“No democracy without equal rights for everyone”
As a transsexual person in Paraguay, Yren Rotela was so vulnerable that she saw prostitution as a route to survival. Today, she has left that life behind and has been commended for her work on preventing other people getting into the same situation as her.
Like so many other transsexual people in Latin America, Yren was discriminated against as a young person. She was victimised on account of her choice of clothes and lifestyle and subjected to violence in school. Without support from the teachers or principal, she soon felt she needed to leave. Things weren’t any better at home. Her family found it difficult to accept her life choices.
“I was living a life that was not mine, a life I didn’t want,” says Yren Rotela. “I was subjected to a lot of violence and left home when I was thirteen. I became a prostitute in order to survive”.
Because transsexuals are marginalised and excluded from the education system and labour market, prostitution is often the only way they can support themselves.
“Many people say that we like being prostitutes, that the only thing we are good at is selling our bodies,” says Yren. “That was something I was constantly hearing. The problem is that society doesn’t allow us to do anything else. The few who manage to hide their transformation are discriminated against because they are women, the others because they are transsexual.”
In order to bring about changes in the rights of transsexual people, Yren has become involved with Diakonia’s partner organization Panambí. One of their aims is to achieve a change in the law to make it possible to change gender details in identification documents. That would make it easier for transsexuals to take the final steps in their gender change and prevent them from being discriminated against, for example during employment interviews.
Record numbers of murders
Latin America has a largely macho culture in which women and minorities are oppressed. Transsexuals are no exception. Between 2008 and 2014, 1,350 murders of transsexuals were reported on that continent; this constituted over 80 per cent of all cases worldwide. Since many crimes are never regarded as hate crimes, because of ignorance or plain errors, there are thought to be considerable numbers of unrecorded cases.
“In Paraguay, more than fifty murders of transsexuals have never been investigated,” says Yren. “Quite simply, no-one cares. We don’t have democracy if we don’t all have equal rights.”
“Most of us know someone who has been the victim of extreme violence or even been murdered. I had a friend who was attacked and knifed on her birthday when she was on the street working as a prostitute. She managed to drag herself away a few blocks but no-one would help her. She died on the streets alone.”
An acclaimed change maker
It is experiences like these that continue to give Yren the strength she needs to carry on. Last year, as a result of her work, Yren was commended by Amnesty International, and in January this year she took part in an international conference together with the Chilean Prime Minister Michelle Bachelet.
Founded in 2007, Panambí is today one of the most prominent LGBT organizations not only in Paraguay but in the whole of Latin America. With a vision of eliminating discrimination against transsexual people in the country, their main work is in opinion shaping, but they also work on supporting and educating individuals in respect of their rights, distributing condoms and keeping statistics about the crimes committed. Many of their workers also walk the streets at night protecting and supporting those who live and work there.
Even if it is transphobia and the macho culture that lie behind the victimisation of transsexual people, Yren Rotela believes that efforts are needed in many different areas to bring about change:
“Corruption and huge opposition from the church are also major problems. They say that we are sick and repulsive and that we destroy families. Nobody thinks about the fact that we have families too. I will continue to fight not just for the rights of transsexuals but for equal rights for everyone. It’s not just a luxury. The rights you demand for yourself should be available to other people.”