Argentine travestis demand reparations for dictatorship’s sexual violence

There are several legislative proposals across the country but no national law

Content note: this story describes sexual violence against minors

María Luisa Domínguez, a community organizer from La Matanza, is sitting at her desk. There is a Minnie Mouse drawing hanging behind her at the Instituto Malbrán laboratory, where she currently holds an administrative job. Retiree Julieta “La Trachy” González walks around her beloved Tigre neighborhood by the river. She’s wearing Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Classique” perfume — the only one she uses. 

Both are travestis who grew up, fast, in 1970s Argentina.

Subjected to constant bullying by her peers and sexually abused by a teacher, Luisa was unable to finish primary school. She ran away from home at 13 to live with three travesti friends — Marta, La Muñeca and Carlota. Unlike its direct English translation, travesti in Argentina is a gender identity with deep political roots that is worn with pride.

They encouraged her gender identity and helped tailor the skirt she wore on her first night of sex work, walking down a dark stretch of highway known as “Camino Negro” where the only lights were those of cars rushing by.

One night, just as Luisa stepped away for a bathroom break, one of those cars was a green Ford Falcon — the vehicle favored by the military dictatorship when cruising around in search of people to kidnap, torture and murder. Juana, La Muñeca and Carlota were violently shoved into the back of the infamous car. Luisa never saw them again.

Julieta, five years older, was kidnapped with two friends on a quiet street corner at the heart of San Isidro’s residential historic district. She had already been arrested and her family home raided — this was not her first time facing physical and sexual abuse from authorities. 

They were taken to the Pozo de Banfield, a large police station that functioned as a clandestine detention center from 1974 to 1978. For about three weeks Julieta cooked on the first floor while her friends broke rocks outside. They could hear people screaming in pain and cleaned more than one bloody car. Every night, officers woke them up and sexually assaulted them. In return, Julieta managed to call her brother, bartered for food and stole money that the repressors had left in their trousers.

Luisa was also taken to the Pozo de Banfield, several times. She was also forced to perform sexual favors and clean toilets, but she would be held for a few days at a time and then let go. To this day, she doesn’t know why.

For these moments and many more, travestis around Argentina are calling for reparations for what they suffered during the last military dictatorship and beyond. Their lives were continuously threatened while Ford Falcons roamed the streets, but democracy brought no relief.

“The main difference is that when you were taken by the military, you were never seen again. Or if you were, you reappeared with electric shock marks, beaten up, without teeth…if you reappeared,” said Luisa. 

“Then with democracy, we remained in prison because that is our life. And that’s why we had to go private, working 24/7 shifts in saunas,” she said, referring to the dynamics of the sex work she long depended on to survive.

She described the late 80s and 90s as an era of being constantly chased by police and pimps and “jail, jail, jail, jail, jail.”

Under the dictatorship, the military and police didn’t bother justifying their arrests. Under democracy, they were detained for “dressing publicly in clothes belonging to the opposite sex” and “offering sexual services on public streets.” The maximum penalty was 30 days in jail, but they were in so often it was like a permanent sentence.

“If they collared you once, that was it,” said Julieta. “I’ve been dragged out of the corner shop, off buses. They loved it.” 

Both ran into the same abusive officers they had encountered during the dictatorship — Luisa when she was behind bars yet again and Julieta on a 721 bus in Vicente Lopez. 

When he confirmed his identity and said he didn’t remember who she was, she beat him up until the next stop.

“Who can ‘repair’ this?”

Luisa at a march calling for the reappearance of Tehuel, a trans man who went missing in 2021 // Photo: Luisa Domínguez

There are several bills across the country that approach the issue of travesti-trans reparations in different ways. First, there’s the adaptation of existing reparations laws to include transphobic violence as a cause for dictatorship-era persecution. Julieta explains that this is how she became one of first travestis in Buenos Aires province to receive a pension, through a court case that argued her right to be compensated for what she went through.In 2018, Santa Fe province coded that right into the preexisting reparations law, enabling many travestis to get their pensions without having to sue the state individually.

Then there are two broad categories of travesti-trans-specific proposals: bills addressing dictatorship reparations for the community and bills that put forward an umbrella pension for the community members given the systemic violence they suffer at the hands of police and other state forces generally, not just during the dictatorship.

One such bill was approved in Santa Cruz last week and another, which calls for proof of detention by police forces, is slowly making its way through committees in Santa Fe province.

“These projects that involve state budgets are always greatly resisted,” Matilde Bruera, a lawmaker for the provincial government of Santa Fe. “Many make excuses saying ‘Well, then, we’d have to compensate every other community’ — but this specific community is making a demand and it’s been proven that it has been mercilessly persecuted.” 

Bruera told the Herald that the bill has already been approved by two commissions, inching closer to Santa Fe’s congress floor. 

“It would be great for the bills to transcend provincial barriers and become national law,” said Bruera. “It would greatly support us and make it harder for people in the province to oppose it.”

As for National Congress, a bill was originally presented in 2016 and then reintroduced by Deputy Gabriela Estévez in 2021 but it hasn’t been discussed. 

“Only by recognizing the state’s responsibility in the historic, structural, and systemic violation of the fundamental rights of travestis and trans people will we be able to deepen the path of recognition, reparations and inclusion,” said Estévez in a written statement, highlighting Argentina’s Gender Identity Law and the Travesti-Trans Job Quota Law. 

“This bill proposes to contribute to that process, including social security for travesti and trans elders that have survived discrimination and violence in order that they may go through the last stage of their lives with greater dignity.” 

Sources told the Herald that there are plans to unify proposals in Congress and start pushing a bill through the necessary commissions to get it onto the floor.

“This whole reparations thing will end with a minimum pension, if we get anything at all,” said Luisa, who pointed out that she got her first formal job last year at the age of 58 — she’s meant to retire next year. “We’re talking about reparations, but who can ‘repair’ all of this? Nobody can.”

“Nobody can fix the fact that I was raped by a group of police officers at 15, jailed so often just for being a travesti, that my underage sister was made to pull her underwear down when she came to visit, my mother’s belongings confiscated —  what reparations are you talking about?”

Julieta echoed Luisa’s feelings, telling the Herald that she receives a pension of around AR$ 70,000 — roughly in line with the state’s minimum retirement payment. Both emphasized that it needed to be a national project. 

“There are older girls who are pushing 70 and have to be on the street corner waiting for all the younger ones to leave,” said Julieta, highlighting that there are very few elder travestis left alive and that she has seen many die in extreme poverty. “Even if it’s for one client, to be able to buy cigarettes and a kilo of bread.” 

“Then when the municipality hands out bags of produce they act like they’re paying for it with their own money and tell you to ‘wait.’ Well, we can’t wait. They need help now.”

La Trachy in Tigre. March 2023 // Source: Valen Iricibar


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