Just like the entire informal economy sector, the travesti and trans community found itself in conditions of greater vulnerability in terms of access to housing, food, health and money, as a result of Covid-19 prevention. Although there are no official numbers of how many trans people live in Argentina, more than 9,000 persons have requested a gender change on their national ID since the adoption of the Gender Identity Law in 2012. A large portion of the community preferred to continue using their misgendered ID for a range of different reasons. Disagreement with male / female binarism, fear of greater violence from police during arrests, lack of interest, and obstacles in the procedures, especially in the case of migrants, are but a few of these motivations.
According to La revolución de las mariposas (The Revolution of the Butterflies), a seminal survey on the trans and travesti communities, only nine percent of the travesti and trans population have a formal job and the percentage that has never accessed a work interview is alarming. Sex work or prostitution remains the most widespread activity and since it cannot be carried out during lockdown, many members of the community are not currently generating any income.
In 2015, the province of Buenos Aires adopted a travesti and trans labor quota law which stated that one percent of public servant jobs are destined to trans and travesti workers. However, it has not yet been implemented and several bills along the same lines have been tucked away in Congressional drawers for years. As a result, there is an absence of comprehensive policies that take into account sex workers and self-perceived prostitutes. Today, the majority of travestis and trans people have no way to make a living and live in a critical situation below the poverty line.
In the city of Buenos Aires there are around 180 declared boarding houses, but many more are undeclared, including hotel accommodations that function as housing. Both options offer precarious living conditions: bathrooms without suitable drains, ceiling leaks, and shared kitchens without sanitation or safety. The base cost of a hotel room, often shared, is 800 pesos a day. A regular apartment for rent for housing is much cheaper, but is inaccessible due to landlord requirements of a guarantor or because real estate agents or owners refuse to sign a lease with travesti and trans people. The situation grows even gloomier for migrants.
Despite the decree prohibiting them, many evictions have been reported, as well as threats and harassment by hotel owners, and physical violence to carry out the expulsions. Sometimes the ID or passport of the tenants has been withheld. In the City of Buenos Aires, the housing subsidy policy could have proven to be a solution, but it is inaccessible because it requires presentation of a rent receipt. Most of the collective dwellings, which are undeclared, do not provide receipts. In the rest of the country there is no housing subsidy.
The case of the Hotel Saavedra, in the Balvanera neighborhood of Buenos Aires, showed this complexity: during the situation of compulsory isolation, its owner threatened to evict eight travesti and trans tenants if they did not pay up and wanted to force them to work, despite the risk to their health. This situation can be extrapolated to other housing contexts.
The crisis faced by the travesti and trans community is caused by structural discrimination. This can be observed in a wide range of human rights violations, including economic and social rights. The situation unleashed by the pandemic required a reinforced deployment of aid from the federal government and the province of Buenos Aires to reach that population. However, that aid proved insufficient and most of the responsibility is taken on by social organizations. They are the ones present on the ground, assisting communities by redistributing donations and food.
The COVID-19 health emergency rocked huge sectors of the population that make a living on a day-to-day basis. For travesti and trans people, the absence of comprehensive labor inclusion or regularization policies today makes it impossible for many to provide food for themselves.
Restrictions on access to healthcare are centrally linked to a binary and trans-exclusive healthcare system. For the trans community, the lack of training on their rights in health centers –as guaranteed by the Micaela Law that provides gender education to public workers– is confirmed in daily life.
Users of health services denounced the lack of doctors trained in comprehensive and transitional health in different municipalities of the province of Buenos Aires, such as Morón and La Matanza in the capital’s suburbs. Many times there is only one health professional who cares for people from different locations. The scarcity of specialized medical attention results in the interruption of treatments. There are also reports of shortages of hormones for trans masculinities.
In other situations, access to health is linked to geographic circulation. Many municipalities have closed their access roads with police roadblocks. Thus, the trans people from the city of La Plata seeking treatment in the Ensenada hospital must pass many police stops. We received complaints from young people who were forced to get off public transport and returnhome, and missed their medical appointment.
During the pandemic, cases of police harassment of the travesti and trans population have been abundant. There have been reports of detentions for “violation of lockdown” against trans people who were at the door of the hotel where they lived. There has also been harassment by police officers of those who have gone grocery shopping in their neighborhood: there were cis people in the same situation but the focus of the security forces was on trans people, whose self-perceived identity was also not respected by police forces, in violation of the Gender Identity Law.
In the province of Jujuy, a 19-year-old transgender woman was detained by four police officers with the excuse of pandemic prevention measures. She reported having been held until the next day and being abused while in detention.
According to the latest available data, in the prisons of the province of Buenos Aires, 71 percent of the travesti and trans detainees have not been convicted and, despite this irregular situation, in a context that requires enhanced physical distance, they have been denied house arrest. Organizations made collective habeas corpus requests. Faced with Covid-19, the pre-existing crisis of the penitentiary system worsened. The impact on the travesti and trans population affects their health and inflicts violence on their bodies. The vast majority of trans people detained in the province of Buenos Aires and in the federal system are detained for minor offenses.
Detainees at the Ezeiza prison complex wrote an open letter to the President in which they reported that, despite being a population at higher risk with ongoing medical treatments, they had not been receiving any medical care and were denied release. Many of them have been in pretrial detention for years.
A comprehensive set of public policies towards the travesti and trans population is necessary, one where the State holds an active role in repairing the rights violated for years, both during and after the pandemic.
*Although travesti remains a pejorative term in most Latin American countries, the trans movement has appropriated and vindicated this political identity since the 80’s in Argentina. Many activists, as well as a very important part of the trans population itself, refer to themselves as travestis instead of trans, the latter being a notion that they consider borrowed from European and American academics in recent years. On the contrary, the term travesti is solidly rooted in social history. Although travestis may define the word with different implications, most agree in highlighting that it is a political identity, exempt of political correctness, and that it refers to a wide spectrum of people who don’t recognize themselves either as men or women.
-Quimey Ramos, activist, member of the Feminist Agenda Department at CELS and teacher at Mocha Celis
Bachillerato Popular Travesti-Trans Mocha Celis
Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales – CELS