Michelle Suarez [Bértora], Uruguay’s first transgender senator, is already considered elderly. She has made it to 34 – a rarity in a country where transgender people tend to die young.
A veteran trailblazer for LGBT rights, she helped draft a bill that legalised same-sex marriage in 2013 and became the first transgender person to go to university in Uruguay.
Suarez has broken many barriers, yet it is perhaps her age that is the most salient part of her fight.
Most transgender women in Uruguay, a small South American nation of 3.5 million people, don’t get to live that long.
“In Uruguay, a citizen has a life expectancy of more than 70 years but trans women have a life expectancy of 35,” said Suarez, who took her seat in the senate this month.
Put down by society and shunned by their families, many transgender people are forced to drop out of school and find it difficult to get a job and access health services.
To survive, many end up on the streets as sex workers where they face violence, Suarez said.
“Trans women sex workers are exposed to many situations of violence .. they face an enormous amount of aggression,” Suarez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
“All this means to be a woman, to be transgender – together with being poor and a sex worker – affects health and, in general, cuts life expectancy for trans women practically by half.”
Across the Americas, the average life expectancy of transgender people is 30-35 years, according to a 2014 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
Along with suffering higher rates of HIV/AIDS and malnutrition, transgender people face “pervasive violence” from society and their family, according to a 2015 IACHR report.
Hundreds of LGBTI people across Latin America and the Caribbean have been killed in the past five years, with at least 41 attacks and murders of LGBTI people reported in the region during the first three months of this year, IACHR figures show.
As a senator representing the Communist Party, Suarez said she will push for laws that bolster the rights and protection of Uruguay’s 3,000 transgender people, who have been historically excluded from society.
The law, which is currently under debate, would allow transgender people to change their legal identities without having to go before a judge.
It would also promote affirmative action, ensuring that 1 percent of government jobs be reserved for transgender people, along with 2 percent of education scholarships.
“It’s a series of measures focused on a vulnerable group of people, in this case trans people, and historically the obstacles that have prevented the protection of their fundamental equal rights,” Suarez, a lawyer, said.
The law also aims to set up a government fund to compensate transgender people who were persecuted during Uruguay’s 1973-1985 military dictatorship, she said.
-Anastasia Moloney, Thomson Reuters Foundation