On Transgender Day of Remembrance, Advancing the Rights of Transgender Salvadorans

“The worst…has already happened to us,” said Nicole Santamaría in a recent meeting with Human Rights First. She referred to discrimination, threats, violence, and the brutal murders of members of El Salvador’s transgender community. We listened as Nicole and her colleague Karla Guevara spoke about the vulnerable situation of transgender and intersex people in El Salvador and of their work through the Colectivo Alejandría, an NGO advocating on behalf of LGBTI Salvadorans.

Francela Méndez, a transgender activist with the Colectivo Alejandría, was brutally murdered by unknown assailants in May of this year. Méndez was known for her human rights activism across the country. Karla told us about the constant threats that she and her colleagues endure as well. Eighteen transgender women were killed in El Salvador in 2015 alone. Meanwhile the police are often complicit in, or outright responsible for attacks. The state rarely investigates and prosecutes.

While the situation for transgender Salvadorans is extremely troubling, the government recently took an important step forward. Lawmakers approved enhanced penalties for hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity, among other protected categories. While this is a step in the right direction, Karla and Nicole noted persisting legal vacuums in the country. They are advocating for nondiscrimination laws that specifically outline protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. They also call for a gender identity law in order to address the specific issues transgender and intersex people face.

Karla and Nicole stressed the crucial role of the international community in advancing the human rights of LGBTI people in El Salvador, and the importance of U.S. support for local civil society efforts. Current U.S. engagement in the country includes a yearly hate crimes training at the International Law Enforcement Academy in San Salvador. The course brings together law enforcement officials from around Latin America and the Caribbean and includes specific training on hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The United States should expand its engagement on these issues in El Salvador, focusing on the serious threat of violence facing members of the transgender community. This week, the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus launched the bipartisan Transgender Equality Taskforce, chaired by Representative Mike Honda (D-CA). At a forum marking the launch of the Taskforce, members of the U.S. transgender community dialogued with lawmakers on the violence and discrimination they confront. Congress should use the newly-created Taskforce as an opportunity to expand dialogue on the issues facing the international transgender community, including in El Salvador.

Today marks Transgender Day of Remembrance, a yearly observance that honors the individuals lost due to acts of transphobic violence. Despite a dangerous climate for LGBT people in El Salvador, and transgender women in particular, activists like Nicole and Karla are not shying away from bravely advocating for justice for LGBTI Salvadorans. Through their tireless work, Nicole and Karla honor the memory of their friend and colleague Francela and of all like her. The United States should honor their memory through increased support for civil society in El Salvador in their efforts to eradicate violence and discrimination.

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Published on November 20, 2015

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