The first professional transgender generation in Ecuador are now in college or just graduating. This is an immense achievement, over ten years in the making. But according to Elizabeth Vasquez from Proyecto Transgenero, or ‘Project Transgender’, “because access to rights is so recent, it means that there are thousands of people who face the consequences of that earlier deprivation, especially of lack of education, therefore lack of access to better jobs.”
A discussion with Elizabeth Vasquez from PROYECTO TRVNSGEN3RO about their innovative work, inspiring achievements and further challenges ahead for transgender rights in Ecuador.
Project Transgender is an organization in Quito that has spearheaded the rights movement for transgender and intersex people in Ecuador. Described as a “political proposal” as well as a non-profit organization, Proyecto Transgenero’s work includes legal, social, cultural and art interventions. Their work aims to “strengthen trans identity in Ecuador … [focusing] on improving the exercise of aesthetic and identity rights for trans and intersex people, freedom of association and the occupation of urban and sociocultural spaces from which we have remained historically excluded”.
Transgender rights and the law
The success of the legal component of Proyecto Transgenero’s work is evidenced in the changes made to Ecuadorian laws over the past decade, many of which are a direct result of interventions by Proyecto Transgenero and translate as victories for every-day rights most people take for granted. For example, hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity are now classified as an aggravated form of criminal offence.
In 2008 the New Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador was approved. Vasquez worked as an advisor with a Member of the Constituent Assembly (CA) and as a result the Constitution guarantees equality before the law without discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Vasquez says “equality claims in different areas in which trans citizens have felt at disadvantage have been filed ever since. For example, an adolescent trans girl filed a claim against a military school for not letting her to go to school in female military attire and the school had to comply. Trans access to education is the biggest improvement in the last four years. The first transgender medical doctor graduated last week. Many transgender youth are in college these days. Others have filed employment claims, also with success.”
Another important norm that was approved in the Constitution is the right to “aesthetic freedom”. Vasquez explains “It has facilitated the respect of trans aesthetic in every Ecuadorian institution – public and private – and in the public space. This has especially benefited transgender sex workers who used to be arrested on the grounds of “improper attire” in the past. Articles 68 and 69 of the Constitution now importantly recognize “family diversity” – which Vasquez says is a “LGBTI issue in general – recognizing alternative forms of family such as families formed by transgender sex workers who act as a single economic and social unit”; and same sex civil unions –that “in practice benefit transgender people on the ground that their unions will usually fall under technical same sex unions under the law.”
Article 77.14 – where it is prohibited constitutionally to use the wording of misdemeanours and other lower rank criminal norms to facilitate arbitrary arrests in the public space, is a norm that was directly proposed by Proyecto Transgenero’s project “Legal Patrol”. In operation since 2002, ‘Legal Patrol’ is where “six patrol teams have covered the corners where transgender sex work takes place in Quito, practising the sort of experimental, alternative street law that we call “paralegal activism”. Working in collaboration with transgender sex workers, Legal Patrol engages in “itinerant activities such as preventive legal counselling, conflict mediation, creation of street associations, cultural identification through alternative ID cards, and emergency legal intervention in arbitrary detentions, incidents of violence with criminal implications, and discrimination in hospitals”. Art. 77.14 is hence a derivative of this work. Vasquez says that this norm “benefits trans sex workers who cannot be removed from public space while negotiating services.”
Vasquez admits “these are good times for trans rights in Ecuador. The things we have achieved in barely ten years were not imaginable only a decade ago.” However, there are still some major issues transgender individuals are facing in Ecuador. For example, she highlights that “Sex work is still a widespread reality and even though sex work associations have become very political over that same decade and arbitrary arrests have diminished as the Police have gone through an important process of sensitization -gender-sensitive procedures included – conditions are still very harsh on the streets.”
The identification issue
A case sponsored by Proyecto Transgenero in 2007 resulted in the Protocolo de Estandarizacion de Procedimientos del Registro Civil, which prescribes the right to personal identification with chosen aesthetics, and being able to legally change names and change sex. At this stage, however, name change is a simple administrative procedure (one of those dramatic improvements of the past 5 years) but sex or gender is still difficult to change and people must go to court to do so. In addition, the granting or denial of sex changes depends upon individual judges and the criteria are not unified. Because the result is so uncertain, Vasquez says, “most people don’t bother to go to court and an increasing number of Ecuadorian IDs have a feminine name and a masculine legal sex or vice versa. When noticed (in the context of job interview, for example), this causes discomfort, unwanted disclosure of private information and sometimes discrimination”.
The “My Gender on My ID” campaign is something they are working on, “Identification is [more of] a problem for urban mestizo trans individuals than rural or ancestral  trans individuals, where civil identification is a distant institution”. Vasquez explains that in a rural setting “normalization is culturally unimportant and therefore the ‘ID issue’ is not perceived as a problem… Urban mestizos [however] as the dominant hispanic culture are more urbanized, normalized and westernized therefore trans ideas of fitting in the [gender] binary are stronger, especially as social class moves upward. For an upper middle class transgender professional mestizo it would be of vital importance to have an ID with a legal name and legal sex that matches a clear, binary, normalized gender presentation.”
Occupying cultural, political and spatial realms
With the primary progressive legal changes in Ecuador underpinning a movement towards equality, it is important that positive change in the cultural, political and spatial realms – which can be viewed as the capacity for transgender people to occupy and live in common public space and time and not be relegated to the dark corners of the streets – runs parallel and is not just viewed as secondary. These are the areas that impact transgender people in their everyday lives and as Vasquez has highlighted, the conditions for trans men and women on the streets are harsh: “The two greatest problems the street transgender population suffer are firstly, health problems – due to extreme living conditions, hunger, HIV and self-prescribed body intervention; and secondly, domestic violence by male partners. The majority of deaths registered by the Legal Patrol between 2010 and 2012 were not caused by street hate crimes, but were mostly due to self-injected silicone and domestic violence perpetrated by the male partners who cohabit with transgender sex workers in de facto unions.” Vasquez reports that of the 13 registered trans sex worker deaths between 2010-2012, in all cases they were marginality, misery, hunger and poverty-related incidents. This is related to trans men and women’s historical exclusion from sociocultural, political and spatial participation.
To counter discrimination and encourage participation in the community, Proyecto Transgenero uses a combination of art and legal action for social impact. A good example of what Vasquez terms an “alternative use of the law” is “The first gay marriage in Ecuador,” which included two male gender identities. One assigned female at birth who retained a female legal sex on his documents despite a social identity as a man and the other man assigned male at birth, with a corresponding male legal sex and male social identity. Vasquez says she has been doing these types of legal subversions for eight years.
“Casa Trans” is another example of a political, cultural and spatial intervention. A house in the La Gasca neighbourhood of Quito – it is not only Proyecto Transgenero’s headquarters, but is inhabited by individuals who identify in various ways. “During our first year at La Gasca, we experienced overt hostility from the neighbours; our windows permanently got broken and our front wall vandalised. However, [Casa Trans] residents then carried out a “door-to-door sensitization” [where they] approached neighbours, police, businesses, and surrounding institutions. The media started to visit us and talk about our experiences.” They have continued this sensitization since then.
The Ecuadorian Institute of Statistics will run the first official survey on LGBTI issues in 2013. Meanwhile, the creative and inspiring work of Proyecto Transgenero is making a real and transformative impact on the lives of trans men and women.
 Vasquez explains ‘Mestizo’ as the ethnic definition that applies to the majority of the Ecuadorian population (used specifically to mean the mixture of indigenous and hispanic blood. 99% of urban Ecuadorians will call ourselves mestizos whereas rural people will probably identify more with their indigenous or their mixed rural indigenous – hispanic ethnic group from the coast, their indigenous nation from the Andean region, their Afro-Ecuadorian ethnic group from the coast or the highland or their indigenous amazonic nation.
 According to Vasquez, “As we move away from the central Mestizo culture, cultural androgyny is a lot more present. Ancestral transgenders are people from ancestral Ecuadorian heritage, especially in communities in the Coast, whose experience of gender and sexual diversity is clearly influenced by pre-hispanic understandings of gender. The “Enchaquirados de Engabao” are the first group that has created a trans ethnic organization that vindicates a local form of transgenderism that exists in the provinces of Guayas and Manabi where inhabitants descend from the manteño-huancavilca pre-hispanic culture, in which gender was quite fluid.
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