A ruling by an international human rights court found the state of Honduras responsible for the death of a transgender woman in what activists say could be a watershed moment for trans rights in Latin America.
“Honduras needs to change, Latin America needs to change, and this is the moment,” said Indyra Mendoza, founder of the lesbian and transgender rights group Las Cattrachas in Honduras.
Vicky Hernández was 26 when she was murdered on the evening of June 28, 2009, in San Pedro Sula, the day a political-military coup placed the country under a state of siege. The Inter-American Court for Human Rights ruled that Honduras must undertake a series of reparations for Hernández’s death, including a public apology, and a financial settlement with her family.
More broadly, the ruling requires Honduras to make systemic changes to assure the rights of transgender people, including reforms to the way in which crimes involving trans victims are investigated and laws allowing trans people to legally change their name and gender.
“The name and gender changes are important for all the trans people, it’s the biggest achievement,” said Mendoza. “It’s going to change lives.”
Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the region for LGBTQ people, and the country’s laws are among the most regressive. “Marriage, adoption, civil unions, recognition of marriages in other countries, blood donation, conjugal visits, all of that is prohibited in Honduras,” said Mendoza, describing the lack of rights for LGBTQ people.
Before her death, Hernández had been fighting for those rights as a member of the trans group Pink Color Collective. To support herself and her family, including her mother and a sister who at the time had a baby daughter, she labored as a sex worker.
The day she died, she was on the streets to work like any other, promising her mother she would be home later to eat dinner – her favorite beef rib stew. But she never came back.
According to friends and fellow trans sex workers who were the last to see Hernández alive, police officers had attempted to arrest them for violating the military curfew in place because of the coup.The rest of the group fled, but Hernández wasn’t so lucky. The court found that there was sufficient evidence to suggest she had been murdered by the police.
Activists say that Hernández’s death was part of a pattern. “That same day another appeared murdered, the next day another, and at the end of the first week of the coup we had seven LGBTQ people murdered,” said Mendoza, whose organization tracks violence against the LGBTQ community in Honduras.
“One of the most striking things about Vicky's case is that a lot of the women who she worked with, who were also part of the [collective], who were also transgender, died very violently often in similar ways to how Vicky died,” said Kacey Mordecai of the advocacy group Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, who was one of the lead attorneys on the case.
The death of Hernández, like so many others, was never properly investigated. The state claimed that an autopsy had been conducted, but the family was never provided with the results.The court ordered the Honduran state to continue the investigation into Hernández’s death as well as establish protocols for future cases and a system for tracking violence against LGBTQ people.
The adoption of rules that allow name and gender changes could have an important effect on the inclusion of trans people, including in politics. The country’s only trans candidate for political office in the last election, Rihanna Ferrera, said that she lost votes because she appeared on the ballot under her birth name.
Complying with the court ruling will take time, particularly if the government drags its feet. In response to other rulings by the court, countries have been quicker to issue apologies and compensation than to make legal changes or prosecute the cases that led to the judges’ decisions in the first place.
In the meantime, activists demand the Honduran state begins with reparations to Hernandez’s family.
“The most important thing right now is that the state apologizes to the family and the Color Pink Collective where she was an advocate,” said Mendoza. “Vicky's mother has cancer, so she is in the process of chemotherapy and is very ill. We want her to receive both the financial compensation that the court said she deserves and the apologies from the state while she’s still alive.”
A dozen years have passed since Hernández’s death, but the ruling by the court ensures that her memory will live on.
“In Honduras there are so many obstacles to obtaining justice that we never win,” said Mendoza. “Justice for Vicky is justice for all.”