The trans experience in Colombia: 'This is where we work – and this is where we are killed'
Daniela Maldonado Salamanca was standing on the street in the Santa Fe district of Bogotá, in 2010 when five men set upon her. They beat and stabbed her so brutally that she almost died. It took three months for the bruises to heal. Police took Salamanca to a hospital, but never investigated the crime, even though it happened on a busy street. Not that Salamanca thinks the witnesses would have helped. “There were taxis lined up near where the attack happened, urging the attackers on,” she says. “What happened to me can’t keep happening. It’s outrageous that they attack us just for being who we are.”
South America’s macho culture, combined with the strong influence of the Catholic church, means it is a particularly difficult place to be a transgender woman like Salamanca. In the past eight years, 74% of all reported murders of trans people were in Central and South America, according to a (TGEU). Due to violence, poverty and the risk of HIV, the life expectancy for trans women in Latin America is between 35 and 41 years.
Earlier this year, an orange bus stamped with anti-transgender messages toured several South American countries, including Colombia, which has the fourth-highest number of reported murders of trans people. The bus, funded by Catholic group Hazte Oir, bore the slogan: “Boys are born being boys, girls are born being girls. This is biology, not ideology.” On its first tour in Spain, the bus was painted with: “Boys have penises, girls have vulvas. Do not be fooled.”
But now Colombia is on the brink of change. has renewed hopes that its decades-long civil war might be over. For LGBT people, who were regularly targeted in the violence, there is hope that the country might be made safer for them. Trans people in particular hope that the visibility and acceptance trans issues are beginning to receive in the US might spread south.
If this is the beginning of a shift in attitudes, it is people such as Salamanca and other leaders of the nascent Colombian trans rights movement who are largely responsible. Salamanca has recently been working with the Farc, travelling out to transitional zones – rural parts of the country that were formerly held by the militia – to run workshops on gender identity. “Until five years ago, they were displacing us and killing us and now they want to work with us,” she says.
But prejudices are hard to overcome. When she was attacked, Salamanca was working in the sex industry, where trans people are particularly vulnerable (65% of those murdered worldwide were sex workers, according to the TGEU report). Yet prostitution is one of only two jobs – along with hairdressing – available to most trans women in Colombia. Those who end up in sex work are mostly in Santa Fe, the notorious barrio on the eastern edge of Bogotá.
Even at 10 in the morning, the area is buzzing, frantic. It is estimated there are between 300 and 600 trans people working in the sex trade here, and the rundown streets are lined with mechanic shops, bars, garages and women – women posing in doorways or lounging against walls, women wearing platform heels and neon bandeau dresses or lingerie and bikini tops.
“This is where we started our transitions, this is where we are working, this is where we are killed,” says Salamanca. “It’s a contradiction – it’s a safe space for our identities, but it’s one of the most dangerous places in Bogotá.”
, the organisation Salamanca founded after the attack, records the number of crimes against trans women to counter scant official statistics. It has reported 12 murders of trans women so far in 2017 in the suburb of Santa Fe alone. On the day of the city’s Pride parade in July, members of Red Comunitaria Trans walked through Santa Fe painting flowers on the ground – one in each spot where a trans woman had been killed.
Bibian Sophia Cáceres, 37, was 22 when she was forced to abandon her studies in economics in Bucaramanga in the north of Colombia and flee to Santa Fe. When she first read about transgender people, it immediately resonated. “I felt like a lightbulb went on in my head. I thought: Oh my God, this is my life,” she says.
Cáceres began taking hormones and, when her breasts started growing, she bound them so people wouldn’t notice. But they did. First, she lost her job, then the local rightwing militia sent her a note saying she had 24 hours to leave the town or they would kill her. She boarded a bus out of Bucaramanga. “I got on the bus as a man and got off the bus in Bogotá as a woman. The first thing I did in Bogotá was get in a taxi and [the driver] said: ‘Señorita, where would you like to go?’” Cáceres beams at the memory. “The only way to be myself was to be in Bogotá.”
But she quickly faced a huge obstacle. Until 2015 when the , it was incredibly difficult for Colombian people to alter their gender on identification documents, requiring a judge to order a bodily inspection or psychiatric exam. Cáceres found it impossible to get a job or apartment – employers and landlords would balk at the fact her appearance was female, but the name and stated sex on her documents were male. “Every time I would try to rent a room, they would look at my appearance and say no,” she says.
Cáceres turned to sex work and, for years, the only places she could find to stay were through that work – sleeping in brothels, the pods where webcam sex sessions were filmed, or in clients’ homes. In the years she worked as a prostitute she was beaten once and raped once – which she says is far less than most sex workers she knows.
She got a break in 2012 when she was hired by an LGBT group, and now she is coordinator of the Sebastián Romero LGBT centre in the leafy middle-class neighbourhood of Teusaquillo. It is clear she is competent, hard-working and beloved – a mother-figure to a lot of the younger LGBT people who attend events and support groups there. Despite this, the spectre of a return to sex work hangs over her. “If I lost my job now, it would be hard for me not to go back to prostitution,” says Cáceres. “Basically, if you’re unemployed and trans, you have a month to sort your life out or you’re on the street.”
It’s a truth Andree Kate Smith, 27, knows only too well. She is employed in the LGBT sector as a contractor, but between contracts she is forced to turn to prostitution, sometimes for months. Her current contract, with the LGBT centre in Santa Fe, runs out on 9 December, a deadline that is particularly frightening because Smith’s partner – a trans man – gave birth to their first child, Eithan, a week ago. “With a son now, I’m even more worried than normal,” she says.
For trans people, says Cáceres, only the lucky few have any safety net. “If you’re a trans person from Bogotá and your family still loves you and supports you, of course you don’t need to go into prostitution,” says Cáceres. “But for most trans people that’s not their experience. They lose their families, they lose their jobs.”
Cáceres is talking on her day off, in an apartment in the upmarket suburb of Zona Rosa that belongs to Kaperuzza Orozco Guzman. Guzman, 67, is the oldest trans person Cáceres knows of in Colombia and is Cáceres’s adopted “trans grandmother”. The pair spend Christmas together.
But Guzman, who comes from a wealthy and influential family, has a completely different experience of being trans to Cáceres. Guzman spent her youth as a ballet dancer in Spain, and on her return to Colombia was protected by her wealth and connections. She opened a high-end beauty salon that provided a decent income, and she styled the hair of beauty queens, actresses and, once, a president’s wife. She opened a nightclub, where she would dress up as a Playboy bunny, that was popular enough with straight people to be protected from bigoted attacks. “Because I was who I was and I was well known, I felt completely comfortable being trans and nobody bothers me,” Guzman says.
The situation for trans people is often stratified along class lines. Those who hold white-collar jobs and have university degrees are often, though not always, able to stay employed when they transition. But for others, things are much harder. Megan Weed, an 18-year-old trans woman, has to dress as a man and answer to the male name she no longer goes by to keep her job at a liquor store. She dreams of moving to the US to study psychiatry and appear on . “I don’t feel like I have a future in Colombia,” she says.
But Cáceres says that, in the past year, working at the Sebastián Romero LGBT centre she has noticed a shift in attitudes. “I’m seeing more and more families helping their children transition,” she says. “That’s a change I’m seeing across all class spectrums, including the poorest neighbourhoods. It used to be that the richer people with more education would come in for advice, but now rich and poor are coming here to get help for their kids.”
Cáceres, who spent four years married to a trans man, insists that life is much easier for trans men in Colombia than for trans women, partly because it is often easier for them to “pass”, but also because of Colombia’s macho culture. “Here, it’s a big problem in society if a man gives up the privilege of being a man,” she says. “Families tend to be more accepting of trans boys than trans girls. It comes from a culture that values men more than women. To gain a son is OK, but to lose a son is catastrophic.”
But when this idea is put to five of the trans men that make up – named for the dose of testosterone trans men take each month – they all disagree strongly, saying they, too, face obstacles when it comes to gaining employment and acceptance.
With one exception, the men, who range in age from 22 to 43, all seem to be thriving. They have jobs in a variety of sectors – one is a computer engineer, another a vet and two work for the government – and many have supportive families. But they all point out how privileged they are and insist that most trans men, particularly those from outside Bogotá, have much harder lives.
Only one, 22-year-old drummer Thomas Jiménez Montaño, faces the sorts of struggles described by most of the trans women I meet. He has changed his documents to reflect his male identity. In Colombia, however, men are required to carry proof of their military service, or a card exempting them from it, which can in some circumstances be bought. Montaño cannot afford one and, despite a 2014 law forbidding universities and private employers from demanding to see it, he has been barred from education and formal employment. As is often the case in Colombia, the laws do not necessarily match people’s lived experiences.
Montaño works in a shop, but is employed off the books, which means he can’t pay into a pension or get a social security card, which restricts his access to healthcare. “It’s a catch-22,” says his friend Andrew Aguacia, a 36-year-old computer engineer, and a singer in the group – if trans men change their identification documents, they face the issue of the military passbook; if they don’t, they face other dangers.
Gustaff Garzón Aguilar, the bass player, was picked up by police in January after a security threat in the city. Police were checking the documents of men in the street. When they saw that the 30-year-old’s identification card said “female”, which clearly did not match his appearance, they arrested him. Once at the station, he says, “they ripped my clothes off, beat me and mocked me. I was out in two hours, but I was so scared.” The LGBT group Colombia Diverso recorded against trans people in 2015, including eight reports of sexual abuse of trans sex workers.
Aguilar has filed an official complaint about the incident but he is not optimistic. “I know of no cases of police being held to account for mistreating trans people.”
Ultimately, this is the problem facing trans people in Colombia, says Laura Weinstein, a trans woman and director of prominent trans rights group . In a society suffused with prejudice against trans people, even the relatively privileged can still be victims of an attack that will never be prosecuted or even recorded as a hate crime.
“Even people who have supportive families are vulnerable,” says Weinstein. “There are people out there who want to kill trans people and they are not going to ask where you went to university or who your parents are.”
So, is coming out, with all its risks to their lives and livelihoods, worth it? “It’s worth it because it’s a transition to joy and freedom,” says Weinstein. “And in the end that’s why we do it: to be happy. All I want is a world where it’s safe to be trans.”