The late afternoon sun casts a golden glow over children playing in the little park where Lohana Berkins has suggested we should meet.
She is sitting on a wall, still as a statue, in a scarlet, slightly shimmering top.
As we conduct the interview in a nearby café, her eyes hold mine throughout. She speaks in a clear, rather deep voice. Straight talking and fiercely analytical, she comes across as a woman who knows exactly who she is.
Lohana has been a transgender activist since the 1980s. She has played a key role in bringing about legal and social changes in Argentina that can only be described as revolutionary.
Not long ago, Buenos Aires had a reputation for being one the world’s worst places for violence against transgender people. Killings and assaults were common, often at the hands of the police.
Lohana reveals that she has spent nine and a half years of her life in prison – 30 days here, 30 days there – ‘just for being a travesti’. And in the worst male prisons, containing the most violent criminals.
Today, anti-trans violence has decreased and Argentina has the world’s most progressive gender law, shaped by activists such as Lohana, that provides unprecedented rights for trans people.
‘Death is a constant in our lives’
But to start, Lohana is determined to set out the reality faced by transsexual or travesti people.
‘Our situation is different from the lesbian and gay community. We are the poorest sisters of the movement. The average life expectancy in Argentina is 70 – for travestis it’s just 30.
‘Death is a constant in our lives. I have lost hundreds of friends, through violence, because the police killed them, through illegal surgery, HIV, suicide…’
‘My main fear when setting up Nadia Echazú was "we’re allg oing to kill each other!"’
At the root of this shockingly low life expectancy is discrimination and all that emanates from it: poverty, lack of education, exclusion from the labour market, poor healthcare.
Typically, transsexuals have been treated by the health system as ‘men who have sex with men’ – a description that fundamentally violates their identity and discourages them from seeking help.
Lohana paints an emblematic picture of the trans experience: ‘When she is 13 years old, the travesti is pushed out of home and into prostitution, living in hotels in miserable conditions… exploited by adults, traded by them.’
Loss of self-esteem is a major problem. ‘You do not believe that you are a victim, that there is a system that has ruined your life. You believe it’s because of you, because you are “too much”, because you have sinned, or you are a lost soul. So you go into a discourse of internal misery that nothing will change, that nothing will make any difference, whatever happens.’
Of prison she says: ‘You can imagine what happens to us in those places. We are raped, tortured. We have known all sorts of violence. ’Though she never had a partner who beat her, when Lohana filled in a questionnaire on personal violence, she emerged as a battered woman. ‘That is the reality for us travestis.’
During the years of military dictatorship, travestis were routinely killed and imprisoned. The return of democracy in 1983 brought no change.
But trans activists like Lohana were drawing international attention to the appalling abuse. International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International began reporting their plight.
In 2000, Lohana publicly announced that she was leaving prostitution – and that she wanted a job. She became the first ever trans person in Argentina to obtain a job in the public sector.
In 2003 Néstor Kirchner was elected president. He was the first leader to take on board the situation of his country’s trans citizens. His approach has been continued by his widow, Cristina, culminating in the passage of the landmark gender law in May 2012.
This makes gender reassignment surgery, paid for by the state, freely available. Changing legal and social gender ID without medical intervention has also become possible. ‘For example, if you want to call yourself Robert and be a man,’ explains Lohana, ‘you can, and you will be recognized as such.’
The law applies to anyone aged 18 and over. But under-18s are allowed to have their name changed and be recognized according to their own gender identity.
The bill was not just fought for by transgender people; it was shaped by them. Tight definitions of transgender are avoided – allowing for the possibility of new identities in future – and it bears not a trace of the pathologizing language that so often surrounds the issue.
Changing the law is one thing; changing mentality is an even bigger challenge.
Nadia Echazú – work and school
A major step in that direction was setting up a co-operative called Nadia Echazú. Named after an activist who died aged 33, the co-op is run by trans people and provides training and employment. They make items such as the overalls children wear in state schools.
For its members, the co-op is an alternative to prostitution and life on the streets. Because trans people become accustomed to a high level of violence, Lohana says: ‘My main fear in setting up Nadia Echazú was “we’re all going to kill each other!” But we have learned that you can disagree, you can have a different opinion without aggression, and we’ve had none of that kind of trouble.’
The co-op now has 20 members, down from 60 – but for the best possible reasons. Those who have left have set up other co-ops. There are now around 200 travestis working in co-ops in the Buenos Aires area.
In addition, the activists have created the world’s first co-operative school for transgender students, many of whom might have dropped out of education otherwise.
Lohana’s primary goal now is to ensure that travestis get access to education and the labour market, without resorting to prostitution. She is keen that trans people obtain jobs outside the co-ops, too. Lohana is employed by the state in the Women’s Council. ‘Now we are seeing travestis taking jobs in state departments and private companies.’
There’s a famous actor, Florencia de la V, who makes no secret of her travesti status. That status marks out Latin American travestis from many in other parts of the world. ‘I think in Latin America we travestis are more politically developed. We have a more revolutionary character. We do not exist in a ghetto of trans activists. We are very much involved in the wider political struggles…’
When the 2012 gender law was passed there was euphoria – ‘But we also were asking ourselves: why did it have to cost so many lives?’
At the heart of her own approach is feminism. She is a big fan of gender theorist Judith Butler.‘Feminism taught us that there are a thousand ways of being a woman. You do not have to conform to a strict stereotype. You can push your tits out if you like. Or you have a deep voice and big feet – so what?’
She adds: ‘If at 18 I had known what I know now, I would not have intervened in my body as I did.’ And this is one of the most interesting aspects of trans liberation. As people gain rights and acceptance, and the rigid binary definitions of female and male are challenged and become more fluid, so the need for surgical intervention decreases.
‘Many are now choosing not to go down the route of surgery. They can be women without surgery.’
There is still prejudice and abuse. ‘But I think we can say that Argentina is now leading the world in defending the rights of trangender people.’
When the 2012 gender law was passed there was euphoria among the wide range of social movements that backed it. ‘Everyone was hugging one another. But we were also asking ourselves: why did it have to cost so many lives?’
Today, Lohana looks at young trans people with pride and pleasure. They are so much more confident than those of her generation. ‘When I see a trans kid who demands to go to school and to have a job… I think this is the best legacy we could have left.’
‘And now, mi amor, I have to go,’ she says as she rises, to go to one of the many high-level functions she is regularly invited to attend these days.
Lohana Berkins has made it – but the personal price she and her comrades have had to pay was shockingly high.