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Silence and invisibility: A cry for justice from Latin America’s LGBTQIA+ communities 

The impact of corruption on the LGBTQIA+ people in Latin America has been silenced and made invisible; now, they are calling for justice

A person wearing a black COVID-19 mask and holding a sign that reads "Nos falta Tehuel"

A protestor holding a sign in memory of Tehuel, a trans man who went missing in Argentina in March 2021; Image: TitiNicola / Wikimedia Commons

A photo of Andrea Rivas.
Andrea Rivas

President of Asociación Familias Diversas de Argentina (AFDA), Argentina

By Andrea Rivas, AFDA and Karina Kalpschtrej, Poder Ciudadano

Tehuel is a young trans man from Argentina who disappeared in March 2021. He went to – what he thought was – a job interview and never came back.

Tehuel’s disappearance has sparked outrage across Argentina and led to a focus on the plight of the trans community in the country. Even though Argentina is considered a trailblazer when it comes to LGBTQIA+ rights in Latin America – having already legalised same-sex marriages and a number of other progressive measures – trans people and other marginalised queer communities continue to face exclusion. The justice system neglects the structural violence experienced by trans people and other marginalised queer communities.

Tehuel’s case might have caught the public’s attention and caused uproar, but such a response is far from the norm in a country – and region – where trans people are still incredibly endangered.

Moreover, despite increasing commercial attention giving to LGBTQIA+ people during Pride celebrations, when these communities attempt to mainstream issues such as corruption and discrimination faced by them, they are met with neglect and silence.

Earlier this month, eight months after Tehuel’s disappearance, the authorities finally charged the two men accused of being involved in Tehuel’s disappearance for aggravated murder on the grounds of hatred based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The search for Tehuel’s body continues, led by his family and a public cry: “Tehuel’s silence is our cry for justice.”

These words combine the historical realities of the LGBTQIA+ people across Latin America: the invisibility of our struggle, even when institutions are confronted to demand justice for violations of queer rights; justice, which is a historical debt that states owe to the community.

Breaking the silence

Transparency International’s chapter in Argentina, Poder Ciudadano, teamed up with Asociación Familias Diversas de Argentina (AFDA) to study, for the first time, the impacts of corruption on the LGBTQIA+ community and to explore the intersections between the community’s movement and the anti-corruption agenda in Latin America. In addition to Argentina, they also looked at the situation in Ecuador, Guatemala and Peru.

The resulting report focuses on linking how intersectionality plays out in the lives of LGBTQIA+ people and the impact – both direct and indirect – of corruption.

LGBTQIA+ people are a historically vulnerable group.

Even in countries with more favourable regulatory frameworks, social exclusion, violence, discrimination and “living in the closet” continue to be part of their lives. This is aggravated and exacerbated in those Latin American countries where there are no minimum legal protections, such as Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay.

Because of this, the focus of the study by Poder Ciudadano and AFDA was urgently making visible and addressing how corruption affects the LGBTQIA+ community in Latin America. This was done through a transfeminist lens, which means accounting for existing inequalities that societies are built upon. Such a perspective ensures that the study included the impact of corruption as magnified by patriarchal, heteronormative and binary institutional structures for the queer community.

Within patriarchal structures, asymmetric power relations are generated that the LGBTQIA+ rights movement has historically denounced. These asymmetric relations imply institutional violence on the part of the States that, as a first measure, make queer voices and identities invisible in the political and public agendas of the fight against corruption, transparency and citizen participation. So, we start from silence, adding our own voice to this fight. 

Building evidence to make the invisible visible

When it comes to systemic corruption, studies have already been pointing out its differential and negative impact on women, especially on their access to sexual and reproductive rights. Lía Burbano, Executive Director of Mujer & Mujer - a foundation for the social and political visibility of lesbian women – and a lesbian activist from Ecuador called our attention to this issue:

But what happens when these women are lesbians or are trans, or are trans men who have not yet made their transition or are bisexual women? There is total invisibility. So, in honour of the fact that I am a lesbian woman, I must say that obviously there is a direct impact (of corruption), but unfortunately that impact is not so quantifiable because it cannot be seen. It is totally invisible.
Lía Burbano Executive Director of Mujer & Mujer

Experts have highlighted that corruption that affects LGBTQIA+ people is historically associated with institutional, systemic corruption in law enforcement. As Thatiana Carmona, a trans activist of Trans Woman Argentina detailed, the abuses of power in these law enforcement institutions are sustained, first of all, through the highly discretionary application of regulations "whose function and purpose is to criminalise trans people." and to LGBTQIA+ identities to "a plot of sanctions that speak of morality and scandal." This generates discretionary and arbitrary conditions for the security forces to violate queer people and transgender communities.  

The circle of invisibility is reinforced and closed when corruption takes the form of institutional invisibilisation: in this case, it strongly discourages LGBTQIA+ people from presenting complaints to public institutions because it instils fear as a way of life - fear to report, fear of reprisals, fear of being, fear of existing.

The “closet” has implications that go beyond being secretive about one's sexuality and/or gender identity and its expression. The “closet” operates as a corrective and coercive cis-hetero-normative tool through the oppression and violence it exerts on the community. People forced to live in the “closet” are often placing themselves in a situation of extreme vulnerability. And there, corruption and discrimination reinforce itself.

The circle of invisibility increases impunity

Experts unanimously agree that regulatory frameworks and anti-corruption programs do not usually explicitly include LGBTQIA+ people, nor do they address the differential and highly damaging impact of corruption in our community. They also do not contain specific protection mechanisms for us. Since institutional violence and abuses of power are the main tenor of daily violence against our communities, it is urgent that policies aim to, in the first place, make visible the situation of vulnerability of LGBTQIA+ people in the face of these abuses, and then propose the necessary reforms so that the regulatory frameworks that enable these abuses are dismantled.

"Social travesticide" is “a tool of institutional violence which implies a systematic expulsion in educational settings, in health areas together with the lack of job opportunities, the impossibility of socialising and fully developing as subjects of rights in the society, thus reinforcing the marginality of our entire population”. Corruption is inevitable and decisive in making social travesticide possible.

Petty corruption is not so petty for LGBTQIA+ people

Petty corruption creates a web of violence and institutional abuse that is central to sustaining cultures of impunity and tolerance for corruption, making it possible, among other things, for grand corruption to exist. And it is this petty everyday corruption that instils fear and leads to corruption becoming systemic and structural. 

Micro-corruption in the lives of LGBTQIA+ people starkly manifests in the following areas: 

  • Health: Restrictions on access to healthcare for trans people, denial of access to vaccines or specific care due to HIV diagnosis, lack of access to specific healthcare for lesbians and bisexuals. 
  • Police violence and abuse: Trans women abused by the police, arbitrary arrests based on "good morals" laws and "corrective" rapes.
  • Access to justice: Extortive negotiation of penalties, arbitrary "arming" of legal cases, the release of sexual rapists, extortion with forced "outing”, negotiation or bribery for procedures and trials for changing gender identity, negotiation and/ or bribery for promotions.
  • LGBTQIA+ migrants, refugees and asylum seekers: Extortion in all forms and especially sexual extortion, or sextortion, of LGBTQIA+ migrants throughout the process of legalising their immigration status.
  • Education: Lack of school vacancies and policies for their permanence in the educational system.
  • Employment: Sexual harassment, sexual violence, extortion for “outing” or threats to come out of the closet in cases in public employment.
  • Social networks: Corruption networks with false profiles infiltrating LGBTQIA+ dating applications to obtain intimate photos and then extort people in public positions.
  • Direct violence towards the LGBTQIA+ community through hate crimes, homophobia, biphobia and transphobia.

The Global Corruption BarometerLatin America & the Caribbean 2019 showed that one in five people had paid a bribe in the previous year and that almost a quarter of those bribes were paid to law enforcement. One in five people also reported facing sextortion while accessing public services. The analysis showed that such petty corruption mainly affects women.

But these studies are not enough because they miss the absolutely devastating impact of corruption on the LGBTQIA+ community. For the queer community, petty corruption is embroiled with physical and economic violence that threatens their autonomy and exercise of more fundamental rights.

The insidious threat of sextortion

Sextortion is a far more serious problem for the LGBTQIA+ communities than the general population due to their exacerbated vulnerability in the Latin American region. LGBTQIA+ people in Latin America suffer various forms of “forced exile”: when they flee the discrimination typical of very conservative or geographically small local contexts, their economic and political vulnerabilities increase by living in large cities. And there, sextortion becomes a specific and insidious threat that takes advantage of their invisibility. Impunity takes the form of hate crimes, physical, psychological, economic violence, threats of “outing” LGBTQIA+ people who exercise public functions, and so on.

Two agendas, one shared roadmap: Nothing about us without us

Building an anti-corruption agenda with LGBTQIA+ perspective demands collective work, not only by the community and its organisations but also by anti-corruption activists and, most importantly, the authorities. Although work on such an intersectional anti-corruption movement needs to start essentially from scratch, the study by Poder Ciudadano and AFDA formed an important first step in this process. Based on their report, they recommend the following steps to be taken:

  1. Create regulatory frameworks appropriate to LGBTQIA+ human rights, focused on combating the structural causes of discrimination and the differentiated impact of corruption on LGBTQIA+ people.
  2. Mainstream LGBTQIA+ perspective in the anti-corruption agenda to break down discriminatory and heteronormative biases of the States and their policies.
  3. Ensure plural, representative, and open participation of the LGBTQIA+ community and LGBTQIA+ civil society in the design of anti-corruption and transparency policies.
  4. Produce, collect and manage disaggregated and reliable data for the LGBTQIA+ population, considering the different identities within them and with a special focus also on the protection of this data.
  5. Reform the judicial administration system with a transfeminist perspective, focused on guaranteeing access and protection of LGBTQIA+ people in the justice system.
  6. Mainstream anti-corruption in the LGBTQIA+ movement and make the fight against corruption and demand for integrity a cornerstone of our communities’ collective struggle.
  7. Promote a cultural transformation focused on citizenship sensitisation and education that shows the differentiated impacts of corruption on LGBTQIA+ people, starting with the need to train state agents in LGBTQIA+ human rights.
We must not accept our condition as victims. I understand that we are victims of a system that is why the system must be changed through a collective struggle because we share inequality and oppression.
Lohana Berkins Argentinian trans activist

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