The High Cost of Being Yourself: Interview with a transgender activist
In the second part of our Colombian special, Deviance editor Ana talks to transgender activist <strong>Laura Weinstein</strong> about trans issues in Bogota
I’m sitting in a small room in the back of a house which has been converted into an LGBT centre. Gustavo, the pastor that I met a few weeks ago, has offered to be my translator. He wants me to talk to one of his friends, Laura Weinsten, a transgender activist.
Laura was born in a traditional Jewish family in Bogota, Colombia in 1980. Her family had very defined religious parameters and were very conservative.
She tells us that when people would ask her as a child if she was a boy or a girl she would answer that she was a girl. She would refer to herself as a ‘feminiño’, Spanish that’s a ‘female boy’ and didn’t understand why people would laugh at her for it. As she grew older she withdrew into herself.
However, when she went to high school she found that in the same area were girls who worked in prostitution who were transgender. She was able to get close to them. It was the first time she met people like herself. She asked the women how she could learn to be like them but they discouraged her. They told her to work hard at school, to forget about her feelings until she was in a more secure position.
Even so, she started to visit them. Then one day she couldn’t find them anymore – she later learned the police had driven them out and one of her friends had been killed. The experience made her feel incredibly guilty (she was around sixteen at the time) and from then on she says she felt responsible for the other transgender women she knew.
Over the course of the hour Laura talks about transsexuals being refused medical care, recalling a particular occasion when she was in hospital visiting a sick relative and she witnessed this first-hand. She says she tried to get more involved with activism but when she was eighteen she ended up in jail for trying to save some transgendered people from the police who were beating them in the street.
Her parents decided to send her to Israel to try to find God. Instead she found acceptance – a society that was tolerant of her kind of difference. When her father died she came back to Bogota. She says:
“My father never accepted me for who I was. When I was a child he used to beat me, because I was very feminine. When I was five my father found me dressed as a girl; he hit me and then locked me in a dark room. In a way it was easier after he died because I was able to educate my mother.”
Now Laura helps run a government-funded LGBT centre called Centro Comunitario Distrital LGBT in Bogota, and a group called Gat Grupo de Apoyo Transgenerista which has twenty members who represent different areas of the city. They work together to teach other members of the community that they have rights, as transgendered people.
She tells us that the transsexuals used to carry guns on the streets of Bogota so that they could protect themselves but after working with them they say that they now fight with their voices instead of their guns.
In the past few years she has been involved in more and more activism. Right now she is also the co-ordinator of a group called the G80 Transgender Support Group, which has done a lot of visibility work in the community and helps to support people going through gender–reassignment surgery (transitioning).
In the UK you can transition on the NHS (if you’re prepared to spend a long time on waiting lists). When I mention this to Laura she just laughs and says that nothing is free in Colombia. But then she turns serious again:
“People have died because of procedures that went wrong, or have tried to do it themselves. It is expensive and there are not many places that we can go to get the surgery or support we need.”
I ask if the high cost of transition is one of the reasons that so many transsexuals work as prostitutes. Laura tells me that in many cases prostitution is just a way of surviving because they are cast out by society – they are not allowed to work in most places. I had been told earlier on in my trip that many transsexual women work in hair salons and Laura verifies this, saying that it is one of the only jobs they are able to do.
Then I ask her if the advice that the prostitutes gave her when she was a teenager was good advice. She answers that if she had not listened to them she wouldn’t be where she is right now. She says that she is no better than anyone else but that she was lucky and now she feels she has a duty to give back to the community.
In terms of the future Laura would like to see a law protecting the rights of the transgender community, a gender identity law. She feels that would improve the general quality of life. More programmes of education are needed, changes to the health insurance so that transitioning is a little easier. The discrimination needs to stop so that they can have good jobs – so that prostitution is not the only means to survive.
“I have always said that we are not prostitutes. We have been prostituted.”
She tells me there is hope, that there are two transsexual women lecturing at one of the Universities in Bogota and they are respected in their fields. But she adds:
“What haunts me is that one day if I am out on the street and someone identifies me as a transgender, it does not matter how much education I have or how much good I do, they can come and kill me just like any girl who works as a prostitute. Even though I have never had the need to support myself that way. Nevertheless people will not see the difference.”
I ask her if she has a message for the people of Scotland and she starts to cry. After a moment she says:
“What I do is a labour of love. I am just happy to be fighting for people’s rights and to know that I am making a difference that is the best reward. I just want people to know that we are normal, I want us to be able to have a normal life.”
Last year the mayor of Bogota gave Laura an award for her work in LGBT rights. Part of the interview is available to view online at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wfPdvTpcn4&feature=channel_video_titlehttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wfPdvTpcn4&feature=channel_video_title