On March 24, Argentina’s Día de la Memoria, the motorized whirr of vehicles along the avenida 9 de Julio gave way to a more potent sound: drums, chants, shouts and bells. Stretching from Plaza Congreso to Plaza de Mayo, a massive march, commemorating the 40 year anniversary of the start of the military dictatorship that devastated the country and disappeared 30,000 people, shut down the city’s main political arteries.
Factions from across the city, and country, took to the streets to remember a painful history and declare nunca mas, a promise to never again allow the atrocities of the dictatorship to occur. Among the masses of people and groups representing various causes, the Colectiva Lohana Berkins, stood behind their trademark hot pink banner, calling attention to an omitted history and ushering in a movement of increased visibility and awareness of travesti and trans* issues.
The Colectiva Lohana Berkins is a nascent activist group, created to fight for travesti and trans rights and bring injustices facing their community to a more visible place in Argentine politics. Named after a recently deceased activist and companion, Lohana Berkins, the group’s presence at Thursday’s march was a reminder of the often forgotten persecution of LGBTQ people during the years of the military dictatorship. Their 1,000 person contingent marched down Avenida de Mayo echoing the never again chants of their fellow protesters and honoring the memory of community members lost during the seven year deadly regime.
“Within the LGBTQ community, we had 400 disappeared within the total of 30,000, the exercise of memory is an important action. It is very significant at the 40 year anniversary of the genocide that our country suffered,” said Violeta Alegre, an activist and founding member of the organization.
While no concrete proof exists for how many LGBTQ identifying individuals were actually disappeared during the years of the dictatorship, a book published by Carlos Jáuregui, an early LGBTQ activist, in 1987, places the count at 400. Activist organizations use this figure as a reference point.
“It’s difficult to know the exact number of LGBTQ people disappeared during the last Argentine dictatorship, as many of these people were persecuted for their political activism as well as their sexual identity,” said Matías Máximo, an Argentine journalist and activist. Máximo’s recent Página 12 article addressed the lack of information that has emerged regarding the disappearance of LGBTQ identifying people in the year’s since the dictatorship.
A report published after the end of the regime, fails to mention any people disappeared on the basis of gender identity or sexual preference. Argentina’s first democratically elected president after the dictatorship, Raúl Alfonsín, established The National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas, CONADEP) to document the human rights abuses and account for the disappearances that had occurred over the previous seven years. The resulting report details various categories of people who were detained and disappeared and the reason for the dictatorship’s doing so. There is no mention of any persecution because of a person’s gender identity or sexual preference.
Only with Jáuregui’s research did the number 400 emerge. Even then, it’s a figure that refers mainly to the number of homosexuals targeted by the regime. Trans people and travestis are missing from these records.
“What is the specific history of travestis and trans people during the dictatorship is a question that activist organizations focused on the rights of sexual diversity in Argentina always ask, as much of the LGBTQ history was and still is made invisible. Writing that history is a path in a constant state of construction and deconstruction,” said Máximo.
Máximo’s research reveals concrete evidence that people were persecuted by the military dictatorship on the grounds of their gender identity. He interviewed Valeria del Mar Ramírez, a travesti, who was kidnapped twice by the army and held at El Pozo, a clandestine center in Banfield. She was detained against her will and sexually assaulted. In 2011, Ramírez testified in court against the criminals who ran El Pozo.
The symbolism of the Colectiva Lohana Berkins at the memory march speaks to their mission to change this history of denial and erasure and awaken an awareness for trans activism in the context of larger social movements, like Ni Una Menos or the pushback against Macri’s layoffs. Their formation signifies a movement to increase visibility and fight for the rights of a community often denied them.
“One of the goals of the colectiva is to demand real implementation of the trans labor quota law and extend it to a national level because up to now it’s only a law in the province of Buenos Aires. With respect to the violence that our community suffers it’s necessary to educate and sensitize the population, including trans people for whom much of this violence has become naturalized,” said Alegre.
In 2012, Argentina passed its historic Gender Identity Law that included sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy as a part of health care plans, both public and private, and allowed citizens to legally identify by the gender of their choosing. The country’s progressive laws put them on the international map for their treatment of trans people. Nonetheless, the life expectancy for trans people rests at a shocking 35 years of age and the killing of trans individuals continues at an alarming rate. The tragic and public death of Diana Sacayan, president of the International Association of Lesbians, Gays and Bisexual (ILGA) and a leading figure in the passing of the labor quota law, in late 2015 was a flagrant reminder that change was necessary regarding the status and treatment of trans Argentines.
“We have a memory of the persecution and torture that didn’t end with the return of democracy,” said Alegre. “Still in democracy our bodies are persecuted, violated and deprived the privilege of fundamental human rights.”
This year’s Día de la Memoria was charged with new energy in the face of Argentina’s incipient government. Like many protesters who marched on March 24, Alegre mentioned a distrust of Macri’s administration. In light of many of his new policy changes, particularly the implementation of increased security at protests, many fear that his interests do not lie as heavily in the protection of human rights as that of the previous administration.
“This new policy approach and the human rights violations increasing makes us alert and makes me aware that we are in a stage of resistance,” said Alegre. “Our space was born from thinking about how to defend our rights in the face of the new political situation that governs our country.”
Alegre speaks to fears that many social organizations and their leaders have felt since Macri took office at the end of 2015. Patricia Bullrich, Macri’s Security Minister, appointed Mara Pérez Reynoso, a 26 year old community leader and trans woman, as the Official Coordinator of the Diversity Department within the Security Ministry. While some view this action as a step in the right direction, others consider her appointment an act of tokenism, caring about trans rights only when convenient for the administration’s image.
The Colectiva Lohana Berkins is one of many organizations that represent trans and travesti communities in Argentina. The Argentine Federation for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People advocates for policy change while Artetrans, a transgender art cooperative, organizes projects and events across the city. The Colectiva Lohana Berkins is among the newest trans and travesti organizations.
“We want to build a space with our own voices, our own needs, our own community, which certainly are very far from the emotional agenda of our country and heterosexuality,” said Alegre. “There are more things that unite us than separate us.”
*Travesti – has historically been a problematic term but some individuals within the trans movement in Argentina and Peru have “reclaimed” the term and (along with some social scientist) use it to refer to a gender identity that could, in some ways, match Western notions of “3rd gender”