In a move many deem long-overdue, on Monday, June 18th, the World Health Organization announced that it would officially no longer classify transgender people as mentally ill.
The change, made public in the United Nations health agency’s 11th International Classification of Diseases catalog, officially moved the term “gender incongruence”— defined as a condition in which one does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth— from the chapter on mental disorders to the chapter on sexual health. The change will officially go into effect on January 1st, 2022.
In Argentina, the news was received with a mixed reaction. Just like much of the country’s past, Argentina’s history of transgender rights is tumultuous, complex, and rife with contradictions.
On the one hand, transgender rights in Argentina have been lauded by many as some of the world’s most progressive. In 1997, the Asociación de Lucha por la Identidad Travesti-Transsexual was created to push for the rights and equal treatment of transgender people in Argentina. In 2006, the organization gained a key legal victory in the Supreme Court when it was able to overturn a lower court’s ruling that prohibited transgender people from campaigning for equal rights. The following year, they won another case in the Supreme Court in which a seventeen-year-old was officially granted the legal right to undergo a gender reassignment surgery and change their legal documents accordingly.
In another landmark victory, Argentina passed its Gender Identity Law in 2012 under then president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner— known in Spanish as La Ley de Identidad de Género—which ensures that all people in Argentina have the right to the recognition of their chosen gender identity. Under the law, transgender people in Argentina are able to identify with their chosen gender on official documents without first having to receive hormone therapy or gender reassignment surgery, or encounter barriers such as psychiatric counseling. The law also ensured that both public and private medical facilities must provide gender reassignment surgery and hormone therapy to all those who seek it. Furthermore, in November 2016, the World Health Organization lauded Argentina as taking key, exceptional steps toward ensuring transgender equality within the country.
However, despite these gains, the disparity between transgender rights on paper and reality is still stark. Across the country, transgender people face immense socio-cultural stigma and prejudice, which translates into economic and political discrimination, as well as physical violence. In spite of laws passed to prevent employment discrimination, just under ninety percent of trans women in Argentina have never been able to attain a formal job. Meanwhile, according to ATTTA, Argentina’s Association for Travesti, Transexual, and Transgender rights, transgender Argentines continue to experience hate crimes, as well as physical and sexual assault, at alarming rates. Since the start of 2018 alone, twenty transgender people have been killed because of their gender identity, and gender-based violence is still on the rise. Frequent exclusion of transgender people from the healthcare system ensures that transgender women are continuously—and increasingly—affected by high rates of HIV. Meanwhile, while the national average life expectancy in Argentina is roughly 76.3 years, the life expectancy of trans women remains staggeringly low, at 35 years.
Emblematic of the drastic steps that still need to be taken to ensure transgender rights and equality in Argentina is the case of Diana Sacayán, a prominent transgender activist from Tucumán who founded the Anti-Discrimination Movement of Liberation (MAL) and helped advocate for several key legislations for trans and LGBTQ+ rights. Sacayán was also the first Argentine citizen to receive a new national identity card (DNI) with her modified gender identity, handed to her personally by President Kirchner. Yet, on the night of October 13th, 2015, she was violently murdered in her home, fatally stabbed thirteen times. The man convicted of her murder, Gabriel David Marino, was the first person in Argentina to be officially sentenced under Argentina’s recent legislation on crimes against transgender people in mid-June 2018. Her friends, family, supporters, and fellow activists emphasize that Sacayán’s case is not singular, but one of many, and demonstrates just how much further Argentina still needs to go to ensure equal rights and protection for its trans citizens.
A key step taken almost exactly a year ago in the fight for transgender rights was the installment of a community center for transgender people, or Casa Trans, in Buenos Aires. The community center was founded in a landmark collaborative arrangement between Marcela Romero, the regional representative of ATTTA, and the City Council of Buenos Aires. Casa Trans collaborates with a number of civil society and government agencies, as well as private sector organizations. Ultimately, the community center strives to provide a welcoming, secure space for transgender people to not only escape fear of discrimination, prejudice, and violence, but also to attain their primary and secondary school diplomas and thus empower them to pursue many of the life goals and ambitions they once considered impossible.
“To have this house has meant that as transgender people, we can come out from the darkness,” Ms. Romero was quoted saying by UNAIDS. “The center is in a visible space, on one of the main streets of Buenos Aires, in the San Cristóbal neighborhood. This is our achievement; it shows that we exist as a community and that we have the right to a space like any other organization.”
Now that the World Health Organization has officially stopped classifying transgender people as mentally ill, many LGTBQ+ activists in Argentina have lauded this change—albeit commenting on its long-overdue nature—while other, more conservative factions of society have lamented it. All in all, it is the hope of such activists that— in spite of the many drawbacks in the fight for equality— landmark achievements such as the 2012 Gender Identity Law, the 2017 Buenos Aires Community Center, and the immutable dedication of trans-rights organizations and individuals bode well for future activism in the full attainment of rights, safety, and dignity for transgender people in Argentina.