans person hired at the state-run Banco de la Nación, the largest bank in the country, under its own quota system. 

But those advances belie the reality on the ground for most people in Argentina, where the government estimates that the average life expectancy of a trans woman or travesti (a term used by the trans community here) is between 35 and 40 years old. A 2020 Ministry of Health guide based that conclusion on estimates from studies conducted by trans organizations, including one in Buenos Aires that found that between 2011 and 2016 the average age of death for trans women was 32. 

Advertisement

Activists say the shockingly low life expectancy is the result of several factors, including high levels of violence, exclusion and discrimination that impedes access to proper health care or safe work. 

In Argentina, 90 percent of trans people work in the sex trade largely because they feel that is the only option, said Marcela Tobaldi, president of La Rosa Naranja, a trans rights organization. The government has yet to approve a project that would extend the one-percent job quota to the private sector. That demonstrates that trans lives are not enough of a priority, she said. It took a full month for the police to offer a reward in De la Torre’s disappearance and Tobaldi said that the media attention given to his case was lackluster compared to other disappearances, such as a missing homeless girl who was later found alive.  

The lack of access to employment is key, Tobaldi stressed. “A trans boy goes for work that is completely informal and ends up disappearing... It is very hurtful, it is very terrible.” 

For the family, the agonizing wait continues. 

“We are firm, but we are tired. The mind and the body are tired,” said Federico De la Torre, Tehuel’s brother. 

His sister, Verónica Alarcón, described the early days of the investigation, when she and neighbors set out to search for him themselves in desperation. 

She said Tehuel began identifying as a boy at the age of 13. “I always respected his decision,” she said. “Only he could tell you” if he suffered discrimination along the way, she added. 

“Tehuel was an incredible person. He loved to joke around and have fun, and we’d laugh a lot, over silly things,” she said. “He had a partner, who has a son — he was a father to that boy, and that boy was his son. Honestly, he was incredible as a brother. A very good person, sincerely. All of this is very hard.”