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Prostitution Is Argentina's Last Hurdle for the Equality of Trans People

The vast majority of young trans women end up working as prostitutes — a life that revolves around violence, police harassment, and disease.
Photo by VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE.

For the last couple of years, Argentina has been the only country in the world where you can legally change your gender identity without any medical sign off, surgery or hormone treatment.

And thanks to the 2012 Gender Identity Law, if you decide that you do want the surgery or the hormone treatment, the healthcare system will cover the costs.

The country is also home to the world's first transgender school. And channel hopping through daytime TV, you'll come across La Pelu, a gossip show presented by the much loved Flor de la V, a gorgeous trans woman and mother of two. Relative to less forward-thinking countries, like Iran and America, Argentina is a modern trans paradise.


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However, it still has some hurdles to overcome. The vast majority of young trans women end up working as prostitutes — a life that, in Buenos Aires and other large cities, inevitably revolves around violence, police harassment, and disease.

While the legislature might take the world's most progressive approach towards trans rights, it's going to be hard to bring a marginalized community into the mainstream if the structures around it keeps pulling it back.

During the dictatorship — from 1976 to 1982 — an estimated 30,000 people went missing in Argentina, including many transvestites, transsexuals, and transgender people, jailed, raped, and even murdered for not conforming to the norms of their birth sex.

But for the last 30 years, trans activist groups, individuals, and the ruling left-wing Judicialist government have worked hard on improving rights for Argentina’s trans and gay communities.

Before 2012's Gender Identity Law, that struggle led to the country passing Latin America’s first gay marriage bill in 2010, four years before the UK decided it was alright for people of the same sex to recite their vows in a church instead of a register office.

Juliana di Tullio, National Deputy and Head of Congress for the Judicialist party, co-authored both the gay marriage and gender identity bills. “Gay marriage was really difficult to get through,” she told me, “but the gender ID card law was passed without any debate in Congress — it was unanimous. Even the people who voted against the gay marriage law in 2010 were in favor of the transgender ID card law.”


Juliana's secretary is a Peruvian trans woman named Cristina Idania Rengifo Pinchi. She is believed to be the first trans person in the world to work for a government, and was also the first person to officially change the gender on her ID card, despite not being a native Argentine.

“This is the only country where, as a foreigner, I could change my gender on my ID card,” she said. “No one else in the world has — or can — change their ID in another country, as a foreigner. After changing mine, I also changed my nationality to Argentinian.”

Cristina believes the superior trans and gay rights in Argentina are down to the sheer determination and proactive attitude of the community.

“Buenos Aires is paradise for the trans community,” she told me. "But the difference between Argentina and the rest of the world is that the trans people here fight hard for their own rights. We are the protagonists of our situation, we are the owners of our own fight.”

Cristina is around 5"4 inches tall, with much smaller hands and feet than most women I know. On the outside, at least, she's a damn sight more womanly than me. However, within the trans community, Cristina’s feminine appearance is a cause of isolation. "I'm considered very feminine because I’m petite,” she explained. "I have some difficulties with the community, because some trans people are much bigger and taller and more masculine. They fight with me and say, ‘Oh, it's so easy for you — you look like a woman.’ I understand this, but I say to them, 'I chose this life, too, just like you.'"


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Cristina is aware that she’s more fortunate than most. She was raised in a wealthy Peruvian family, and because of her father's status in the community she experienced less discrimination than other young trans people. Now, she told me, her high-status job and looks have attracted some unconventional attention; "I have personally received many gifts from well known politicians, actors, and celebrities, trying to court me,” she said.

But the vast majority of Argentina’s trans community don’t have it so good, with many being forced out of their family homes and onto the streets. “One hundred percent of transgenders and transsexuals have worked in prostitution, and are subjected to terrible violence from both their clients and the police,” said Juliana. “Because of the prostitution, they get STDs, and so their life expectancy goes down. Five years ago, the life expectancy for transgender people [in Argentina] was estimated [to be] 37 years old.”

It was because of this statistic that Juliana took it upon herself to pressure the UN into addressing the problem.

"Until 2005, none of the UN departments — neither the human rights department, nor the gender department — had considered the problems that transgender people and transsexuals face,” she told me. “The UN is always advising countries on how to treat social problems. My job was to push them to take the problems of transgenders and transsexuals seriously, and in 2005 — after I went to the embassy with a transgender woman, and because of the low life expectancy — the UN recommended that every country should treat it as a serious problem and take measures to help."


Regardless of what measures the UN takes, Argentina’s trans prostitution industry is a thriving one, and demand for trans prostitutes is high. “The queues of cars go on and on and on,” said Cristina. "The same people who discriminate against trans people in their daily lives are the ones queuing at night in the parks."

Trans activist group ATTTA (Association of Transvestites, Transsexuals and Transgenders of Argentina) pressure Juliana and the government to recognize prostitution as an official job for trans people, but they consistently refuse. As Cristina explained, "This government wants to erase prostitution through social inclusion. So ATTTA come to Juliana all the time to ask her to register prostitution as a job for trans people, and she refuses because she wants trans people to have opportunities and education, and not have to rely on prostitution."

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Francisco Quinones Cuartas is the founder of the Diversidad Divino Tesoro (Diversity Is a Divine Treasure) foundation, and director of Buenos Aires’ Mocha Celis school, named after an illiterate transvestite prostitute who was allegedly harassed and then murdered by a federal police officer in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. The school was opened in 2011, especially — but not exclusively — for trans people over the age of 16 who want to further their education and find legitimate work, rather than relying on the streets.


The school has 25 teachers, half of whom are trans, and 90 students made up of trans people and other sexual minorities, as well as two deaf students who attend Mocha Celis because they feel more comfortable there than in other educational institutions. The oldest student is a trans woman of 77, who wants to go on to study for a degree in philosophy after obtaining her high school certificate.

Francisco founded the school with a friend as a direct reaction to the trans prostitution problem.

"The first aim of the school is to change the reality of the life expectancy of trans people,” he told me. “When I finished university I made a documentary, Furia Travesti, about a textile corporation called Nadia Echazú, directed by an incredible woman called Lohana Berkins.

"The corporation trains transsexuals and transvestites for work so that they can avoid the usual path carved for them in prostitution. There are no official statistics, but in her book Cumbia, Copeteo and Tears, Lohana found that 90 percent of the trans people who work as prostitutes want to finish school and get a different job.”

Often subjected to bullying and discrimination at school, it’s common for trans people to leave education early. "Schools do not respect students who have chosen to change their names to reflect their new identities,” said Francisco. "They insist on calling the students by the names on their official IDs, and they insist on the students using the toilets of their birth gender, not their new gender. There have been instances where students were afraid to go to the boys' toilets because they were attacked.”

Life, unsurprisingly, is different at Mocha Celis. The work minister gives each student 400 Argentine pesos (around $50) a month towards financing their travel and living costs, and a new government program now helps to offer extracurricular workshops, teaching Mocha Celis students practical skills like hairdressing, dressmaking, and business management (it also offers the students — many of whom are still working as prostitutes in the evenings — regular health checks).

In a document published in 2012 by The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Public Health Outcomes Framework, statistics showed that, in the UK, one in four young trans people experience physical abuse at school, and three quarters of young trans people in the UK have self-harmed.

Though the set up in Argentina is far from perfect, the government, Mocha Celis School and numerous dedicated individuals are constantly breaking boundaries and attacking discrimination through policy and social inclusion. Trans rights are a priority here, and society is changing as a result.

Thanks to Martina Rodriguez for translation.