Travesti-transgender population in Argentina: Situation in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic

May 26, 2020

Note: This blog is part of Lustig, N. & Tommasi, M. (2020). El COVID-19 y la protección social de los grupos pobres y vulnerables. UNDP. (Forthcoming)

Travestis, transsexual and transgender people (hereinafter trans people) are those who do not identify with the gender that was assigned to them at birth. Having a trans identity means ceasing to be considered a subject of rights, as the majority of trans people live outside the margins of State protection mechanisms.

In Argentina, almost all trans people live in poverty and destitution. Many of them were expelled from their homes in their youth because their families rejected their gender identity. A report prepared by the Asociación de Travestis, Transexuales y Transgénero de Argentina [Association of Argentinian Travestis, Transsexuals and Transgender – ATTTA] and Fundación Huésped, which collected data from 452 trans women and 46 trans men in seven regions of Argentina, shows the high frequency of suicidal thoughts in people from this group during their teens, demonstrating the absence of social and family support and access to mental health services suffered by trans people.

The trans population suffers from structural poverty because it is systematically excluded from formal education systems, which in turn excludes it from both formal and informal labour markets. As a direct consequence, 90 percent of trans women make their living through sex work. As sex workers, these women are predominantly exposed to male violence, which often takes the form of police violence. Subjected to three dimensions of oppression due to their status as women, as sex workers and as trans workers, this group has a life expectancy of 35 to 41 years.

In light of the historical marginalization of trans groups by the State, in the mid-2000s organizations began to emerge in Argentina to defend their human rights, promote public policies, and reclaim them as subjects of rights vis-à-vis society and the State.

2012 saw a milestone in the history of the struggle of these organizations with the enactment of Law 26,743 the Gender Identity Act, which recognizes people’s right to a gender identity, to the free development of their personality, and to dignified treatment in accordance with self-perceived gender identity (Articles 1 and 12).

The law allows a person to change their gender, name and image in personal identification documents (birth certificate and national ID card) (Articles 3­–10) on the request of the person concerned alone, without the need for judicial intervention and without any medical or psychological intervention. While the enactment of this law had a positive impact on the living conditions of trans people in Argentina, this population is still a long way from escaping the conditions of poverty and marginalization to which it has historically been subjected.

The imposition of a mandatory quarantine ordered by the government in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has magnified the vulnerable situation of this population. Social distancing obligations prevent most trans people from accessing their only source of income, which is sex work.

In this context, the trans community has responded swiftly through the organizations that defend their rights, which have strengthened the networks providing support and assistance to their members in an attempt to offer economic and emotional support. Social networks and media run by the feminist movement are being used to report on the situation of the group, and to seek assistance from the general population.

One of the focal points of response to this crisis is the Bachillerato Popular Mocha Celis, a free secondary school created in 2011 with the aim of allowing trans people to exercise their right to an education and preparing them to enter the labour market.

This school created the “Teje Solidario” network, an initiative that identifies and disseminates locations where trans people are living in emergency situations so that people living nearby can buy food, personal hygiene items and medication and take them to the homes of those who need them while respecting quarantine rules.

This initiative, which also works to build emotional ties to protect the mental health of trans people during the crisis, recorded approximately 500 requests for assistance in Argentina in its first week. It should be noted that each request for help tends to come from groups of people rather than individuals because in general these women live in groups, crowded in small rooms in boarding houses or clandestine hotels.

Trans people also often live in crowded conditions when they are deprived of their liberty. In prisons, trans people are often placed in cells of ten people when they were in fact designed to accommodate just two. In addition, “trans women are overrepresented in prisons compared with other groups, and are much more prone to suffer abuse and violence behind bars than other populations”.

A report by the OTRANS civil association (quoted here) shows that 73 percent of trans people living in prisons in Buenos Aires Province suffer from some form of disease. Throughout the country, this figure is 55 percent. The most common disease among them is HIV-AIDS, a consequence of the sex work they are forced to engage in.

When the mandatory quarantine was imposed, prison visits were suspended. Most imprisoned trans women depended on their emotional support networks to receive food and medicine. Now, it is the trans community, through the organizations representing their rights, that has worked to collect donations and take them to prisons.

Over time, the trans community has built up a network of organizations and people dedicated to independently finding solutions to their most urgent needs. However, this pandemic is a systemic shock: it not only weakens all the nodes of the network, meaning that needs far outweigh the capacity for assistance, but has also left many members of civil society unable to help since they have also suffered a decline in their income. In this context, public intervention is necessary to contain the effects of the crisis.

So far, the State has responded to the emergency by implementing a delivery of a basic food basket to trans people, both in and out of prison. It has also opened up registration for trans people in the “Potenciar Trabajo” [“Boosting Work”] programme, which provides beneficiaries with access to complete their studies, as well as vocational training and business support in the framework of the Popular Economy.

Although the living conditions of trans people were already precarious before the pandemic, this shock could have irreversible consequences for the physical and mental wellbeing of this population, hindering efforts to help them out of the situation of poverty and marginalization to which they appear destined. The assistance provided by the trans community to its members is insufficient, and it lacks the resources to sustain it over time. The only way to improve the living conditions of this population is to implement an intervention by the State that comprehensively responds to their specific needs.