Tender Photos of Life on the Frontline of Argentina's Trans Rights Movement

The power of pride, love, and family shines through in photographer Kike Arnal's portraits of a South American trans community.

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Apr 24 2018, 4:49am

All photos copyright © 2018 by Kike  Arnal. These images originally  appeared  in Revealing Selves: Transgender Portraits from Argentina, published by The New  Press and designed by Emerson, Wajdowicz Studios (EWS). Reprinted here with permission.

You might assume a middle-aged librarian does not have many stories to tell. Photographer Kike Arnal found anything but in Villa 31, a favela on the outskirts of Buenos Aires where he met Cinthia Arroyo, a central member of the city’s LGBTQ community and a librarian who raised three daughters on her own.

Arroyo allowed the San Francisco-based Venezuelan photographer into her home, her life with her children, and into her community of friends. Arnal spent years in her company, eventually creating the photobook Revealing Selves: Transgender Portraits from Argentina, about to be published by The New Press.

Speaking to Broadly, Arnal says he was struck by the passion and political organizing of the Buenos Aires LGBTQ community. “The level of participation of the transgender community in protests, marches and many other public activities is utterly unique,” he says. “Almost everyone in the trans community is an activist, engaged in trying to raise awareness for their cause.”

Arnal met Arroyo in the wake of the Gender Identity Law, the landmark legislation passed by the Argentinian government in 2012 thanks to years of activist work by Arroyo and her contemporaries. The law made Argentina one of the most advanced countries worldwide in terms of transgender rights, and the first nation in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage.


Watch: Gavin Grimm: The Student at the Heart of the Trans Civil Rights Movement


Under the new rules, transgender people are able to have their gender recognized on official documents without requiring surgery or psychiatric diagnosis. The state also offers free hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. The law was life-changing for transgender people like Arroyo. Until recently, she was legally still her daughters’ father. She is now the recognized mother of Amira, Nahir, and Zamira.

From a distance, the legislation made Argentina appear a beacon of progressive change for transgender rights. But the new law has not undone pernicious cultural discrimination.

Cinthia Arroyo.

Three years after the passage of the Gender Identity Law, three trans women were killed in Argentina in the space of a month, including prominent LGBTQ activist Amancay Diana Sacayán. According to the most recent report from Transgender Europe, Central and South America remains the most dangerous place to be a transgender or gender-diverse person, with 78 percent of all murders between 2008 and 2016 occurring in the region.

Transphobia remains embedded in Argentinian society, and is expressed through the labor market and educational and judicial institutions, conspiring to make transgender people’s lives needlessly complex and painful. "Young trans women like Cinthia are routinely kicked out from their home at an early age,” Arnal says. “They miss the chance to study, they cannot work and, in many cases, embark in sexual work.”

Arroyo was told that she brought "shame" to her family when she began transitioning, and was ostracised at school. No-one in her community was willing to employ her, and she was eventually detained and imprisoned for wearing women's clothes and engaging in sex work.

Cinthia Arroyo and her three daughters.

Yet her life is one of triumph. When she was nearly 50 years old, and with the encouragement of her daughters, Arroyo finished her schooling. Even though a high school diploma is obligatory in Argentina, around 60 percent of trans women do not make it that far.

Arnal’s photographs achieve a universality and closeness that few photographers attain with their subjects. They explore the most intimate dimensions of our inner selves, our sexual lives, and identities—subjects that, for people of all gender identities around the world, go largely unspoken and unrecognized.

As the journalist Josefina Hernandez writes in the introduction: "What we find in Arnal's book are first and foremost images of people at work, in love, with their families, and in their communities... He illuminates the hidden experiences, conveying them in an intimate, familiar way. He gives the people in these photographs their humanity.”

Revealing Selves: Transgender Portraits from Argentina is published now by The New Press.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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