Estrella Cerezo: 'It is not easy being transsexual in Latin America'
By Will Grant
BBC News, Caracas
In a city where about 40 murders take place every weekend, it may not come as a big surprise that four prostitutes have been killed on the same stretch of road in Caracas in recent months.
But when you find out that all four were transsexuals or transgender, it changes the picture somewhat.
The bodies were reportedly found with money, mobile phones and handbags still on them, suggesting the attacks were not simple robberies.
"We have seen a definite increase in violence against transsexuals this year," says Estrella Cerezo, a founding member of the Venezuelan transgender rights group Transvenus.
"We've registered over 20 murders of transsexual people in Venezuela so far this year, which is more than twice the number seen in the second half of last year," says Ms Cerezo, who is a transsexual hairdresser in one of the rougher neighbourhoods of Caracas, Flores de Catia.
As I graduated I came out as the woman I really am. Once I did that, all the doors began to close
But she says the real number of attacks is difficult to keep track of.
"Many attacks against transsexual or transgender people - especially against transsexual prostitutes - go unreported. The police aren't interested in investigating them properly. They just define them as crimes of passion, file them away, and leave it at that."
Law professor Tamara Adrian - one of the leading transgender figures in Venezuela - agrees with this assessment.
"I think the violence against the transsexual community is hidden within the high, and rising, levels of violence we are currently experiencing in Venezuela."
"Hate crimes become absorbed into the more generic violence in this country and often are not identified as anti-gay hate crimes as such," Dr Adrian says.
It is not just violence either. Transsexuals are regularly humiliated and insulted in the streets.
Venezuelan legislators are considering a proposal to legalise gay marriage
Groups of youths have even filmed themselves abusing transsexual prostitutes on Caracas' notorious Avenue Libertador, the main area for prostitution in the capital, and uploaded the videos to YouTube.
For Ms Cerezo the problems stem from the fact that transsexuals in Venezuela, as in other parts of Latin America, are forced to the margins of society because of deep-seated prejudice.
"In general, transsexuals only have two areas in which they can work - either as beauticians or as prostitutes."
She says her own situation is a case in point. "I am a trained nurse, but as soon as I graduated I came out as the woman I really am. Once I did that, all the doors began to close. I couldn't find any work in the public hospitals or healthcare centres - not even work experience."
The United Nations office on HIV/Aids protection agrees that the problem in Latin America is rife.
"Sexual violence is a reality for many sexual minorities and often sex work is the only viable option to make a living for transgender and transsexual people," said UNAids' Head of Civil Society Partnerships, Andy Seale, at a meeting in Brazil in 2006.
However, Dr Adrian says that in Venezuela the failure to act on the issues facing the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) community is at odds with the socialist government's rhetoric on social inclusion.
Campaigners want Mr Chavez to get behind gay rights directly
"The important thing to understand about the LGBT community in Venezuela is that they are given no legal protection whatsoever," says Dr Adrian.
"There are huge prejudices still in place among the legal actors themselves - inside the state prosecutor's office, the police, the judiciary and the national assembly.
"There is no recognition of the trans community at the official level," Dr Adrian continues.
"We have done studies which show that most transsexual and transgender people in Venezuela have barely obtained third or fourth-grade primary school education. Many not even that.
"So if the system doesn't recognise you, nor provide for your protection in any way, then obviously it is going to be very difficult to get any kind of decent job - pushing them further into the shadows and the sex industry," explains Dr Adrian.
Argentina, Mexico, Brazil and Colombia are among the Latin American countries where significant inroads have been made for the LGBT community.
These include in some cases the recognition of same sex civil unions, legal cohabitation, and the right as a transsexual to have your birth certificate changed.
Venezuela, says Dr Adrian, is well behind the rest of the region.
"In 2004, I went to the Supreme Court of Justice to take out a direct injunction against the constitution in Venezuela, requesting that all my documents be legally changed to reflect my gender identity.
"Since then, I have been met with silence. In five years, they haven't even ruled on the admissibility of my petition."
The government, however, argues that steps are being taken.
President Hugo Chavez has referred to gay rights several times on his TV programme Alo Presidente, and a change to family law has been introduced in the national assembly which would include the right to marriage for gay couples.
The socialist MP who presented the project, Romelia Matute, says the trans community has suffered in the Venezuela, particularly because of the contry's religious tradition.
"They were considered 'the devil', and in many circles, they still are," she said.
"Our response as the government has been this legal project which, among other things, would grant access to sex change operations on the public healthcare system."
What about the attacks suffered by the prostitutes in areas like Avenue Libertador - sometimes, they say, at the hands of the police?
"That is going on, yes. But in a sense, the transsexual community must do more for themselves too," Ms Matute says.
"There has been no visible group or march to support this proposed change in the law. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if this is rejected by the national assembly, it would be the fault of the LGBT community for being too timid, for not organising themselves properly," she says.
For Dr Adrian, a transsexual university lecturer who has overcome significant obstacles to be accepted in her public life, nothing could be further from the truth.
"That change in the law has not even been discussed by the assembly yet and it seems the head of the family commission is staunchly opposed to anything which would grant equal rights to transgender people," she says.
As for the president, she says, "we have been trying for years to get close to Chavez on this matter. We are pretty much sure that unless he addresses this personally, it will not happen."
At her small, stuffy hairdressing salon in the basement of a building in Flores de Catia, Estrella Cerezo is realistic about what the future holds.
"I believe the government is trying to help us," she says.
"But if things are getting better in terms of our demands being taken seriously by the government, they are getting worse in terms of violent attacks and our personal safety. Security here is a big problem, and we are easy targets," Ms Cerezo says.
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