At the beginning of Sebastian Lelio's Oscar-nominated film A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantastica), the Chilean capital Santiago seems like somewhere a person who identifies as trans can date and be treated with the same regard as anyone else. The film’s protagonist, Marina, played by trans actress Daniela Vega, dines at a restaurant with her partner Orlando; they canoodle, caress and no one cares.
This moment of bliss is short-lived for Marina, as the rest of the film narrates her struggles after the unexpected death of Orlando, and how those around her discredit their relationship while criticising her identity. It’s now favourite to win the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars this Sunday.
In Chile, it has especially resonated with trans viewers. "It is a story that is so human, that speaks of love but also of the discrimination that a trans person receives, which is something we see daily in our community," says trans activist, filmmaker and photographer Andy González.
Una Mujer Fantastica's Oscar nomination, and Daniela Vega's appearance as the first trans presenter at the ceremony, comes at a significant time for trans rights in Chile. Last July, the Gender Identity Recognition and Protection Bill – which allows trans people to change their name and gender without needing judicial permission or gender-changing surgery – was passed by the Senate for consideration. It was then sent to the House of Representatives, which approved the legalisation in January, and it has now returned to the Senate, where it is pending its final phase of approval.
It's a piece of legislation that has been debated by the government for an exasperatingly long time. "It has been a very long process and is slowly advancing," says Franco Fuica, Vice President of trans rights group OTD Chile.
Individuals, LGBT+ organisations and groups such as Amnesty International have protested and rallied to catalyse political change in the country, stating that the Gender Recognition law is needed as a basic human right; that, without it, trans people are subject to social and professional discrimination and alienation, but Chile is notoriously conservative and has only recently started to change the draconian public policies entrenched by a 17-year military dictatorship that endorsed the traditional values of the Roman Catholic church.
Despite democracy returning in 1990, the political ideology of the dictatorship still attracts elite support, which has made the battle difficult for advocates of the Gender Recognition bill (which includes Chile's current president, Michelle Bachelet) to get it through.
Change is slowly underway; abortion was fully outlawed and criminalised until only last year; civil union between same-sex couples was legalised in 2015; and the gay marriage bill is still in Congress. Chile was even one of the last countries in the world to permit divorce, in 2004. "Chile is a conservative country. In some ways it is very modern, very neoliberal, but restrictive in others," explains Franco.
"They can send trans men to a gynaecologist or examine trans women by touching our genitals. If that is still not enough, they could ask to test our DNA, which makes no sense. It just takes up time, and after all of that they can still say no."
Trans people in Chile are currently dependent on the decisions of individual judges to legally change their gender identity, which can be a long, rigorous and frustrating process. Alessia Injoque, a trans activist and columnist, has not changed her name legally as she feels the current process is degrading and time-wasting: "To change my name is totally in the hands of a judge, who can subject you to humiliating medical exams. They can send trans men to a gynaecologist or examine trans women by touching our genitals. If that is still not enough, they could ask to test our DNA, which makes no sense. It just takes up time, and after all of that they can still say no."
The effect of being denied, or unable, to legally change gender and name is documented in the film; Marina is forced to show her ID, which states her masculine birth name, to a police officer, who refuses to acknowledge her as a trans woman. "All of the legal aspects in the film are a reality for trans people," says Alessia. "I am afraid when I drive that the police will stop me, which hasn't happened yet, but would they suspect I had fake identification? Every time I travel outside of Chile I have problems at the border control. They ask me, 'Why don't you change your name?' And I say, 'Well, I would like to…'"
To make things more difficult still, civil registration laws state that names must comply with a person's registered gender. So, for Alessia, a simple deed poll change isn't an option. "My legal name is Alejandro," she says. Daniela Vega has also been vocally critical of the lack of policy change. "I go out to represent Chile with a masculine name on my passport," she said in an interview with FACES magazine.
In March, Bachelet's left-leaning progressive government, which has moved forward a lot of public policy, will be replaced by Sebastian Piñera's conservative one. Piñera, a returning president, who led the country before Bachelet, from 2010 to 2014, has done little for the LGBT+ community. Instead, he has openly demonstrated his lack of support for the gender identity law, notoriously likening gender change to "a T-shirt which you change from day to day".
It is not expected that Piñera will retract Bachelet's popular social reform laws and proposals. "It's unlikely he will go back on them, but I just think they will be stalled for another four years," says Andy. But time is precious for many trans people in the country, who feel at odds with their registered names and genders. Daniela Vega has spoken of the urgent need to approve the Gender bill "…because people are dying. They commit suicide."
Whether A Fantastic Woman will win on Sunday or not, the film shows the difficulties which are a reality for trans people in Chile, and its international recognition has given activists in the country some much-needed support, helping to garner public empathy and understanding for trans issues and rights. "The film is really important for the community," says Franco. "If Chile wins an Oscar because of this film, thanks to Daniela Vega, it would be a huge step in helping trans people live better lives."
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.