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Chile: Transsexuals Demand a Place in Postponed Anti-Discrimination Law

A few weeks ago Valentina Verbal, 40, tucked into a tidy lacquered table next to her three laughing friends. No one threw her a sideways glance in the chatty diner near the center of Santiago, Chile. She wore relaxed jeans, unlabeled white sneakers and a soft layer of makeup. On the average day, she said, she sticks to what she knows such as this lunch spot. But when she steps out of her routine, like when she’s penning through a job application, the fact that her I.D. says “hombre,” but her fuschia lipstick says lady, can be a hurdle.

This might soon change. An anti-discrimination law – six years in the making – was up for vote in the Senate this week. Much to the chagrin of the LGBT community, a low turnout among the senators pushed back the vote to November 8. As it stands now, the legislation forbids any discrimination based on: race, age, sex, gender, religion, belief, political or other opinion, birth, national origin, cultural or socioeconomic standing, language, marital status, sexual orientation, illness, disability, genetic structure or any other status. Verbal and others who switched their outward gender identity didn’t make the original list. Now, they are fighting to be included.

Verbal, who harnesses social media to win trans supporters, wants Chileans to freely choose their legal sexual identity without facing discrimination or having surgery. “Most of us have internal problems caused by our society. Society is what complicates things,” she said.

Even though her place in the anti-discrimination law hangs in the air, she tweeted [es] that she shares the frustration popping up on social networks. Citizen reactions to the delay are still swimming through twitter under the hashtag #LeyAntidiscriminación.

Rodrigo Guendelman (@guendelman) tweeted:

Más de 6 años lleva empantanada la #LeyAntidiscriminación y hoy el Senado vuelve a suspender la votación. Qué verguenza!!!

More than 6 years this anti-discrimination law has been bogged down, and today the senate suspends the vote? What a shame!!!!

Andres Soffia Vega, a spokesperson for a pro-sexual diversity organization called Iguales, sees this as an opportunity to reinforce their efforts. He tweeted under @ahsoffia:

Sumemos fuerza para el 8 de noviembre y sigamos trabajando.

Let’s add strength for November 8 and continue working.

Gay Pride March. Photo by Katie Manning

The LGBT community recently crossed a major bridge.  Last month, the government passed a bill legalizing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. Transsexuals also are legally allowed to change their gender in Chile. Verbal aims to step past the status quo. “We should have the same rights under the same name,” she said. This means gay marriage, which Chile’s neighbor, Argentina, just approved last year.

In 2009, the Chilean government signed [es] a United Nations declaration against discrimination based on gender identity. The trans community says this anti-discrimination law offers the government the ideal opportunity to make good on their pledge.

Even if trans people make it into the new legislation, Verbal said that Chile still drags miles behind international standards. Same sex couples are still not allowed to adopt in Chile, which in turn applies to many transgendered couples. The legal age of sexual consent is 14 for straight couples, while it’s 18 for same sex couples.

Alongside interviews across a medley of media outlets, Verbal blogs [es] to tell Chile why inclusion matters. She wrote in El Dinamo [es]:

Sufren una serie de barreras sociales que les impide llevar una vida digna. La  primera de estas barreras es la laboral. Mucha de ellas, no obstante sus capacidades y sin tener una apariencia llamativa (como muchas veces se cree), no tienen acceso a trabajos dignos, precisamente por no corresponder su identidad legal con la de género.

They struggle with social barriers that prevent them from living in a dignified way. The first of these barriers is finding a job. Many of them, despite their abilities and without having a striking appearance (as is commonly believed) can’t access decent work, just because their appearance doesn’t match up with their legal gender identity.

Chile’s right-wing President Sebastian Piñera, whose approval rating remains in the gutter at 33 percent, has a surprising ally among many transsexuals. Piñera supported the civil-union bill. In Chile, LGBT rights aren’t strictly part of the left or right side of politics, but some transsexuals worry that politicians posing for pictures at gay pride marches won’t translate into results on the Senate floor.

Andres Rivera, 47, began sporting a deep voice and a goatee in a very public way nine years ago when he documented his sex change in a television report. Now, he pours his energy into working as a trans activist. He founded the Organization of Transsexuals for Dignity and Diversity [es], the first Chilean NGO fighting for trans rights, and tweets under @andresrivera. He said, “I believe that Piñera is opening his mind to transsexuals.”

At the same time, the former University of Rancagua professor [es] questions the authenticity of most politicians’ commitment. He said, “They use us. The right and the left sell us like meat to make political agreements amongst themselves.”

When Rivera overhauled his outward appearance, he said, he suffered major social snubbing in his hometown of Rancagua, a dusty ranching and mining city just south of Santiago.

“This decision lost me my job. My employers fought me on this. It severed me from my family… Everything went to waste. I wandered around eating things off the street. It was a terrible situation,” he said. He patched things up with his Roman-Catholic family, and now he’s determined to ensure that other transsexuals can transform their physical appearance in a less traumatic way.

Rivera noted a distinction between the struggle of transsexuals and the gay community. “We don’t have the same opportunities as heterosexuals or even gays. We’re punished from infancy” for not conforming to gender norms, according to Rivera.

Verbal hasn’t gone under the knife or taken female hormones. “I’ve always felt like a woman,” she said, but when she adjusted her outward appearance at 37, “I was really afraid of what my family would think, what society would think.”  Verbal said that Chile needs to understand “there is no difference between normal and abnormal or healthy and unhealthy.”

Katie Manning reports for www.MiVoz.cl, which publishes 15 citizen journalism news sites across the provinces of Chile. Read more about our partnership with Mi Voz here.

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