Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 29, 2016, at 10:24 a.m. ET
As the rights of transgender people became a major political issue in the US with fights over bathroom access, many other countries around the world have been locked in fundamental debates over gender identity.
In 2016, Norway joined a small but rapidly growing number of countries where changing your legal gender is as simple as filling out a form, and a committee of the British Parliament called on the UK to follow suit. Lawmakers in India are weighing laws that would ban discrimination and establish affirmative action for transgender people in response to a Supreme Court order. And a global effort to remove being transgender from the catalog of mental illnesses kept by the World Health Organization has gained ground and appears poised for victory when the list is updated by 2018.
To get a sense of global attitudes on transgender rights, BuzzFeed News and the polling firm Ipsos partnered with UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute to conduct a first-of-its-kind survey of 23 nations asking about everything from bathroom access to sex reassignment surgery.
We ranked support for trans rights in countries surveyed based on how respondents answered six policy questions. The questions concerned access to bathrooms, sex reassignment surgery, marriage, parenting, and protection from discrimination.
Spain and Sweden — both of which have long been at the vanguard of LGBT rights in Europe — rank at the top of our list.
Sweden was the first country in Western Europe to adopt a procedure to allow people to change their legal gender marker in 1972, and its gender identity law became a model for other nations. Argentina, which comes in third in our ranking, set a new gold standard with a “self-determination” gender identity law adopted in 2012: For the first time in the Western Hemisphere, individuals could change their legal gender by simply filling out a form — no surgery or doctor’s permission required. Four countries in Europe have since adopted self-declaration laws modeled on Argentina’s, and at least 18 more countries are considering similar proposals, according to the advocacy group Transgender Europe.
Russia ranks last on nearly every measure in our survey, perhaps because of the anti-LGBT campaign around passage of the so-called gay propaganda law in 2012. The lawmaker who conceived of that provision — St. Petersburg state legislator Vitaly Milonov — is reportedly at work on legislation that would open the door to prosecutions against doctors who perform sex reassignment surgery.
Unfortunately, technical and financial constraints meant we couldn’t do a survey that would be truly representative of all parts of the world. We focused primarily on countries with high internet penetration, where online surveys tend to more reliably represent the general population. As a result, less developed nations, especially in Africa and Asia, are underrepresented in our sample.
We conducted online surveys in 16 countries with widespread internet access. We also surveyed six countries with somewhat lower internet penetration, where the results provide a clue about what people think but might not be broadly representative of public opinion. Additionally, in India we commissioned surveyors to conduct in-person interviews because of the country's low internet penetration. Ipsos considers the results of these surveys to be accurate within a window of 3.1 to 4.5 percentage points, depending on the size of the sample in each country. (You can read more about our methods here.)
Because the word “transgender” (or its equivalent in other languages) is not widely known in many places, we asked respondents about their attitudes toward people “who dress and live as one sex even though they were born another.” We also used the word “sex” rather than “gender” throughout the survey, because many people don’t understand the difference and because many languages don't distinguish between the two.
In nearly every country we surveyed, less than half of the respondents said they believe that individuals should have total control over their own legal gender designation:
Spain was the only country where a majority of our sample support allowing people to change their legal gender designation without restriction, and 48% of our sample support the idea in Argentina, where it is the law. In most countries, a substantial portion of respondents said people who want to change their legal gender should first be required to have sex reassignment surgery or get permission from an official, such as a judge or doctor. (If you want to read up on requirements for changing legal gender designations around the world, check out this new report from the advocacy group ILGA.)
Twenty-four percent of respondents in the United States said that legal gender reassignment should not be allowed under any circumstances, meaning respondents in the US are the most opposed of any country we surveyed — even slightly more opposed than Russian respondents.
Most respondents in two-thirds of these countries said transgender people should be “allowed to use the restroom of the sex they identify with.” Support was over 70% in Spain, Argentina, and India. This group includes some countries that score toward the bottom on our measures of support for transgender rights, including Turkey and Peru.
In the United States — where bathroom access has become the primary battleground over transgender rights — just 47% said transgender people should be “allowed to use the restroom of the sex they identify with.” Other countries where less than half of respondents support bathroom choice include Brazil, Japan, and Russia.
Most respondents don’t know a transgender person.
People who said they personally know someone who is transgender are substantially more supportive of transgender rights in nearly every country we surveyed. In some countries, people who know a transgender person were 30% more supportive on the scale calculated by BuzzFeed News.
Less than 3% of respondents identify as transgender in almost all the countries we surveyed — the only country where the score was higher was the United States, where 5% said they “dress and live as one sex even though they were born another.”
Our sample wasn’t large enough to precisely measure such small groups, so our findings don’t really tell us how many people identify as transgender. We combined these respondents with people who said they have a transgender friend, family member, or acquaintance to calculate how familiar people in different countries are with transgender people. And we found a huge range.
Brazil came in first on this measure, where 50% of respondents reported familiarity with a transgender person, but the country ranks 14th on our combined measure of support for transgender rights. This visibility is especially notable because Brazil records some of the highest rates of anti-trans violence in the world.
In Spain, our most trans-supportive country, just 25% of respondents reported being familiar with a trans person. The percentage of people who reported being familiar with a transgender person in our most anti-trans country, Russia, is statistically equivalent to the percentages we find in countries like the UK, India, and Germany — all between 16% and 20%. Respondents in Japan appear to be the least familiar with transgender people, even though a 2003 law made the treatment of transgender people a concern of the national government.
People are more comfortable with gay people than transgender people in some countries.
To get a sense of how attitudes toward transgender people might play out in the real world, we asked respondents how they would feel about having different types of people as neighbors. In many countries, the number of respondents who said they wouldn’t want a gay neighbor or a transgender neighbor were about the same. But in several — including the United States — respondents said they are far more opposed to having a transgender neighbor than a gay or lesbian one. Gay and lesbian neighbors are also far more acceptable to respondents in some countries than neighbors of a different race or ethnicity, especially in Europe.
Majorities in nearly every country said they believe transgender people “should be protected from discrimination by the government.”
In most of the world, you need a psychiatric diagnosis to change your legal gender designation. But majorities in most countries surveyed don’t consider being transgender to be a form of mental illness.
Except in the handful of countries with self-determination gender identity laws, you usually need a doctor to diagnose you with “gender identity disorder” or “gender dysphoria” if you want to change your legal gender markers. Many transgender rights supporters and health professionals say this promotes discrimination against transgender people — just as labeling homosexuality a mental illness used to do — and have been pushing medical associations to stop calling transgender people “disordered.” They are poised for a big victory: A draft of the next edition of the World Health Organization’s list of diagnoses deletes the term “gender identity disorder” and no longer classifies being transgender as a mental health issue.
We found only a few countries where a majority of respondents said they think transgender people “have a form of mental illness”: Russia, India, and Turkey. Russia and India were also the only countries where majorities of respondents said they believe transgender people “have a form of physical disability.”
Many countries require sterilization for people who want to change their legal gender designation, but majorities in most countries believe transgender people have a right to be parents.
The fact that a majority in Turkey support allowing transgender people to conceive children is especially notable, since Europe’s top human rights court ruled last year that its sterilization requirement violated international law.
One of the world’s most important gender identity debates is now happening in India.
Legislation is now pending in India that would provide protections to transgender people in the country, home to 1.25 billion people.
Centuries-old communities of transgender women — most commonly known as hijras — were criminalized under laws passed when India was a British colony, and today often make a living as beggars or sex workers. India’s Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that the government must enact broad reforms to correct this history, including outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender identity, creating affirmative action for transgender people in employment and schools, and giving them welfare benefits. A law to comply with the order unanimously passed the upper house of the Indian legislature in 2015, but the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced its own watered-down version of the legislation earlier this year that transgender activists have widely condemned.
Our in-person survey in India — which was conducted just before the government rolled out its legislation in August 2016 — found overwhelming support for the original Supreme Court ruling, with 47% saying they “strongly agree” with the decision and an additional 35% saying they “somewhat agree.” Support for individual provisions of the ruling ranged as high as 80%, and 64% said they also support reserving seats in the legislature for transgender people the same way there are seats specifically allocated for women. (This idea was not included in the court order.)
But responses in our survey suggest that Indians are still conflicted about the place of transgender people in society. The long history of transgender communities and religious beliefs that they bring blessings is reflected in the fact that more than 60% of Indians said transgender people have “a special place in society” and 48% said they believe they “have unique spiritual gifts,” more than any other country on both measures. But 55% also said transgender people “are violating the traditions of [their] culture” and 49% said they are “committing a sin” — comparable to Russia on both measures.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 14, 2016, at 10:12 a.m. ET
GAINSBOROUGH, England — If the 25-year-old had been born with a penis, he likely never would have been charged with sexual assault.
The events that brought him before an English judge in December 2015 began four years earlier, when he was 21 and going under the name of Joey Crislow in a Facebook profile. In the summer of 2011, he struck up a relationship online with a 23-year-old woman named Carol.
In an interview this spring, Carol recalled Joey’s profile picture showed a man who was tall and buff — “like an Australian surfer.” Joey initially said meeting in person would be difficult because he lived an hour away. But over the course of the next year, their relationship grew from chats to text messages to calls that would last until they both fell asleep. They traded “explicit” photographs, according to court records. At the time, Carol was three months pregnant and had just been dumped by her partner of four years, and Joey sent her pictures of his own daughter and said his ex wouldn’t let him see their child.
“How did I fall for somebody that I’d never met?”
Sitting at her mother’s kitchen table as her child climbed in and out of her lap, Carol described how quickly she had fallen in love. “It was the most stupidest love,” she said. “How did I fall for somebody that I’d never met?” (Carol spoke to BuzzFeed News on the condition that her last name not be used.)
Joey went to great lengths to avoid meeting. One time when they’d made a date, Carol said, she got a text from a strange number telling her Joey had had an accident and was in intensive care — but she called all the hospitals in the area and none had a patient called Joey Crislow. He avoided meeting her a few more times before she gave him an ultimatum: “You’ve got till next weekend to come down — and if you don’t come down … I’m not going to keep doing this.”
When Joey finally pulled up outside her mother’s house in October 2012, Carol realized why he’d been hiding — he looked nothing like his picture. The person behind the wheel was chubby and baby-faced, trying to conceal his features inside a puffy jacket and a floppy hat. He wouldn’t look her in the eyes when she climbed in. As he started to pull away from the curb, she jumped out in fear and ran back to her mother’s.
Carol didn’t speak to him for about two weeks after that, but eventually gave him a chance to explain. He fed her a story about creating the Joey Crislow profile as a scheme to help catch a friend’s cheating girlfriend. He told her his name was actually Kyran. He thought she wouldn’t have been interested in him if he’d shown her a real picture of himself.
It probably sounds crazy, she said, but she forgave him.
“I’d fallen for this person … That’s why, even then, I met up with them and I gave them a chance.”
Their relationship only lasted for a few more weeks but it was very intense. “Everything just came together,” Carol said of that fall of 2012. “It felt like I knew this person my whole life.” The lies were in the past, she thought, and now they “knew everything about each other.”
Kyran doted on her baby and he started sleeping over at her house almost immediately. But he was painfully shy about his body, sleeping in boxers and a tight top he said was to hide an embarrassingly large gut. They had sex just once, and both remember it as quick and awkward. Kyran kept his clothes on and pushed Carol’s hand away every time she reached for his penis.
At the time she just chalked the weirdness up to nerves: “You know when you get embarrassed the first time and you’re like, ‘Oh fuck,’ and you just roll over and you’re like, ‘I’m sorry.’”
But there were still some things Kyran hadn’t told her.
A week later, Carol’s mother caught Kyran in another lie: She spotted him working at the drive-thru window at a local McDonald’s when he had told them he worked miles away. Carol rushed to confront him and saw Kyran running out the back of the restaurant as she charged in the front.
The manager told her that the person wasn’t called Kyran, Carol remembered: “She’s Fiona Manson, and she’s a lesbian.”
As soon as Carol recovered from the shock, she went straight to the police.
Kyran told BuzzFeed News his story in May 2016, sitting on the couch in a row house off a fading commercial strip on the outskirts of Gainsborough, a town of around 20,000 in the countryside about two hours north of London.
Kyran said he met Carol just as he was fully coming to terms with being trans, and he remembered the weeks he and Carol dated as being one of the happiest times in his life so far.
Before Carol, he said, the only place he could be the man he felt himself to be was in online profiles, and their relationship was so easy precisely because she never knew he was raised as a girl. He seemed to speak forthrightly about much of what happened, though he glossed over some key details. But in his mind, one thing he never lied to Carol about was his gender.
“She was the first person I could be with in the same [physical] place and actually be myself,” Kyran said. “I was completely myself, apart from the fact that she didn’t know who I used to be.”
He was in the middle of his medical transition, having recently recovered from his second chest reduction surgery, and was looking forward to having bottom surgery. But he said that it took many years to learn that transitioning was even an option.
“I had no idea that people like me existed — the only [trans] people I ever saw on TV were men turned into women,” he said.
“I was completely myself, apart from the fact that she didn’t know who I used to be.”
Then he discovered the videos of Aydian Dowling, a trans man who became a YouTube star documenting his transition in a series of videos beginning in 2009. But once Kyran knew transitioning was possible, he said he was still afraid to take that first step — he chickened out on several doctors' appointments he booked in early 2012.
“My first thought was like, ‘How do you tell people?’... If I had got over that hurdle quicker, I would have done everything so much earlier,” he said.
Kyran said he’d planned to tell Carol after New Year's; she was so looking forward to Christmas that he didn’t want to risk upsetting her and ruin the holiday. During his sentencing hearing, the prosecutor described how Kyran came up with many excuses to avoid having sex — once claiming he’d “found a lump ... down below” — and the judge accepted Kyran’s story that he only gave in after she threatened to break things off. (Carol disputed this account in her interview with BuzzFeed News.)
In Kyran’s version of events, Carol’s mother was the one who called the police about him, omitting the fact detailed in court records that he tailed Carol from McDonald's to the police station on November 28 and was warned for harassment. Kyran described turning up at Carol’s mother’s house in January 2013 and refusing to leave when Carol wouldn’t speak to him, but he didn’t mention that he threatened to kill himself on her doorstep, according to court records, while “holding a knife as blood dripped down her [sic] arms.”
When prosecutors finally brought charges against him, he was stunned to learn that he was accused with assault by penetration — just a step removed from rape — which can carry a sentence of up to life in prison.
On June 6, 2013, Kyran pleaded guilty. He says his lawyers told him the prosecution’s case was ironclad and fighting the charge would only doom him to a stiffer sentence. And he was petrified of going to jail — he didn’t know whether he’d go to a men’s or women’s prison, and both seemed likely to leave him deeply scarred.
He pleaded guilty, but was still shocked that what he'd done was classified as sexual assault.
"It sounds like you’re going to pin someone down and do some horror to her, and it wasn’t that," Kyran said. “I’m getting done for something I didn’t even know I was doing."
British tabloids sensationalized the cases with headlines like: “Woman Duped by Lesbian with Fake Penis Reveals Her Horror.”
The British tabloids covered this case with headlines like, “Woman Duped by Lesbian with Fake Penis Reveals Her Horror” and “Mum Duped into Sex with Lesbian Using Fake Penis Vows to Get On With Her Life.” A similar case sentenced months before Kyran’s garnered equally sensational headlines, and one that came months after was summed up with phrases like, “Woman Used Rubber Penis to Pretend to Be a Man to Lure Girls Into Sex.”
There have been at least six prosecutions for so-called gender fraud in the UK since 2012, and they’ve mostly been reported as sex crimes that are so outlandish it can be easy to forget they involve real people. But they’re complicated personal stories when looked at more closely.
Most of the defendants in these cases have not identified as trans, or at least not tried to defend themselves against the charges on that basis. The courts have mostly seen these as cases of lesbians tricking women into homosexual sex. (None of the gender fraud cases have so far involved cisgender men or trans women.) But some of the other defendants appear to have been young women who seem to have been genuinely exploring their gender identity. And the prosecutions raise a fundamental question about the law of sexual consent: How far should the law go in policing what people tell each other before having sex?
Britain’s legal system is also struggling with the questions of gender identity they raise.
On Wednesday, the Court of Appeal of England and Wales ordered a new trial in the most widely covered of the recent gender fraud cases. The same day, the Court of Appeal rejected a request to reduce the prison sentence of more than three years in a separate case concerning Jennifer Staines, who pleaded guilty in March to eight charges related to three relationships she had between 2008 and 2014. The first of these relationships began when she was still a minor, and her lawyer said during sentencing that this was a time when she was also googling “transgender” and other terms that suggested she was "a confused young woman who is trying to come to terms with who she is."
How far should the law go in policing what people tell each other before having sex?
Staines was 17 when she befriended a 12-year-old girl online. They met and “snogged” after the young girl had turned 13, but they never had sex. During sentencing, the judge said three months of her total jail time was to punish this sexual touching, and there were additional counts for possessing explicit pictures that the young girl had sent to her. Staines also pleaded guilty to having sex repeatedly with another girl closer to her own age whom she dated for more than a year beginning in 2012, and a third girl who she dated for several months in 2014.
Her attorney, Stephen Mooney, told BuzzFeed News that he believed the judges were somewhat sympathetic. Though Staines now identifies as a lesbian woman, Mooney presented evidence that Staines' gender identity questions were real and that the sex grew out of emotional relationships. But in general, the courts are more concerned with the impact on the victims rather than the defendants’ situations.
“The court of appeals understood that this wasn't a girl who's a predator, who was anything other than confused,” Mooney said. But the bottom line was that the complainants “had sex with her without a full appreciation of the circumstances,” and the court put “more emphasis on the deceit than why the deceit was perpetrated.”
Carol wanted Kyran prosecuted for the fraud of creating a false persona, but fraud is only a crime in England if done for financial gain. But the fact that Kyran’s persona was male and his legal gender was female cleared the way for a sex crime charge.
As Carol put it, “I didn’t consent to having sex with a woman; I consented to having sex with a man.”
“I didn’t consent to having sex with a woman; I consented to having sex with a man.”
These crimes have become known as "gender fraud" even though they're actually prosecuted as cases of sexual assault. The basis for these charges is a little confusing because there’s no law that specifically says that it is illegal to lie about your gender to a sexual partner.
The principle grew out of a premise that no one argues with: that a person has a right to consent to sex with full knowledge of all the information that would affect their decision. The Sexual Offences Act that applies in England and Wales nods to this idea by requiring someone to “reasonably believe” a partner consents before sexual contact. (Five of these cases were prosecuted in England; a sixth was prosecuted under a different charge in Scotland, which has a separate criminal system.) If that consent is based on a lie, it follows, the consent doesn’t count.
But critics say that the courts have selectively enforced this principle, ruling out prosecutions for people who lie to a sexual partner about things including their real name, marital status, or wealth. Many legal experts contend that this reflects the bias of the largely male legal system, turning a blind eye especially to the kinds of things men routinely lie about to get women into bed.
In one recent high-profile case, prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against a group of undercover police officers who had sex with women without revealing their true identities — including two cops who fathered children with women who believed they were in an ongoing relationship.
The courts have mostly held that the only kind of lies that can nullify consent are about the nature of the sexual act, such as breaking promises not to ejaculate inside someone or to wear a condom. Misrepresenting who you are generally isn’t a crime.
The gender fraud cases have put gender identity in a very special category, and the pattern is alarming to transgender rights advocates. They create a precedent that means trans people could risk prosecution if they don’t out themselves before even light sexual contact. But disclosing their gender identity could have life-or-death consequences. There’s a long history of what’s known as “trans panic”: A number of trans women have been murdered by sexual partners who discovered they’re trans during or after sex.
It’s notable that these cases are now happening in British courts, because they come as lawmakers are deliberating reforms that would make Britain one of the easiest countries in the world to change your legal gender.
In January, a House of Commons committee issued a transgender equality report, which essentially recommends allowing people to have total control over their legal gender designation, removing requirements that transgender people must submit medical evidence to a government panel before changing their legal records.
“It’s a central part of who we are as a country that we treat people with respect, people who have the courage to think about their sexuality, to think about their gender,” Conservative MP Maria Miller, who chaired the committee, told BuzzFeed News in an interview in May 2016. (The matter is now on the back burner in the uncertainty following the UK’s decision to leave the EU.)
Miller said she was unaware of the gender fraud prosecutions, but said “there are always going to be anomalies” when changes are made “in these sorts of areas,” and that shouldn’t mean the country should be “limiting people’s rights to be able to determine who they are.”
The gender fraud cases are partly a reflection of a general shift in approach to gender identity, said Stephen Whittle, a professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University and a specialist adviser on Parliament’s transgender equality report.
“The idea that you can adopt a transgender identity is much more pervasive today — there’s not the fear that my generation had, and we have lots of young people exploring these issues for themselves,” he said.
But, he said, the courts are falling behind. He pointed out that the judges who decided the defining gender fraud case were three men in their sixties all educated at Oxford, and they are “making judgment about the lives of people on things like they’ve never experienced.”
In England and Wales these gender fraud cases have been prosecuted under a precedent set in the Court of Appeals in a 2013 ruling.
The defendant’s name was Justine McNally, a girl from Glasgow who was going by the name Scott Hill on a social networking site called Habbo in 2007. She was just 13 at the time, and befriended a girl about a year younger living in London — whom the court calls “M” — and they developed a relationship over the next three and a half years, speaking on MSN messenger and by phone.
Many of the details of the case have not been made public, but the summary of events presented in the Court of Appeal judgment makes it sound like they could have been two teenagers falling in love. They talked about getting married, having children, what they’d do together in bed.
(McNally declined to be interviewed for this story through an attorney, but directed BuzzFeed News to refer to her with female pronouns.)
M alleged they had sex just once, the first time McNally visited her in London in March 2011, when McNally was 17 and M was 16. (Sixteen is the age of consent in England.) But their relationship carried on for several visits, during which “there were lots of occasions of oral penetration and occasions of digital penetration,” the court wrote. “They wanted to engage in sexual activity all the time.”
On McNally’s fourth and final visit, M’s mother found a bra and a strap-on in McNally’s bag, a discovery M testified made her feel “physically sick.” McNally confessed everything to the two when confronted — and showed them her Facebook page under her given name that pictured her wearing a pink dress and heels. She “kept talking about wanting a sex change” and begged to keep the relationship alive, according to the court.
It’s not clear what M wanted at this point, but M’s mother called McNally’s school to complain, and the school reported the sexual contact to police.
The appeals ruling suggests McNally never told police, her lawyers, or a judge that she wanted to undergo medical transition. She initially intended to fight the charges by claiming that M had known about her gender for about two years before they met in person. But in a turn that appeared to mystify her defense attorney, she withdrew the claim and decided to plead guilty to almost all the charges against her.
In March 2013, when McNally was 19, a judge sentenced her to three years in prison for six counts of assault by penetration using her fingers and tongue. In a deal with prosecutors, a seventh charge for penetrating M with a dildo was dropped — McNally maintained throughout the proceedings that this never happened.
McNally appealed her sentence, and her new lawyers hoped they could get the Court of Appeal to throw out her conviction altogether in part by arguing that the conviction got the law wrong: A lie about gender shouldn’t invalidate sexual consent.
There were only two relevant cases in which the courts had ruled consent could be invalidated by a lie, they said; both concerned violating an agreement about the sex act, not a misrepresentation of identity. One concerned WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, in which the court decided that it could be a crime to break a promise to wear a condom; the second involved a man accused of breaking a promise to pull out before ejaculating. In essence, McNally’s lawyers argued, a lie about gender was more like lying about your wealth than lying about exposure to semen.
The three-judge panel agreed to reduce her time in prison, but rejected that she had committed no crime, saying her attorneys’ argument defied “common sense.”
“Thus while in a physical sense, the acts of assault by penetration of the vagina are the same whether perpetrated by a male or a female, the sexual nature of the acts is, on any common sense view, different where the complainant is deliberately deceived by a defendant into believing that the latter is a male,” wrote Lord Justice Brian Leveson for the three-judge panel.
“Some deceptions (such as, for example, in relation to wealth) will obviously” not be the kind of lie that would invalidate consent, Leveson wrote. But gender could be fundamental to consent, Leveson continued: “M chose to have sexual encounters with a boy and her preference (her freedom to choose whether or not to have a sexual encounter with a girl) was removed” by McNally’s misrepresentation.
The Crown Prosecution Service — the agency that oversees all prosecutions in England and Wales — issued guidelines following this judgment urging prosecutors to consider factors including whether the offense “occurred as a result of the suspects [sic] uncertainty or ambivalence about his/her gender identity” and what steps a defendant “has taken to acquire a new gender status.” CPS senior legal adviser Neil Moore told BuzzFeed News in an interview that trans people were not being “targeted” for prosecutions.
But the McNally precedent creates tremendous uncertainty for transgender people, said Tom Wainwright, who represented McNally during her appeal. The ruling says “there’s no consent in some circumstances,” if someone is judged to have misrepresented their gender, “but we don’t know what those circumstances are.”
Because “sexual assault” encompasses a wide range of acts, the courts may have opened the door to gender deception prosecutions for sexual contact far short of penetration.
“That has huge implications for the trans community,” Wainwright said. “That definition of consent applies not just to sex; it [also] applies to sexual assault — which can include a kiss.”
It creates serious problems for the court to get involved in personal relationships on this level, Wainwright said. "My view generally on these things is, 'buyer beware.'"
By the time the sentence was handed down in December 2015, the person who had been charged as Fiona Manson was officially known as Kyran Lee.
Sentencing was delayed for 18 months because another woman came forward after Carol’s accusation made the news, saying Kyran had similarly deceived her. Kyran fought the charges and won, his lawyer said, because there was insufficient evidence he and the other woman had ever had sex.
During those 18 months, Kyran had begun to medically transition. He said he first requested hormone therapy from his doctor around July 2012, but it took until 2014 to complete the psychiatric and medical reviews required by the National Health Service to start hormone therapy. He had his first chest reduction surgery shortly before being sentenced.
You don’t get a handbook what you can and can’t do as a trans man.
The evidence of transition that Kyran presented to the court helped keep him out of jail. Judge Michael Heath said he would commute Kyran’s two-year prison sentence so he wouldn’t go to prison unless he commits a serious violation of his probation. The judge said he was lenient because he was convinced that Kyran wanted to “have a relationship as a man with a woman ... it was not a [ruse] to practise lesbian behaviour.”
Kyran is, however, now a registered sex offender. But when he spoke to BuzzFeed News in May his life had seemed to be getting back on track, including recently getting engaged to be married. And he still thinks it's unfair that if he’d been raised a boy and done the same thing — created a fake male persona and had sex with a woman — he likely wouldn’t have been prosecuted.
"You don’t get a handbook what you can and can’t do [as a trans man],” he said.
Carol also feels let down by the justice system. She was shattered when Kyran escaped jail, and now suffers anxiety so severe that she generally won’t leave the house alone. She questions nearly everything Kyran told the court, and now she lives a few blocks from the person she feels raped her.
Kyran “violated me, as far as I’m concerned,” Carol said. “People should be who they want to be, and nobody should have a right to tell them who they are … [but] I think what that person had done was completely in the wrong.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 8, 2016, at 10:26 a.m. ET
TEGESWETAN, Indonesia — Local police dispatched officers as soon as they got a report that two men planned to marry each other in Tegeswetan, a mountain village of around 2,000 people in Indonesia’s Central Java province.
Officer Singgih quietly approached the thatch-roofed house where 27-year-old Andi Budi Sutrisno lived with his two parents. A crowd of several dozen spilled into the yard and onto the village’s main street that Saturday morning in mid-March. Dozens of guests had journeyed to the event in minibuses and SUVs, and a feast awaited them made with scores of coconuts, a broad array of spices, and 100 pounds of rice.
Andi emerged from his bedroom wearing a gown of golden lace and a crown pinning his hair into an imposing bun. His boyfriend, Didik Suseno, wore a dark suit on his skinny frame and a garland of flowers around his neck. Didik’s parents cried as the couple performed sungkeman, a ceremony asking the parents’ permission to marry.
Officer Singgih reported back to his superiors as soon as he saw Andi and Didik pose for a photograph. Officers arrived to take Andi and Didik away while they were shaking hands with their guests, and escorted them to a summit with village leaders at the house of a local official nearby.
This was exactly what Andi was afraid of from the moment Didik suggested they marry. The idea was to please Didik’s parents, who lived in a far-off village and had only met Andi dressed as a woman. They expected the couple to marry after they’d been dating for two years, and had even managed to get a wedding license from a government office in their village.
Andi told Didik he thought it was a bad idea from the moment he first proposed. “What a weird proposal you made,” he recalled saying. “We’ve never been able to get married here — never.” To head off legal problems, Andi asked village officials to see that the wedding application was formally nullified before the party took place. The event was just meant to look like a wedding celebration to satisfy Didik’s family.
But none of these details mattered to police. They saw the couple as part of shadowy movement rapidly infecting the country and a chance to proclaim which side they were on.
“The police are concerned that an LGBT problem occurred in this village … this case, in fact, confirms our prediction that LGBT is spreading,” Suharwoko, deputy commander of the local police subdistrict, told BuzzFeed News. (He, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.) Tegeswetan, like Indonesia as a whole, is overwhelmingly Muslim and they were worried, the local police’s public relations director said, that a same-sex wedding would create “social unrest.”
“For a man to marry a man … is haram. Allah created only male and female.”
Since that March day, this tiny village has been sucked into a moral panic over homosexuality that swept Indonesia in the first half of this year, with gangs on the streets attacking LGBT organizations and the highest government keeping up the drumbeat. Homosexuality is not criminalized in the country and the term “LGBT” was barely known outside activist circles, but in January lawmakers began describing the movement as an existential threat to the country. It was a new front in a long-running culture war over the place of Islam in a country that is 87% Muslim but officially enshrines freedom of religion.
The police eventually let Andi and Didik go, but the police quickly published an account of the event on the department’s Facebook page under the headline “Police Thwart Same-Sex Marriage,” with pictures of Andi in his regalia. Most Indonesians would know two different words for a man who wears women’s clothes: the polite equivalent of “transgender,” waria, and the rude equivalent of “faggot,” banci. The police press release quoted a Muslim cleric denouncing Andi as both.
“For a man to marry a man … is haram,” the cleric lectured the couple according to the police Facebook post. “Allah created only male and female … not waria or banci.”
The story quickly traveled across Indonesia, a nation of almost 260 million people spread over around 6,000 inhabited islands in a chain that stretches the distance between Seattle and Miami. The police’s Facebook post was shared thousands of times and the story was picked up by several news outlets. Andi had lived his whole life in a remote village, but now he was cast as a kind of foreign invader who threatened the fabric of society.
“This phenomenon is a sign that LGBT movement and its propaganda in Indonesia has been very successful,” said Fahira Idris, a senator representing Jakarta in the National Assembly who built her national profile as a social media crusader for conservative causes. During a national news program, she said, “They are targeting Muslim countries such as Indonesia … because they think their propaganda has been successful. … If the government does not respond quickly, it will extend even further.”
Andi with his parents at their home in Tegeswetan.
He is one of the region’s best dancers of ndolalak, a local style that is usually performed only by women. He wears the women’s dance costume with perfect poise, and he is a master of ndolalak’s precise hand inflections, tight twirls, and elegant ripples of the sash. As he walked through a recent festival in the village, children delightedly cried “Andini!” — the female form of his name.
He’d shown his aptitude for dance at an early age, and the story of how he got his feminine grace is well-known in the village: When he was 11, an elder took him to a shaman who poured him a glass of water. After he drank it, the shaman told Andi it contained the spirit of a princess said to be a guardian of the forest. She was called Putri Babi — the Pig Princess — and she would make him more beautiful and a better dancer.
The change was immediate, said Edi Purnomo, a village official who ran the town’s ndolalak troop. Edi had also been one of Andi’s first religious instructors, teaching him to read the Qur'an. But he was thrilled with the dancer Andi became after the visit to the shaman.
“After drinking the water, he began dancing attractively like a woman, so my ndolalak group got more gigs,” Edi said, noting that Andi supports his two disabled parents with the money he makes from performing. Most of the neighbors respectfully address Andi as “sister” even when he was out of costume, and, Edi said, “I support what he is now because his soul is full of artistry.”
Edi Purnomo, right, at a festival in Tegeswetan, Aug. 27, 2016.
Though Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other nation on earth, the faith has historically lived comfortably side by side with belief in ghosts and spirits with roots in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other traditions that dominated the region before Islam arrived in the 12th century. People from the area told BuzzFeed News they’d heard of others occasionally being possessed by a spirit of the opposite sex, but no one knew of someone who appeared to have changed as much as Andi.
And Andi fits in a long tradition of cross-dressing in theater on Java; it used to be that men mostly played women’s parts and sometimes took on feminine roles offstage. Transgender people are well-known throughout Indonesia by the term waria — a term that combines fragments of the word for woman (wanita) and man (pria). Though they are often driven from their families and only able to support themselves by sex work, they have not historically been harassed by their neighbors or especially targeted by morality campaigners or police.
Andi didn’t consider himself a waria, though. The ones he’d seen were sex workers in the nearby city, he said, “and I am not associated with that.”
“I dress up like this simply for work, to earn money to support my family,” he said. Until March, he had “no regrets” about growing out his hair and wearing makeup, which he was drawn to the moment he felt the princess move into his body. He called the princess a blessing, “a tool to earn money.”
He said he was “madly in love” with his boyfriend and went along with the wedding ruse so they could be together. But Andi doesn’t call himself gay — it’s not really a word he’s familiar with.
The events that upended Andi’s life began back in January in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, when the minister of higher education declared that LGBT runs counter to Indonesian “values and morals.” He was responding to posters hung up at the University of Indonesia for an “LGBT Peer Support Network” offering counseling services to “friends who need a place to share their stories.”
It snowballed from there. Over the next month, a former cabinet minister called for gay people to be put to death, the vice president demanded the United Nations cut support for LGBT rights programs in the country, and the defense minister called the LGBT movement a front in a “proxy war” to occupy “the minds of the nation” that was more dangerous than “nuclear war.”
A wave of attacks on LGBT people by vigilante groups followed. In Bandung, West Java, a group called the Islamic Defenders Front raided the rooms of suspected lesbians and hung banners around the city saying “Homos and Lesbis forbidden to enter.” In Yogyakarta, the nearest metropolis to Andi’s village, a group called the Young Generation Muslim Brotherhood Forum threatened an LGBT solidarity march — it was ultimately violently shut down by police. Another Yogyakarta group forced the temporary shutdown of an eight-year-old Islamic school for waria, which had made international headlines as the world’s only madrasa for transgender women.
Since he got caught up in this firestorm, village leaders have been looking for a Muslim cleric to perform a ruqyah — a kind of Islamic exorcism — to get rid of the princess spirit. And Andi wants to see her gone.
“I’d love to have the spirit out — it’s led me astray because it’s black magic,” he said.
But he is still confused about how he became part of a national controversy. He tripped over the foreign acronym as he said, “I don’t even know what LBGT is or what the connection is [with me].”
Andi after a dance performance in August.
Homosexuality had become a major issue in national politics so suddenly that it was weeks before seasoned LGBT activists realized a fundamental shift was underway.
LGBT activists had occasionally clashed with Islamist vigilantes over isolated events — like a queer film festival or activist conference — but the confrontations were soon forgotten, and they could continue their work. And arrest or mob violence have followed marriage attempts by same-sex couples going back several years. But this time the attacks were sustained, and policymakers seemed determined to make the crackdown permanent.
The biggest potential threat to LGBT rights made headlines in August. The Constitutional Court began seriously considering a petition that would criminalize homosexuality for the first time and punish the crime with five years in prison.
The suit made clear that this unprecedented fight over homosexuality was just the latest round of a very old argument over the place of religion in Indonesia. The petition was backed by a three-year-old coalition called the Family Love Alliance (abbreviated AILA in Indonesian), which included much older organizations that had long campaigned to bring a stricter interpretation of Islam to Indonesia.
In court, AILA’s experts argued that criminalizing homosexuality was part of the unfinished business of breaking from the country’s colonial past. The criminal code was written by the Dutch colonial government that ruled Indonesia until World War II, they said, and Indonesia could become like a Western nation if it was not updated to criminalize sexual conduct counter to local religious beliefs. Their request to criminalize homosexuality got most of the attention, but that was actually only one part of the petition — they also wanted to criminalize all heterosexual intercourse outside marriage as well.
“This criminal code was adopted from the Dutch with its own particularistic values ... We were not only colonized in terms of territory but also morally,” Atip Latipulhayat, a law professor at the Padjadjaran University in Bandung, argued during an August 23 hearing.
Several of the judges seemed persuaded by this argument, including Patrialis Akbar, who said from the bench, “This constitution is liberal, yes, because it’s coming from imperialist government ... Should all laws that are not in accordance with morals and religion be synchronized with local values?”
“We are considered as part of the Eastern world, a civilized nation, a religious nation, a nation with noble character ... It has norms. It is not like the West, America, which can be as free as they want.”
There were armed militias that wanted to establish an Islamic state when Indonesia won independence in 1945, but the military regime that consolidated power by 1965 drove them underground. They sprung back to life after the dictatorship of President Suharto fell in 1998. Islamist organizations also grew on university campuses. Generations of students returned from years abroad — especially in Egypt — inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and other international Islamist movements. Recently, conservative voices have grown louder with the explosion of social media, which has also opened channels for appeals from hardline Islamic groups overseas.
The internet is also where conservatives see the greatest threat. Lawmakers first responded to the LGBT crisis by calling for a ban on LGBT “propaganda” online. The government, which has been locked in a much broader regulatory battle against foreign tech companies, moved in September to block Grindr and is reviewing more than 80 LGBT apps and websites.
Internet use has more than tripled in the country since 2010 — around 30% of the country is now online — and it is one of the world’s biggest markets for social media. This has created a space where LGBT Indonesians can be more vocal than they could ever be in the real world, and where they can find support as part of a global community. But this has also seemed to validate the argument that LGBT activists are agents of a foreign movement penetrating the country through computers and smartphones.
“All news and information is dominated by Westerners, by outsiders — they intentionally aim to influence our mind, our way of thinking,” warned Said Aqil Siradj, chairman of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, the 91-million-member Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), said during an August speech.
The NU called for the criminalization of homosexuality and LGBT “propaganda” in February, which stunned progressives. The group had been a key voice for pluralism during the early years of democracy, and its endorsement of the anti-LGBT campaign was the clearest sign that the politics of the issue had fundamentally shifted.
Private homosexual relationships or waria were not something that needed to be policed before Western backing turned LGBT into a “massive movement … asking to legalize it,” Siradj told BuzzFeed News following the speech. “We are considered as part of the Eastern world, a civilized nation, a religious nation, a nation with noble character ... It has norms. It is not like the West, America, which can be as free as they want.”
The NU is also working to counter the spread of al-Qaeda and ISIS-style terror groups, which have carried out several small attacks in Indonesia, and Siradj said that homosexuality was just as dangerous.
Homosexuality “destroys the nation … just like terrorism,” because if there is sex “between man and men, then [humanity] is finished,” he said. “It is the anus [they use for sex], you know — I want to vomit just talking about this.”
What happens next may determine not only the future for queer Indonesians, but also could make this year a turning point for the relationship between religion and state in the country.
The worst of the street violence has subsided, progressive activists say, primarily because many LGBT groups have canceled public events and gone underground to avoid new confrontations with vigilante groups. But the legal environment is growing increasingly ominous: in late August, police in a city near Jakarta announced that they had busted a child prostitution ring operating through Facebook and gay apps, renewing the urgency of calls for a government crackdown.
The Constitutional Court’s hearings continue on the petition to criminalize homosexuality; no timeline for issuing a decision has been announced.
Several of the judges have made clear they’re sympathetic to the petition, but it’s not clear how far they’re willing to push their authority. Many legal experts — and some of the justices — have said the court would be making a new law by granting the petitioners’ request and violating its mandate to simply review regulations enacted by other branches of government. But the lead lawyer for the petitioners, Feisal Syahmenan, told BuzzFeed News that the case was designed to be within the court’s power. All judges need to do is delete an age restriction from an existing provision criminalizing sodomy with a minor.
The court has a reputation for being political, so the case is volatile, progressive activists say. Even if they don’t unilaterally change the law, the judges could recommend the proposal to the legislature, which could incorporate a sodomy law into a revision of the criminal code already in the works.
“We have a problem with the Constitutional Court, and the conservative groups and the Islamists they know that,” said Alissa Wahid, who heads a network to promote pluralism in Indonesia called Gusdurian.
Wahid’s father, Abdurrahman Wahid, was a Muslim scholar who lead the NU for more than a decade, and for many Indonesians he personified the ideal of Muslim citizenship in a pluralistic Indonesia. He was better known as Gus Dur — using a title that means “son of a cleric” — and in 1998 he became Indonesia’s first democratically elected president. Gus Dur came to the defense of many minorities targeted by conservative Muslim factions, including waria — he joined a waria beauty pageant in 2006 when the Islamic Defenders Front tried to shut it down.
Gus Dur had worried about the “Talibanization” of Indonesia, Alissa Wahid said, and the changes in the 10 years since his death make her worry his fears are coming true.
“We have this massive campaign from the trans-nationalistic Islamic community where people are starting to be bombarded with ideas that we should be more part of a Muslim community worldwide than the Indonesian identity,” Wahid said. You could see the change in social media campaigns to promote the wearing of headscarves, early marriage, and even polygamy — a practice never common in Indonesia — Wahid said.
On the national level, the authorities have endorsed campaigns against the minority Ahmadi Muslim sect, and police often allow vigilante groups to shutter churches and Shiite mosques. Local governments have also adopted dozens of Sharia ordinances concerning everything from alcohol to Qur'an reading to headscarves. Some local laws already specifically target homosexuality, according to research by the Indonesian LGBT group Arus Pelangi.
When the NU endorsed the anti-LGBT campaign in February, Wahid said she was “surprised in a way,” but in retrospect, “I should have seen that coming — of course the conservative wave has also touched the NU.”
The issue was also rapidly gaining traction among the public; a poll conducted in March and April by an allied progressive Muslim think tank, the Wahid Institute, found that 26% of Indonesians identified “LGBT” as their most disliked minority groups.
“You cannot think of the LGBT issue as a stand-alone issue in Indonesia,” Wahid said. Conservatives “have already changed society,” she said.
“This is [one of] the oldest debates in Indonesian fundamental principles: whether Indonesia should give a special mention to the Muslims because this is a majority,” Wahid said.
Her father was in a long line of Indonesian Muslim leaders who fought against the creation of an “Islamic state of Indonesia because we [have lived] together with other [groups of] people for a long, long time,” Wahid said. But today this vision is threatened by those who believe “there is only one way of living, and that is Islam ... their kind of Islam.”
Some liberals may downplay the current uproar, believing LGBT “is just one small group,” she said, but “they lack the understanding that this is a social shift.”
“This is huge,” she said. “It’s a turning point.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 7, 2016, at 9:24 a.m. ET
OSAKA, Japan — When the principal at a middle school in Osaka, a few hours west of Tokyo, insisted one of his new students do gym classes with the boys, the child's mother turned to the only person who could help: Dr. Jun Koh.
It was the spring of 2014, and the student was entering junior high at her new school. The problem posed by the gym classes was just the latest in a series of transitions she had been forced to navigate as she grappled with her identity — and it wasn’t the first time her mother had called on Koh for help.
Back in first grade, when the Osaka student began insisting on wearing skirts, Koh was able to reassure her mother that there was nothing wrong with a boy wearing girls' clothes. Later, in the fifth grade, the student wrote a will after the teasing she faced in the boys' locker room left her contemplating suicide. So they turned to Koh again, and he helped get the school comfortable with the idea of the student living as a girl full-time. Koh was even the one to explain to the parents of her classmates why she’d be sleeping in the girls' room on the sixth-grade class trip. (The student’s family requested her name not be used to protect her privacy.)
A rumpled, soft-spoken psychiatrist at Osaka Medical College, Dr. Koh has counseled more than 2,000 gender-nonconforming people in Japan. On this occasion, he found the school principal was adamant — the only way for the student to get out of the boys' gym class was if she had some kind of medical excuse. Boys and girls are graded separately because they have different physical advantages, he argued, and he would have to get sign off from the board of education to waive the rules.
So Koh gave her a diagnosis: gender identity disorder (GID), which is defined as “a desire to live and be accepted as a member of the opposite sex.” It is listed in the World Health Organization’s catalogue of ailments used by doctors all around the world, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), which has 22 chapters covering everything from cholera to blindness to the loss of limbs. GID can be found in the chapter “Mental Health and Behavioural Disorders,” alongside conditions ranging from “profound mental retardation” to schizophrenia.
“Simply, if a boy wants to wear a skirt, he should wear a skirt.”
The diagnosis solved the Osaka student’s immediate problem: She would be allowed to play tennis with the girls. (“She’s terrible, but she’s so cute,” one of her mentors gushed.) And, as if accommodating a physical disability, the school renovated a bathroom intended for her private use — though she now isn’t allowed to access it for periods of the day when it’s reserved for a disabled classmate.
Koh gave the Osaka student the diagnosis — even though he doesn’t agree with it. Koh, who began his career specializing in schizophrenia, has become one of the few doctors in Japan who works with transgender children. There is an irony here, because Koh doesn’t believe these children need doctors.
“If the child expresses this gender identity, then let them be — they do not require diagnosis,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Simply, if a boy wants to wear a skirt, he should wear a skirt; if a boy wants to go to the girls’ bathroom, the boy should be able to use the girls’ bathroom. But in order for a boy to use the girls’ bathroom, the other girls have to accept [the child] in the girls’ bathroom. That’s all there is to it — giving a diagnosis won’t solve that problem.”
But he knows how the system works. He dispenses the diagnosis because in Japan, the doctor’s office has been the first stop for a transgender person seeking their basic rights, from changing legal documents to protection from discrimination. The role of the diagnosis is so fundamental that Japan’s 2003 law allowing people to change their legal gender is called the Law Concerning Special Cases in Handling Gender for People With Gender Identity Disorder, more commonly known as the Gender Identity Disorder Law.
Outside Japan, transgender activists have been engaged in a long fight to kill the term “gender identity disorder” and retake control over their lives from the doctors who diagnose it. This movement is poised for a major victory: A draft of the new edition of the ICD erases the term "gender identity disorder." When the WHO adopts the new edition in 2018, transgender people will no longer be branded as mentally ill.
But there is little appetite for this fight in Japan, where doctors have been responsible for transforming transgender people from eccentrics on the margins of society to fully fledged citizens.
Even leading transgender rights activists in Japan want the doctors to stay in control, fearing that if individuals are given the power to define their own gender, the entire system will collapse.
The fight over GID is part of a much more fundamental debate: Are trans people normal and capable of making their own decisions about how they live their lives, or does gender identity need to be regulated by authorities?
Supporters of reforming the ICD say they want to “depathologize” being trans — to end the perception that they have a disorder that requires a doctor’s management. Trans people, they believe, should have control over whether to access care like hormones or surgery and what gender markers their legal documents bear, and have those decisions respected.
The power of depathologization is clear from the history of the gay rights movement. The case that gays and lesbians deserve acceptance and rights has been built on the argument that they are normal: that they can’t and don’t need to change, that they don’t have a condition that can infect children, and that they have the character to serve in the military or hold other sensitive jobs.
Gay rights activists won that battle in US medical institutions in the 1970s, though it took 20 years for the WHO to follow suit. The WHO is playing catch up again; the American Psychiatric Association voted to reject the term GID in 2012.
The draft of the new ICD offers a new term, “gender incongruence,” emphasizing that a patient might need treatment for the ways their body does not match their sense of self — rather than defining the patient as disordered because their sense of self doesn’t match their body. This is partly to ensure that transgender people can still access therapies like hormones or surgery if they choose them. But nowhere in the new definition is the word “disorder.” Instead, the new ICD takes the concept out of the chapter on mental illness and puts it in a brand-new chapter devoted to “Conditions Related to Sexual Health.”
“To freely pick and choose without a medical condition — that’s not right.”
If the WHO adopts the draft as proposed, Japan’s medical community may have little choice but to follow suit, said Hiroshi Hase, now Japan’s cabinet minister responsible for science and education and a committee chair when the legislature adopted the GID law. The country’s medical system is required to follow the diagnoses laid out in the ICD.
“We will need to accordingly reclassify with the new concept that this is not a disorder,” Hase said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. "Because that’s the law."
But he said Japan was unlikely to follow the lead of the growing number of countries in South America and Europe that have introduced gender identity laws that reflect the spirit of these medical reforms. Known as “self-declaration” or “self-determination” laws, they allow you to change your gender simply by filing a declaration with a government agency — with no rules requiring sterilization or any other medical procedures, nor any doctors or bureaucrats demanding you “prove” your gender.
Doctors would likely always have a role in the process, Hase said, and Japan was far from ready for a radical rethinking of its gender identity law.
“We continue to explain to Japanese people who don’t have the understanding [of transgender people]: ‘These people aren’t like this because they chose to be — it’s not a fetish. They are only asking to be treated with the basic necessities to live their life,'” Hase said. “However, this requires changes including legal status and physical appearance, including genitalia, and hormone treatments and such. So naturally this would require medical assessment, and not just by one doctor but by several doctors.”
Even influential activists in Japan don’t want to be part of the global push to erase GID.
“I reject the notion of self-selection of gender,” said Ran Yamamoto, head of the organization gid.jp, which claims around 1,500 members, making it the largest organization of its kind in Japan. (Yamamoto rejects the term "transgender" and considers herself a “woman with GID.”)
“There is a reason why there is a separation between man and woman … I don’t know if God chose that or nature chose that,” she said. People with GID whose “disability compels them to change” their gender have a right to demand access to public toilets and other accommodations, she said, but for those “who do not have as much of a need, then gender should not be blurred.”
“To freely pick and choose without a medical condition — that’s not right," she said.
The story of why Japan’s transgender community stands so far apart from much of the global movement dates back to 1965, when police raided a bar in Tokyo’s Akasaka district and arrested 10 women on charges of prostitution, according to transgender historian Junko Mitsuhashi.
Three of these women were male on paper, which meant they couldn’t be prosecuted for selling sex — under Japan’s prostitution law only women could be charged for the offense. So the police went after the doctor who removed their male genitals, Dr. Masao Aoki.
Aoki wasn’t sentenced until 1969, perhaps because it wasn’t immediately clear what law he had broken by performing the operations. The prosecution ultimately charged Aoki with violating a law created early in World War II that relied on the same scientific ideas that informed the race laws of Japan’s ally, Nazi Germany: the National Eugenics Law of 1940. The Japanese law included a provision that made it a crime to sterilize any healthy person “without cause.”
That might not have changed if doctors hadn’t miraculously saved the penis of a truck driver after it was badly mangled in a traffic accident in the mid-1980s.
“These people aren’t like this because they chose to be — it’s not a fetish.”
A surgeon from a medical school outside Tokyo, Dr. Takao Harashina, was brought in to reconstruct the driver’s genitals. The surgery was spectacularly successful, and the operation made headlines in 1992 after the patient managed to father children.
Those news reports caught the eye of a 25-year-old trans man who came to be known by the pseudonym Kei’ichi Nakahara. He called Harashina’s clinic, hoping the doctor could construct a penis for him. When other trans people followed suit, Harashina decided to challenge the ban on sex reassignment with a petition to Saitama University’s ethics committee.
It took two years for the ethics committee to reach a decision; in 1996 it declared that “an illness named gender identity disorder exists,” ending the freeze on sex reassignment almost overnight. Shortly afterwards, Japan’s Society of Psychiatry and Neurology adopted a protocol for diagnosing and treating GID, and the Ministry of Health certified that doctors would not face prosecution.
On May 1, 1998, Kei’ichi Nakahara became the first person to have sex reassignment in Japan in more than 30 years, and hundreds of others would soon follow.
Before GID, the terms available to describe trans people were all derogatory or tied to performance: “okama” — which translates roughly as "faggot" — or “Mr. Lady.” One of the most popular was "nyuhafu," the Japanese contraction of the English words “new half” and a play on “hafu,” children with mixed Japanese and white parents. Legend has it that the term traces back to a quip by an entertainer, “I’m half man and woman, so I’m a new half.”
Trans women were always quite visible in postwar Japan. Historian Mark McLelland writes that a group of transgender performers from France became celebrities in the early 1960s during a tour in Tokyo, clubs known as “show bars” sprung up in their wake featuring drag and trans performers — some who’d had sex reassignment abroad — appeared on television and magazines. The term "nyuhafu" became mainstream in coverage of Matsubara Rumiko, a winner of a Tokyo beauty competition in 1981 who became a celebrity when it was revealed that she was trans, releasing an album of songs called Nyuhafu and posing semi-nude in men’s magazines.
But visibility didn’t translate to acceptance in normal life — quite the opposite. It was fine for trans people to appear on television or in magazines, but it seemed impossible to ask for space in everyday life as long as cross-dressing seemed like an individualistic eccentricity.
“The opinion was … it’s still a personal preference — it’s a choice,” said Aya Kamikawa, who became Japan’s first out trans elected official when she won a seat on the municipal council of Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward in 2003. The attitude among the general public, Kamikawa said, was that “it’s so laughable that these people are demanding a right to have their personal preference respected.”
But there was no name for those living outside the world of entertainment or red light districts. Before GID was introduced, Kamikawa said, “I didn’t know what I was.”
The arrival of GID transformed her life. She was diagnosed in 1998, became an activist, and launched her political career in 2003 to help promote legislation to allow for people to change their legal gender. Three months after she was elected, the Japanese legislature unanimously adopted the Gender Identity Disorder Law.
The doctors had done what trans people never managed to do on their own: succeeded in convincing authorities and persuading everyday citizens that trans people deserved a place in everyday life. They had a medical condition that couldn’t be helped.
While calling something a “disorder” can make someone embarrassed or ashamed in many parts of the world, in Japan it can do the opposite: It makes behavior acceptable that would be shameful if seen as a personal eccentricity, said Junko Mitsuhashi, the historian.
GID was part of a pattern of pathologization in Japan — in the early 2000s, officials also gave a name to teenagers and young adults who were withdrawing from school and becoming hermits in their room: "hikikomori." The Ministry of Health first defined the term in 2003, leading to a flood of coverage of the phenomenon; by 2010, the country was estimated to be home to 700,000 people with the condition and there were NGOs dedicated to helping them out of isolation.
“Anything that is kind of deviating from what is considered the general flow of society can be diagnosed as something, [like] children who don’t want to go to school... If they put a medical name to the symptom, people will feel relieved,” Mitsuhashi said. “What really pushed the conviction to allow [the GID Law] to pass was the argument that this was an illness, a medical symptom.”
But not everyone was happy with the pathologization push. Mitsuhashi was one of a small group of trans activists who warned that it had a dark side.
“One senses that the logic is that ... an illness must be cured, and it is medicine’s role to bring these people to a normal, or ‘healthy’ state of alignment through treatment,” she wrote in the December 2003 issue of a magazine called Situation. “Such a thought could be expected from ignorant and close-minded doctors who believe they are elites within society ... After all, until those neuropsychiatrists introduced the concept of gender identity disorder in the early '90s, they were the ones who planted the roots of social prejudice and oppression by labeling transgenderism and transgender people as ‘perverts,’ ‘sexual deviants,’ ‘paraphiles,’ or ‘sexual anomalies.’”
It also meant leaving Japan’s rigid gender divide intact and in the hands of the largely male medical establishment, said Tomato Hatakeno, a trans activist who spent a decade as a sex worker and launched a Japan trans news site in 1996.
“People from the nyuhafu era … we were queer presences,” Hatakeno said. "And with the GID model coming out, these people were no longer queer … [living] stealthily so your queerness doesn’t show through." People who didn’t want surgery, or couldn’t afford it, or didn’t want to get on the track of full medical transition, “fell through the cracks” in a system where doctors seemed largely in control of their patients' lives.
In much of the rest of the world, transgender activists are fighting to take the power to define who they are away from authorities. In Japan, the transgender movement is more comfortable with authority — after all, it made them normal and gave them their rights.
But a new generation is trying to claim new control over how their gender is defined — they call themselves x-gender, and they are increasingly visible online.
One called Tsukasa from Kanagawa Prefecture southeast of Tokyo writes a blog under the name Hedwig, taking her name from the show Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Now in their late thirties, Tsukasa spent their life feeling out of place as a girl but also never felt a connection with people who wanted to have surgery to become a man, though they’d have her breasts removed if their husband would tolerate it, they said.
Hedwig is the parent of five-year-old fraternal twins, and the child they were raising as a boy, declared herself a girl at about three years old. Hedwig remembers the girl, who they call Makoto on their blog, saying: “I wish I didn’t have this bit, but if I cut it off, it’s going to hurt, right?”
Hedwig told her what it meant to be transgender, not to have GID.
“Treating it like an illness and to pathologize it — it just didn’t feel right,” they said. “I said, there are people whose gender does not match the gender that was given to them at birth. I said there’s nothing wrong with it, there's nothing weird — it’s natural.”
“Technically we needed it,” Hedwig said.
And as much as he wishes it would go away, Dr. Koh is working to further institutionalize the diagnosis. He’s chairing a committee of the Japanese Society of Gender Identity Disorder to create a certificate for doctors who specialize in the treatment of GID.
“I hate it,” Koh said, “but there’s also what goes on behind the screen.” Japan’s health care system will only pay for therapies if dispensed by certified specialists for treatments, and now Japanese transgender people must pay the full cost of surgeries or hormone treatments.
“Society should change into one where people can acknowledge their own gender and be accepted,” Koh said. He supports a proposal that would go even further than the new ICD draft and do away with any diagnosis for children, since there’s nothing a trans child needs from a doctor before reaching puberty — they’re too young for either hormones or surgery.
“Logically, it’s the right step for the WHO to remove that section,” Koh said. But, “I do what I can from my position … I don’t work only with logic — I see the individual and think only about what can be done to live the life they want.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 27, 2015, at 10:18 a.m. ET
SAN SALVADOR — La Cuki Alarcón was late to work on the night that his roommate disappeared, which is why he is still around to tell what happened.
His hair was extravagantly curled, and he matched a long skirt with high boots, a look he hoped hid his legs, which he thought looked too manly to appeal to his clients.
Alarcón was hurrying to the strip they used to work across the street from El Salvador’s national symbol, the Divine Savior of the World monument, a statue of Jesus with his feet planted on a globe perched atop a column about 60 feet in the air. Work was so steady on that corner that Alarcón thought a client might have already picked up his roommate and the other locas they hung out with. Outsiders called them all “homosexuals,” but the sex workers — some who lived as women all the time, others who dressed as women primarily on the job — called each other “crazies” even though some used it as an insult that would roughly translate to “sissy.” (Alarcón asked BuzzFeed News to refer to him using male pronouns.)
As Alarcón reached the opposite corner, he could see his friends were still there. He hesitated for a minute before crossing because the stoplight was out, and that’s when he realized the locas were not alone. Four tall men in ski masks were throwing them into the back of a green truck, clubbing them with the butts of their guns.
Alarcón remembers the year as 1980, a time when death squads were using trucks like this one to make people disappear by the hundreds every week. This was the beginning of the civil war that consumed El Salvador until 1992. The United Nations, NGOs, journalists, and scholars have sought to uncover what happened to many of the more than 75,000 who were killed or disappeared during the conflict, but no one has ever investigated what happened to Alarcón’s friends. As far as anyone knows, no one has even recorded their names among the missing.
But Alarcón can still rattle off the names of many of the dozen he remembers being thrown into the truck that night. There was his roommate Cristi, whom he remembers as a gentle 26-year-old who would bring him gifts of coats or shoes from trips she’d frequently make to Guatemala and Mexico. Another was Verónica, from San Bartolo near the Honduran border, who was so pretty that her clients would sometimes insist on having their pictures taken with her. Carolina was so well put together that she’d sometimes get into trouble — she looked “all woman,” Alarcón said, and her clients could get violent when they discovered she was trans as she undressed.
Alarcón is one of the only witnesses to their disappearances who is still alive, but the story of that night is well-remembered. It has been passed down from generation to generation of trans sex workers in the country’s capital, San Salvador. It’s been retold so many times it can sometimes be hard to separate fact from legend, passed down in the same way many families retell the haunting mysteries that still linger from the war. The tale stakes a claim for trans women in a country that often seems to wish they would disappear.
“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right?” Alarcón said during an interview in San Salvador last December. “Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”
I first learned about this story from a 38-year-old Salvadoran trans activist named Karla Avelar in the fall of 2014 while working on a story about LGBT kids fleeing the country to make the dangerous, illegal trip to the United States. El Salvador has some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the hemisphere, and Avelar recounted waves of unpunished murders over the past several decades. In 2014 alone, at least 12 women and two gay men were killed, according to media reports. There was the “Bloody June” of 2009 in which at least three trans women and two gay men were murdered. Avelar herself survived being shot in the 1990s by a serial killer who had been gunning down trans sex workers.
The ones taken from the Savior of the World were almost mythical to Avelar, who was a baby when the events occurred.
“We don’t even really know much ourselves, but a little while ago one of the survivors told us what happened and said to us, ‘Why don’t you document this, that I was a victim of that attack?’” she said. But the task seemed impossible. “There is no documentation whatsoever, no publication nor record — there is nothing.”
Avelar knew of just one witness who still survived, a woman named Paty who she said was 78 years old, a miracle in a country where violence and HIV are so widespread very few trans women survive to middle age.
“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war”
I flew to El Salvador as soon as I could. Paty’s health sounded fragile and if she died before her memories could be recorded, any hope of documenting the atrocity would die with her. I decided to work with Nicola Chávez Courtright, co-founder of a small organization documenting the history of El Salvador’s LGBT movement called AMATE, hoping she would have ideas on how to start substantiating Paty’s memories.
When we visited Paty — whose full name is Patricia Leiva — shortly before Christmas last year, we learned that much of what Avelar told me was wrong. Leiva was only 60, though it was understandable why Avelar had thought she was much older. Health problems had swollen her stomach like a basketball and made it nearly impossible for her to walk. She also had not been there on the night of the disappearances from the Savior of the World, and years of heavy drinking meant she could only recall bits and pieces of the story, despite having heard it countless times.
Leiva lives in the remains of what used to be a popular beer hall called the Bluegill in a once-thriving red-light district called the Praviana, now subdivided into tenements. The bar had belonged to La Cuki Alarcón, Leiva told us, and he had been there that night.
Alarcón is now retired and lives in the suburbs, surviving with help from his children who live in the United States. Alarcón doesn’t routinely go by “La Cuki” (a Spanish spelling of Cookie) anymore, preferring his male name. But he asked that we not publish his legal first name because he was worried about his safety for talking about the war. Besides, he said, “La Cuki” had been “my nomme de guerre — my homosexual one.”
Alarcón hid from the men rounding up his friends that night by throwing himself to the ground in a small garden. He tried to slink away after watching the men pile his friends into the truck, but more armed men were patrolling the surrounding streets. He remembered making it to the La Religiosa funeral home up the block, where he tried to take sanctuary, but he said the guard wouldn’t let him in because there was a lavish wake underway — “There are only famous people in there,” the guard told him. So he waited out the raid crouched between the cars parked outside.
When the coast was clear, he went back to work on the corner. Within minutes, a client had come and picked him up. Alarcón figured he’d see Cristi in a day or two, which is how long the cops usually held sex workers after a routine vice raid.
But Cristi never came home. None of them did.
Alarcón went to the police stations to try to find her. He even hired a lawyer. But the cops made fun of him and hinted that his friends were already dead.
“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war,” he remembered.
“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right? Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”
El Salvador’s 12-year civil war had its roots in political battles that had been going on for half a century. In 1980 it blew up into one of the last and bloodiest conflicts of the Cold War. That year, military leaders ousted moderates in the ruling junta while paramilitary squads aligned with the regime hunted down government critics. The war vaulted into international headlines in March, when the head of the country’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Óscar Romero, was shot through a church doorway while he was celebrating mass.
The U.S. government threw tremendous weight behind the military leaders even as the body count grew, and a rebel force called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front fought back with a little support from Nicaragua and Cuba. Echoing the early days of Vietnam, Washington sent in military advisers, contributed tens of millions of dollars in military aid, and trained Salvadoran troops at an installation in Panama known as the School of the Americas. The U.S. continued this support even after reporters for the Washington Post and New York Times uncovered that a U.S.-trained battalion was responsible for one of the war’s most infamous atrocities, the extermination of an entire farming village called El Mozote in 1981.
The two sides were locked in a stalemate as the Cold War came to an end with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Peace accords signed on Jan. 16, 1992, made uncovering the crimes committed during the war a cornerstone of rebuilding the nation, creating a Truth Commission run by the United Nations to gather witness statements and write a definitive account of the war’s greatest atrocities.
Because many of the war’s abuses were so extensively documented in that process, we thought we might find some record of the disappearances from the Savior of the World. But we came up empty. Our best hope was the archives of the two human rights offices run by San Salvador’s Catholic Archdiocese — the most active human rights monitors during the war — but they could locate no records matching the case. They might have been able to search more if we could provide the victims’ legal names, but Alarcón and the others we spoke with only knew them by their female names.
We had hoped that El Salvador’s oldest gay rights organization, Entre Amigos, would be able to help us substantiate these memories. When it organized the country’s first pride march in 1997, the group declared it as a commemoration of another event said to have happened during the war years: the abduction of a number of trans women from the heart of the Praviana red-light district by a U.S.-trained battalion in June 1984. This is the one case of crimes against LGBT people claimed to have been recorded by human rights monitors during the war.
Entre Amigos’ co-founder William Hernández told us in an interview that he had uncovered a statement from a witness to that incident while working in the archive of an organization called the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission just after the war's end. But, Hernández said, the account was so confusing and incomplete that, when examined “from a legal point of view, it wouldn’t give me anything that argues that this was real.”
He initially said that he would be glad to dig it out of the group’s files for us anyway, but he grew increasingly combative when we attempted to follow up. Finally, he sent us a note saying his lawyers did not “trust how the information will be managed” and requested that we remove reference to Entre Amigos from this story.
So we went directly to the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission, and they told us they could not locate any such testimony in its archives. None of the people we interviewed said they’d witnessed an abduction as described by Entre Amigos or knew of anyone who had. If the testimony existed and it was as mixed up as Hernández described, there’s the possibility that the person was describing the disappearances from the Savior of the World and some of the details got scrambled in the retelling, including the year.
And we could never pin down the date of the disappearances for sure. It’s not uncommon for people to have difficulty remembering dates from the war years — even when loved ones died, the violence was so unrelenting that the number on a calendar seemed like a fairly meaningless abstraction in daily life, other reporters who covered the conflict told us. Calendar dates might even be especially hard for the trans women we interviewed, most of whom didn’t finish elementary school because they were thrown out by their families once their femininity became apparent.
The witnesses we interviewed mostly gave dates ranging from 1978 to 1980, but the fall of 1980 seems likeliest. One person who lived in the Praviana at the time told us she remembered they were still searching for the missing when one of the most notorious killings of the war took place: the rape and murder of three American nuns and a laywoman by the National Guard on Dec. 2, 1980.
This timing may be confirmed by something we found while paging through three years of newspapers from the period, held in dusty binders in the collection of San Salvador’s Museum of Anthropology. The only announcement for an event at the La Religiosa funeral home we found was published by both major dailies, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica, on Oct. 1, 1980. It was for a man who had died in Los Angeles, California, whose remains had been shipped home for burial, suggesting he may have been from a wealthy or important family. Alarcón remembers the wake where he tried to hide from the raid as being especially fancy, so there’s a possibility this was it.
That’s not a lot to go on, but two days later, El Diario de Hoy reported that police were leading sweeps to “purge those elements that are undesirable to society” in response to recent thefts. The operation was reportedly focusing on a park about two miles away from the Savior of the World — though close to the Praviana — but the next day La Prensa Gráfica quoted police saying the effort was expanding to target “other sites known as refuges for criminals.”
It may be hard to imagine a dozen people could disappear without attracting some attention. But at that point in the war, unexplained deaths had become so routine that it was remarkable when anyone raised a fuss. (And these were sex workers — trans ones at that — the kind of people whom many would probably have been happy to see cleared off the streets if they noticed them at all.)
Bodies were being dumped at a rate of more than 150 a week, which the U.S. Embassy would tally in regular “Violence Week in Review” cables, even as the U.S grew closer with the El Salvadoran regime. Remains were found scattered around the capital every morning, sometimes with their faces destroyed so they could not be identified or left in a spot where vultures could be counted on to scatter their bones. Trucks like the ones Alarcón saw at the Savior of the World were icons of the inescapable violence.
The death squads’ victims were “killed in the usual fashion,” reported a cable from the U.S. Embassy to Washington of the 179 people who died in the week ending Nov. 28, 1980: “Kidnapped by a group of armed men who appeared as civilians, taken away in the ubiquitous pick-up trucks, shot or strangled or both, and then dumped along roadsides.” Six of that week’s murders included top opposition leaders that attracted some outcry, the cable noted, but their deaths were “unusual in that they have gone noticed.”
If news of the death of a group of sex workers had reached officials at the U.S. embassy or human rights organizations, it could have easily been ignored as an extreme vice raid rather than as a political crime.
But those who lost their friends believe they died because of politics. The most intriguing part of the legend of the disappearances from the Savior of the World — and the part that is probably the most impossible to pin down — is that they were killed to cover up a government secret.
They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.
Some of the locas thought the American was a diplomat, while others believed he was a reporter. No one really knew why he was in the country, but they all knew what he looked like. The ones we spoke to who had seen him recalled that he appeared to be in his fifties with close-cropped white hair and a mustache or a goatee. He was a big spender who always hired two at a time — “one for him to make love to while the other made love to him,” one person told us.
They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.
The two he picked up shortly before the raid stole his briefcase. Inside were some cameras that the locas believed had been used to photograph some kind of a government crime.
All this might be easily shrugged off as the kind of conspiracy theory that proliferates in wartime, except several sources said they’d heard it from people directly involved. La Cuki Alarcón said the American came to his bar offering a reward to get his cameras back. Another sex worker, who asked not to be named, said she’d been warned that a hunt for the thieves was underway by a sergeant in the National Guard who was her regular client. Several told us that one of the thieves had a wife, a cisgender woman named Sonia who lived in San Salvador for at least another 30 years and would sometimes talk about how the authorities eventually dug the briefcase out of her patio with the cameras still inside.
Everyone believes both thieves escaped, but there are a lot of different stories about what happened to the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World: They were tortured by having their fingernails pulled out and their breasts shorn off. They were dragged to death by horses at the infantry barracks. They were dumped in a hole on the road to the notorious Mariona prison.
Their families tried to find them. A woman named Yazmín Zulema Enríquez, whose mother did laundry in a Praviana brothel, told us how relatives of the missing would come for help with their search. She remembered being left in charge of the brothel when the owner would personally make the rounds of the offices of the National Guard, the Treasury Police, and the National Police. The men said to have taken the locas away wore no uniforms, so there was no way to be sure which force had taken them.
“We didn’t even hear of any of [the locas] being held prisoner,” Zulema told us. “Of all the ones they carried off, not even cadavers were found.”
El Salvador is filled with stories like these, people turned into ghosts because unanswered questions are all that remains of them. A monument to the dead and disappeared that was unveiled in San Salvador in 2003 now bears the names of around 30,000 dead or disappeared who have been documented. Another 45,000 are estimated to be missing from that wall, a number that includes the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World.
Unexplained death became even more common for the trans women of San Salvador after the war. They were victims of the gangs that took over San Salvador’s streets, or targeted in drive-by shootings, or killed by HIV. By the turn of the century, the Praviana — which the sex workers say was home to dozens of trans women around the time of the war’s end — had essentially ceased to exist.
All that’s left is what remains of the Bluegill, with Patricia Leiva living in its carcass. Her home is a small room with a beat-up pallet on a concrete floor for which she pays $3 per day. She survives primarily by selling a few Coca-Colas and packs of gum from her door. She also still turns the occasional trick, though she can only walk a block or so on a good day.
She lives about a mile from the Monument to Memory and Truth, and her rusty shack is the closest thing to a memorial for the friends who passed through it. If it is too late to find out who killed the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World, they at least want their memories to be believed.
Leiva showed us her ID card when we asked if it was safe to publish her name for this story.
“Use my name!” she demanded. “This is serious what we’ve talked about. And we’ve told the truth.”
January 4, 2016, at 11:39 a.m.
This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the document that Entre Amigos claims to possess.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 8, 2015, at 10:52 a.m. ET
SENSUNTEPEQUE, El Salvador — Karla Avelar had a backache when she reached the Sensuntepeque Penal Center, a cluster of cinderblock buildings perched on the side of a lush green valley near El Salvador's border with Honduras. So, after lunch, she took off her shirt and lay facedown on the cement floor of a room that doubles as activity space and cafeteria. Five women in bright makeup gave her a head-to-toe massage. They used hand cream as massage oil and placed a small candle over the knot in her back to draw out the pain.
Avelar was so at ease inside the prison that it is hard to imagine that she was regularly raped and tortured while she was incarcerated there between 1996 and 2000. Avelar, now 37 years old, was one of the many trans sex workers from San Salvador, El Salvador's capital, who has done time there over the past several decades. The ones who passed through there around the same time as Avelar report being abused by guards and pressed into a kind of slavery by the gangs who controlled the prison.
Those days are over, thanks in part to a legal complaint Avelar herself filed after her release. The women who rubbed her back on her recent visit, just before Christmas, are among the roughly 50 inmates who live in Sector 2, a special unit that houses trans women along with a handful of gay men. They still interact with the other prisoners in some common areas — several of them have boyfriends in the men's unit, and the prison supplies them with condoms — but they live and sleep in a part of the prison that is walled off from the men's unit for their safety.
"Today there is no rape," said one 25-year-old inmate who gave her name as Kendra. Kendra said she was subject to some verbal abuse when she first arrived in 2010 — a guard forced her to kneel for two hours while hurling homophobic insults at her — but Avelar came to see her and helped put a stop to it. The sealing of Sector 2 in that same year coincided with a decision by the prison administration to move the gang members out of the prison, which also went a long way to improving the trans and gay inmates' situation.
Many of them have stories much like Avelar's: Thrown out of home at an early age, they got by as sex workers, and survived rape or run-ins with gangs before landing in Sensuntepeque. They look to Avelar as a cross between a godmother and an advocate, able to win concessions from the prison administration that they could never get on their own. During the December visit, Avelar delivered a petition from the residents of Sector 2 to the warden asking that they be allowed to join the women's unit for a Christmas pageant. He agreed to it in writing on the spot.
"They're a little afraid of me because I've gotten them to remove certain guards," she told BuzzFeed News during the three-hour drive to the prison from San Salvador. "So with me, [the guards] are all like, 'Hello, Niña Karlita,'" greeting her with an affectionate nickname.
In a country where HIV and violence claims so many trans women's lives that there are few trans women in San Salvador over the age of 35, it's remarkable that Avelar is even still alive. She was raped and threatened with murder for the first time when she was 10, has survived at least three murder attempts as an adult, and has lived with HIV that went untreated for more than 13 years. Since 2008, she has run the trans rights organization she founded in San Salvador, known by the acronym COMCAVIS Trans. She regularly travels around the world to make the case for trans rights before international human rights bodies.
Avelar is part of a generation of trans activists in El Salvador, most of whom never finished primary school. They have won some substantial victories — including a directive issued by the government in 2010 prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in government jobs — even though human rights advocates consider El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas for LGBT people. Based on media reports, COMCAVIS has documented at least twelve women and two gay men were killed in 2014, a figure they believe understates the actual number of murders.
"In terms of Karla's transformation, I can say, 'Wow, when I'm all grown up I want to be just like her' — only that she's younger than me," said William Hernández, who founded El Salvador's first LGBT rights organization in 1994, Entre Amigos (which translates to "Among Friends").
"We met her on the streets," Hernandez said. "We knew the comings and goings of all of the things she lived through." Now, he marvels at seeing her in meetings seated next to ambassadors and cabinet ministers. "And she's not just sitting there — she's actually expressing herself, making decisions and laying the cards on the table."
Avelar was born in Chalatenango, a rural district just to the northwest of the one that houses the Sensuntepeque prison. She left home when she was 10 years old, after the second time her cousin raped her in their family house. Another cousin used to shoot at her from time to time — and finally told her to get out.
"My cousin warned me that if I didn't leave home he'd kill me, because in his family there were only machos," Avelar said. She was dressing as a boy at the time, she said, but "I wasn't fooling anybody. ... In my town, in my neighborhood, everybody stopped calling me 'Carlos'; they called me 'Karla' instead. Or 'the faggot.'"
She left without enough money for bus fare, so she started walking toward San Salvador. She walked for a day and a half before reaching Apopa, a town just outside the capital, arriving at around 11 p.m. A man took pity on her and paid for her to take a bus the rest of the way. She spent the next six months sleeping in the San Salvador bus station or on the street, feeding herself from the trash.
She eventually saved up a little money from begging and bought a case of Coca-Cola, and began a business selling soda in one of the city's largest markets. There she met a woman named María who took her in but made her work a grueling schedule of domestic chores.
The woman's son also raped her, Avelar said, "but I stayed there because I didn't know what else to do."
One of her most dangerous chores was buying tortillas. María's house was in a neighborhood controlled by the 18th Street gang, but the tortillería was in territory of the rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS). On one of these tortilla runs, a group of MS members grabbed her and took her to a place where she said about 15 men raped her. There were more waiting their turn, but she found the courage to make a break for it.
She returned to homelessness shortly after. That's where she first met another trans woman, named Diana, who invited Avelar to come along with her when she worked the streets. Avelar discovered that sex work finally gave her a way to earn money on her own and a little bit of control over her life.
"I was young [and] I made money," she said.
Avelar stayed friends with Diana until about eight years ago, when Diana was killed by her partner, a police officer. They had no real name for what they were at the time they first met. Most of the trans women in San Salvador were lumped into the category of "homosexuals" or they called themselves "locas," which literally means "crazy women" but often is used to mean something similar to "fag."
"At that time, we didn't even know that we were 'trans' or that we were the subjects of rights or anything," Avelar said.
Many of the trans sex workers who were already working in San Salvador when Avelar entered the business in 1990 remember those years as the tail end of a golden age. A civil war raged in El Salvador from the early 1980s until 1992, but the capital itself was comparatively peaceful and home to a thriving red-light district where gay men were relatively open and trans sex workers enjoyed steady business from the soldiers and police. There were a few strips where they worked, but the center of activity was a four-block area known as the Praviana. The women who spent time there in the '80s and early '90s estimate that in an area of about four blocks, anywhere from 70 to 90 trans women lived, most of them sex workers in the neighborhood's hotels.
Avelar was too intimidated by the other trans women to work in the heart of the Praviana. The veterans didn't exactly welcome her with open arms — they bullied her ruthlessly, calling her "la machorra" ("the dyke") because she wore short hair.
The "trans women who had been there a long time … would walk up and steal my money — sometimes they would even leave me naked," Avelar said. Once, a woman waved a machete in her face and told her she "had a pretty face for slicing up into little pieces."
Avelar eventually learned to fight back, and she began dishing out the same kind of abuse to the women who had treated her so badly. But this was as the Praviana began to decline in the 1990s. Many of the women left for the United States, following a well-worn path that many Salvadorans took in the dangerous and unstable period as organized gangs tightened control of the country following the civil war.
And then there was the "Matalocas" — the "Trannykiller." A serial killer started attacking trans women on the street in a series of drive-by shootings. He was said to have a wooden leg.
A man matching his description nearly killed Avelar in 1992. One night, Avelar said, she got into the car of a john who drove her to a secluded part of town after agreeing on a price. Her heart stopped when she went to go down on him and discovered he had an artificial leg.
"I touched his peg leg and I got scared," Avelar remembered. "I said to myself, 'He's already killed me.'"
She tried to act calm and finished the blow job, but he had noticed her panic. He pulled her off his penis, smacked her across the head with the butt of a pistol, and then made her get out of the car. That's when "penetration occurred" she said, and then he forced her back into the car and promised to kill her if she tried to escape.