On any given day in Santa Fe, the downtown district of the Colombian city of Bogotá, there are hundreds of trans women sex workers lining the streets.
Due to lack of societal acceptance and professional opportunities, 99 percent of trans women in Colombia are forced to rely on the sex work industry as a means to survive, according to a 2015 report by Transgender Europe (TGEU). But in a campaign office just two kilometres from Santa Fe, a woman named Tatiana Piñeros is working hard to change that: She’s currently running to become Colombia’s first transgender senator on a platform that centers trans woman sex workers.
“Throughout history, transgender women have been segregated into two areas of work: prostitution or beauty [salons],” Piñeros tells Broadly. “Just the mere fact of a transgender woman getting into office in such a high place such as congress would send the message that the game has changed.”
Piñeros, who most recently worked as the Director of Bogotá’s Institute of Tourism, grew up in Bogotá and studied at a public school before completing a degree in accounting. She came out as trans in 2007, after presenting as a man in the workplace for more than ten years. She has over 20 years of experience working in the public sector, including in the office of Gustavo Petro when he served as Mayor of Bogotá from 2012 to 2015.
A 2009 report by RedLacTrans calculated that the average life expectancy for trans women in Latin America overall is between the young ages of 31 and 45. (Circumstances are generally less harrowing for trans men, in part because it is easier for them to “pass” as cisgender.) In the predominantly Catholic country of Colombia, it’s common for trans women who come out early in life to get pushed out of their homes and schools as teenagers by unaccepting family members and peers. But Piñeros, who is 41 years old and has found a supportive community, is a bit of an outlier. Her privilege, she believes, comes from the work experience she acquired prior to transitioning.
Piñeros is running on a platform that covers a wide range of issues. But her three main pillars are human rights, economic development, and fighting corruption. Beyond advocating for trans equality—and coming up with ambitious solutions to achieve it—her commitment to human rights includes supporting abortion, sex worker rights, and the LGBT community in general. As a trans woman, she says it’s her duty to speak out on issues affecting her community.
If elected, Piñeros says her first order of business would be to propose a bill formalizing efforts toward trans equality. One of its focuses would be to make sure trans people working in informal industries such as sex work have access to private health insurance, which is only offered to people with legally recognized employers. She says her bill would also require doctors to be educated on the specific medical needs of trans people and how to treat them respectfully. "When it comes to the doctor, the first question I’m getting is, ‘Are you coming for a gynecologist appointment?’ But I don’t need that, I need a prostate exam,” Piñeros says.
Piñeros says her bill would also propose creating training and resources on trans issues for schools across the country in an effort to develop more cultural acceptance of trans people. But the primary aim of the legislation would be to address the basic needs that trans Colombians have as a community, such as the ability to change their name and gender on government documents—which currently exists as a decree, but not in law.
The notorious neighborhood of Santa Fe, Bogotá, would be another area of focus for the aspiring politician. The district is a ‘Zona de Alto Impacto’ (ZAI), a recognized “tolerance zone” where prostitution is legal—although it's still not recognized as formal employment.
These zones, which can be found in most major Colombian cities, were introduced in 2002 by then mayor Antanas Mockus in an attempt to concentrate and semi-regulate the sex trade—brothel owners became required to have First Aid kits on hand and to attend public health seminars. But the neighborhood is among the most squalid and dangerous in the city. And seven of Santa Fe’s transgender sex workers told Broadly they only earn about 8,000 Colombian Pesos (COP) per customer, which is around two dollars and 80 cents in the US—or in Colombia, the price of a Starbucks coffee.
For the majority of trans women in Colombia, there is no option but to work in the sex industry. Some 87 percent of trans women have been refused formal employment because of their gender identity, according to a 2015 TGEU report on transgender social experiences in Colombia. Piñeros said she supports women who want to work in the sex trade, but she also wants to build a network of businesses that are willing to hire trans women in order to create access to more employment options for them.
“I’m convinced that we can improve the situation, I know it’s not an easy task just by forcing someone to leave their actual condition, but I’m worried the state has been closed to that specific situation,” says Piñeros. I want to open the door for them should they ever want to leave the life they are currently having in sex work.”
The Santa Fe-based community group Red Comunitaria Trans, which provides education, healthcare services, and support to trans women working in the sex industry, held a recent event outside in Santa Fe. As members handed out soup, a local graffiti artist painted a mural in support of trans equality.
The group’s founder, Daniela Maldonado Salamanca, said she wants the government to provide more regulations to protect sex workers. “Currently, the women can’t deposit the money they make in a bank, because sex work isn’t a legitimate way to make money in their eyes,” she explains. "The government needs to recognize the work like any other job—with regulation.
“The community of sex workers here are not older than 35 years old, or very few are, because they die,” Salamanca continues. “When people arrive here [in Santa Fe] they are very young and the first thing they learn is how to be a prostitute.”
Piñeros says she would try to implement regulation if elected: “These places should be given the specifics to improve their health conditions, to be safe for workers and clients.”
The members of Red Comunitaria Trans are hopeful Piñeros will be elected, but recognize that her position is a privileged one and say she doesn't represent the struggle of most trans women in the city. One former sex worker, who requested not to be named, says she doesn’t trust any politician because they have never cared for their community, but added that the presence of Piñeros is a signifier of change.
Piñeros only has an outside chance of being elected. The Colombian system uses proportional representation, which in the past has favored larger, well-known parties. The party she’s running with is the lesser-known ‘Lista de la Decencia,’ a new coalition made up of several left wing groups. The vote will be held on March 11.
Whatever the outcome of her campaign to reach the Senate, Piñeros says it has not been a challenge in comparison to her transition, which has prepared her for any result.
“I was scared of having my past life erased after my transition, but having made the decision, looking into my past success is something I can still do. Changing my gender didn’t mean I had my brain removed — I’m always going to be able to perform as I did before, despite what anyone thinks. My campaign is just another challenge I hope I can succeed in. ”