A few years ago I was invited to speak at a feminist congress in Costa Rica. Latin American feminists do these events well. There is a famous series of encuentros that bring together women from across the continent. There is a bit of ceremony, a bit of speechmaking, a lot of debate.
This congress was held in the ballroom of one of the capital’s upmarket hotels. One evening the distinguished guests became even more distinguished by having cocktails at the residence of the Spanish Ambassador.
Costa Rica is a beautiful place to visit – rugged landscape with tropical forest, like New Zealand on steroids. Just before the congress we were taken to the countryside, having a long lingering lunch in an open-air café with a view of the local volcano. We passed no soldiers. Costa Rica is one of the few countries in the world that has no army.
I had asked the conference organisers if they could put me in touch with a local trans support group. It’s something I have done in other places too. There wasn’t a free-standing group, it turned out. There was an LGBT human rights NGO, which included some trans issues in its work, and I visited that.
There was also a feminist colleague at the national university who was interested. She arranged for me to come one lunchtime and give a public lecture. Her idea was that trans groups needed some legitimation in Costa Rica. I spoke in English, she translated for the crowd. About eighty people came. It went well. There was an interested discussion afterwards, no hostility – well, I was a distinguished guest and had met the Spanish Ambassador – and we got a good round of applause.
Near the front, on my left looking from the stage, was a group of half a dozen transsexual women, visibly separated from the students who made up most of the crowd. During the question period, one spoke up, thanking me for the talk. As soon as the proceedings ended, I jumped down from the stage and asked if the group would have coffee with me.
They would, so we walked across the lush university parking area to a little roadside café. Costa Rican coffee is very good. A colleague acted as translator, though I have a few words of Spanish I’m not conversational. We were hesitant at first, feeling our way; a couple of the group were not in good shape emotionally. But we worked through some questions and eventually were exchanging stories.
Their questions to me were very practical. Had I done surgery? Yes, that’s available in Australia. Did I have implants? No, I don’t believe in them. Did we use silicone in Australia? That was the one that stopped me.
I knew where the question was coming from. Travestis or vestidas – feminised men, we don’t have the terms in English – like transexuales commonly make a living in sex work. That’s what’s left, after they have lost jobs and homes. To re-shape breasts and buttocks for a more saleable body, they often have injections of silicone.
I haven’t seen it done, but I’ve seen it on film: a self-taught practitioner, a grotty bedroom. No antisepsis, no anaesthetic, no doctor. This is poverty. Industrial silicone is not sterile; you buy it from a hardware store. It migrates around the body. Some people die of it. Others end up badly deformed.
Among the stories, the one I remember best was told by the woman who spoke up at the lecture, I’ll call her Fernanda. She was raised as a boy in a working-class family in Colombia, not far to the east. When she showed persistent femininity her father beat her up and threw her out. She survived, scraping a living in sex work and casual labour. There was a civil war going on. She dodged the right-wing paramilitary groups who engaged in ‘social cleansing’, i.e. murdering prostitutes, homosexuals and transsexuals as well as communists. Eventually Fernanda got out of the country and made it to Costa Rica.
We discussed sex work in the region. If you are travesti or transexual, you are at the bottom of the heap. You are in no position to negotiate safe sex. The customers don’t want condoms. Result: an appalling rate of HIV infection. Being poor, despised, perhaps a refugee or an illegal immigrant, you don’t have access to treatment. Result: an appalling rate of AIDS death.
We talked about how long we expect to live. The group consulted, and Fernanda gave me their estimate: till about thirty-two. In El Salvador to the north, with paramilitary death squads: about twenty-eight.
I came away from that café thinking I must be one of the oldest transsexual women on the planet.
And since then I’ve been very clear what trans politics is about. What really matters is not defining identity or defying heteronormativity. What matters is safety; health; basic income; human recognition; and housing. In short, social justice.