'The Only Place that Taught Me Love': Inside a High School for Trans People

In Argentina, two LGBTQ activists opened Mocha Celis to help combat the social inequalities that trans people face and provide a safe learning environment.
Todas las fotos por Alicia Van Bever

Argentina is one of the very few countries that allow transgender people to legally change their gender on their official documents without having to prove they've undergone hormone therapy or gender confirmation surgery—a huge step for the LGBTQ community in a conservative continent. But even though the laws are evolving towards more inclusion, trans people are still extremely marginalized in Argentinian society.


Francisco Quiñones and Miguel Nicolini, two LGBTQ activists, are working to change this. While filming a documentary about Buenos Aires' red light district, they realized that many of the trans sex workers they met had turned to sex work because they'd dropped out of high school and had no other options for earning money. "We realized we had to tackle the problem at its roots," said Quiñones. "Giving them access to education would make it easier for them to get a job, get them out of the street, and save their lives."

Read more: Youth, Interrupted: The Heartbreaking, Hidden Lives of Transgender Teens

In 2012, they opened Mocha Celis, a high school named for a trans woman who was killed by a police officer in the 90s. Here, people across the gender and sexuality spectrum are welcome and respected for who they want to be.

The program condenses both primary and secondary curriculum in three years' time. In addition to the common subjects, it includes classes about gender and sexual orientation, as well as summer vocational courses to prepare the students for technical jobs. The diploma students receive from Mocha Celis is recognized by the state, but the school barely receives any funding. "When the price of electricity increased and we couldn't pay it with the subsidies, we had to go back to work on the streets to help pay the bills," one student told me. "It was either that or we had no light, so no class."

All photos by Alicia Van Bever

The school, in which 60 percent of the students are transgender, just celebrated its fifth birthday, and it's now so popular that there's a waiting list to get in.

To fight against bigoted discrimination, the students have also created a militant group where activists can gather to organize conferences or protests. They're attracting support from a growing number of people and political leaders, and they've already galvanized meaningful change: In 2015, for instance, for the Argentine government implemented a quota for trans people in civil service.