When the new legislators of Venezuela’s now-dominant opposition were sworn in to the National Assembly on Tuesday, Jan. 5, they took their new positions with the understanding that they were headed into a fight. Swept to power amid the greatest public backlash against the party of now-deceased leader Hugo Chávez, the loose coalition of opposition candidates ran on promises of salvaging the country’s cratering economy, freeing political prisoners, and even ousting current President Nicolás Maduro. But amid the crowd of crusaders preparing for what might be a historic fight to bend the country away from the policies of Chavismo, one is more superlative than the rest: Tamara Adrián was elected as the country’s — and in fact one of Latin America’s — first transgender politician. And she’s set her sights on the country’s homophobic and transphobic culture and the legal framework that backs it up.
“We have so much to do,” she said in a December interview, just 10 days after her victory, as she fielded calls from supporters and new constituents seeking favors. “The first order of business is to pass an Amnesty and Political Reconciliation Law that would free political prisoners. And then we have to work on economic measures.” But high on her list is settling a long battle with the country’s Supreme Court that would allow her — and other transgender people — to legally change her name and gender because she transitioned to living as a woman. “The court has delayed on deciding whether to hear my case for years,” Adrián said. “They have ignored me and my suit. Now, I will have a voice in deciding whether they stay on.”
Given that Venezuela is still a country rife with homophobia — and her plans to use her new position as alternate deputy for Caracas, the country’s capital, to fight that and gain equal rights for the country’s LGBT community — Adrián’s win was a stark surprise. Her victory raises the question: Does this mean that Venezuela is becoming a more tolerant country? Or was this a fluke?
Although support for same-sex marriage and equal rights has been steadily gaining ground in Latin America, Venezuela has lagged behind other Latin countries. Argentina led the way, legalizing same-sex marriage in 2010. Brazil and Uruguay did the same in 2013. A 2012 report by the local Diverlex group — an LGBT rights NGO — found that 92 percent of the 237 LGBT Venezuelans interviewed had reported discrimination or violence because of their sexual identity. Many said they would leave the country because of that discrimination if offered the opportunity. About half of Venezuelans say that homosexuality should be accepted according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, putting it behind Argentina (74 percent are for acceptance), Brazil (60 percent), and Mexico (61 percent).
Transgender people in particular are targets of violence in Venezuela. According to a report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 12 transgender persons were murdered between January and October 2013 in just five of the country’s 23 states: Lara, Vargas, Zulia, Mérida, and Aragua. ACCSI, a Caracas-based nongovernmental organization dedicated to fighting discrimination against HIV-positive people, recorded a total of 99 hate crimes against LGBT people in the country between January 2009 and August 2013; of those, 46 were murders. Latin America has some of the world’s highest rates of violence against the trans community — of the 1,356 murders of trans people worldwide between January 2008 and December 2014, 78 percent occurred in Central and South America, according to data collected by Transgender Europe, an international NGO. In the region, Venezuela recorded the third-highest figure of trans people murdered over that time period: 85.
“People here remain provincial,” said Orlando, a 47-year-old lawyer who maintains a clandestine relation with his lover of 15 years. “I don’t want to risk the consequences if I would come out. My family and closest friends suspect, but I’ve never told them. It’s not worth it.”
Although Chávez often mused publicly about backing equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people — including same-sex marriage — homophobic comments and attacks were common among him and his backers, especially when campaigning against opposition leaders. Chávez and his lieutenants often accused the opposition´s presidential candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, of being gay in the 2012 and 2013 presidential elections.
This casual homophobia persisted even though it was an open secret among gay rights organizations that several of Chávez’s and now Maduro’s top lieutenants are closeted lesbians and gay men. Maduro told followers in May during a mass rally, with the LGBT rainbow flag waving throughout the crowd, that the PSUV slate would include gay candidates. But that never ended up happening — instead Maduro made his selection from sports figures and entertainers to fill the PSUV slate.
“Her win is a real feather in the cap of an opposition that is branching out beyond its traditional base,” said David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. “And the fact that the PSUV has never picked up on the issue of marriage equality and LGBT rights speaks to the patriarchalism and militarism that often runs through Marxist parties.”
Ironically, it was the ruling party that helped to secure her spot on the opposition ballot.
In the run-up to the December elections, the Maduro regime did everything in its grasp to hold onto power, including imposing last-minute restrictions on who was eligible to run. In June, the National Electoral Council ruled that both the opposition and the PSUV had to have women make up at least 40 percent of their slates. That decision, however, occurred after the opposition had already had their primary to select candidates. Adrián was selected as the alternative candidate for the Caracas at-large list that was rejiggered to meet the 40 percent rule.
Because Venezuela’s legal system has yet to recognize her transition, as transgender men and women are prohibited from seeking legal changes to their name or gender, Adrián was forced to use her pre-transition name on the ballot. Although the Supreme Court doesn’t recognize her as a woman, the country’s National Electoral Council did.
“My party, Voluntad Popular, had been allotted the second alternative spot for the Federal District list, and our party leader, Leopoldo López, selected me to be our candidate,” Adrián explained during our Dec. 16 interview. López, leader of the 2014 street protest movement, made the decision from the military prison where he is serving an almost 14-year term. She has been one of his trusted lieutenants for the past six years. “In 2009, López asked me to organize the Pro-Inclusion Movement to incorporate our community into the party,” Adrián added that “he has been totally supportive of our movement.”
Relatively well-known because of her activism and frequent appearances on television and in newspapers, Adrián campaigned for her seat in the National Assembly throughout the Caracas district, which had been a bastion of Chavismo, the social movement founded by Chávez and aimed at redistributing the country’s wealth. Although she didn’t give a detailed outline of her platform in the short campaign, she did highlight her aspirations for LGBT as well as women’s rights — especially her support for access to contraceptives and abortion.
“Some chavistas were opposed to me because of who I am,” she said. “The evangelical movement was very opposed to me, as was the Roman Catholic Church, because of my support for abortion and same-sex marriage.” And Adrián said she continues to receive threats even though the election is over.
Born Tomas Adrián, the new congresswoman said she realized at the age of 4 that she had been born into the wrong body. Her childhood was difficult. “I went through what every transgender [person] goes through,” she said. “It’s the same old story. You are really afraid of what is happening to you, and you really don’t understand it. And I didn’t want to tell people, thinking that I would be betraying the trust of my parents.”
Her parents took her to counseling to try to treat her so-called condition, and Adrián said she tried to fit in by becoming super-macho, even though she experimented off and on with hormones for years. She married a woman when she was 26 and had two children before deciding to start gender reassignment treatment. She subsequently underwent surgery in Thailand in 2002. That’s when Tomas took the name Tamara.
With her transition complete, Adrián became an activist fighting for equal rights for the LGBT community, which had largely been ignored by the Chávez government. A lawyer by training with degrees from Venezuela and France, Adrián began fighting for equal political rights for LGBT people.
When she won in the December elections, Adrián joined a select group. Of the 126 trans people who have run as candidates for elected offices worldwide in the last four decades (according to a study of 30 countries by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), only 48 won.
“I don’t think many people thought she would win,” said Mauricio Gutiérrez, who heads Positive Collective, a nongovernmental health organization for HIV-positive people, and is an official in Un Nuevo Tiempo, a rival opposition party. “She definitely benefited from the general swing against the PSUV.”
Under Venezuela’s election laws, voters can cast their ballot for the party slate with one stroke, without needing to vote person by person. The fact that she was listed under her pre-transition name also helped, Gutiérrez said, as people were more comfortable voting for a man than a post-transition woman. While many of these sympathizers knew about her transition, many voters were likely unawares. Adrián doesn’t deny that. Still, she won 10,000 votes more than the other alternate on the opposition slate, which she said underlines how the LGBT community came out to support her.
It’s still far too soon to gauge the impact of her election on Venezuela adopting more pro-LGBT laws and legalizing same-sex marriage, however. Adrián’s election itself “isn’t a substantial change, but it is the beginning of one,” said Caracas-based political analyst Dimitris Pantoulas. “There still needs a lot to be done before we can say that Venezuela is less conservative and macho.”
Still Adrián’s role as a public official — and her story — may go a long way in helping elevate the issue of transgender rights in Venezuela.
When she takes office, Adrián is prepared to tackle the country’s economy, which is expected to contract 10 percent in 2015, and 6 percent in 2016. Inflation is expected to soar above 160 percent, while Venezuela’s currency is worthless outside the country. That has made many Venezuelans desperate for change. “People are poor now, and poverty has increased a lot this year,” she said. “But next year, they are going to be hungry if we don’t take steps to make the economy better. Things could come to a head in the first quarter of .”
But she admits that her private agenda includes working for the passage of a gender identity law, an anti-discrimination law, and a law that would approve same-sex marriage, legislation she admits that will have to wait a bit. But she is optimistic. “I am hoping that with my victory, other LBGT people will come forward and enter politics,” she said. “We can change perceptions and laws, but we, ourselves, have to take the first steps.”
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