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The Panamanian who uses quarantine to make the trans struggle visible

A man holds a flag for Pride in Panama City in 2017.Arnulfo Franco / AP

For Pau González, a 35-year-old transgender man from Panama, obstacles are opportunities. Although his birth certificate defines him as a woman, he never felt satisfied with it and from a very young age he lived the process of discovering his identity as a gymkhana in which he has been overcoming barriers with the stroke of creativity and adding allies, such as his mother , who has traveled with him through Latin America to sexual diversity conferences, or his boss, who accompanies them both to gay pride marches. Now, with a name change – but not gender – in his identity document, and a transition process underway that he had to undertake abroad in the absence of doctors who could do it in his country, he is using the quarantine to make visible the struggles of his community in Panama.

“The pandemic has highlighted existing inequalities even more,” González says in a video call interview. In a country where the laws do not recognize equal marriage or refer to sexual diversity, the activist believes that the coronavirus crisis, at least, the existence of people like him is visible. On April 1, the Government of Panama implemented a system of exits to the streets by gender to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The measure allowed women to go out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and men on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

This division put in serious conflict those who identify with a gender other than the one reflected on their cédulas. Human rights organizations have denounced the detention of transgender people by police and security guards who accused them of violating the quarantine. “When they put the rule, I felt very bad, very sad, I shut myself up, I started to cry,” remembers González, who works as an executive assistant in a real estate company. “The lawyers recommended us to comply with the law, but since April 1, a trans girl who left according to her identity was arrested and another trans boy was arrested. They did not take him to jail because he was leaving according to the ID, but they did not let him enter the supermarket to buy food. The policeman told him that he looked like a man and that he didn’t understand.

After initial frustration, the activist decided to do what he has always done in the face of adversity. He made use of his motto “from each challenge an opportunity” and prepared a report with the cases of discrimination during the quarantine based on sex that he sent to various departments of the Government of Laurentino Cortizo. In addition, he became involved in a suicide prevention hotline to help transgender people and organized a meeting with supermarket owners to let them know the situation of members of his community due to the quarantine. “We managed to do two virtual workshops for all the administrative staff (of those stores) on why they should not discriminate. I involved the Ombudsman’s Office, an allied lawyer and we gave these trainings, ”he says smiling.

González began his activism in 2016 after traveling to Colombia for his transition process because in Panama there were no doctors who could treat him. Upon returning, he went to the offices of the Ministry of Health with two other men in the same situation to ask that his country also offer specialized health care to transgender people. Later, they created a Facebook page that quickly became the organization Trans Men Panama. “It was like something social, but the personal becomes political: learning to defend oneself, to demand and to fight so that they recognize our existence,” says the activist.

The next fight was associated with his change of name on the identity card, a process that in theory is open to anyone over 18 years of age in the Central American country, but which, he says, in the case of transgender men seemed almost impossible. González became the first trans male to legally change his name in the country, but he has not yet achieved the next step: having his identity document say he is a man. “Right now the law in Panama establishes that in order to make that change you have to go through a forensic doctor who will do a physical examination to determine your gender. This goes against human dignity. It is a humiliating and degrading treatment, leading to torture, ”says González.

“Until today we still cannot make the change of scoreboard and with the binary exits of the quarantine everything is much more difficult. I’m almost going for three years of transition and people treat me he“Adds who confesses that, although in recent weeks the population has relaxed with the quarantine measures, they still fear that they could arrest them if they go out. The situation has drawn criticism from international organizations such as Human Rights Watch. Its director for the Americas, José Miguel Vivanco, sent a letter to the Panamanian Government in April to demand that the quarantine measures respect “the dignity of transgender people.”

At the moment, neither the activists’ strategies nor international pressure have achieved a change in the quarantine measures. But the Panamanian authorities have issued two statements urging respect for gender identity and rejecting transphobia. “At least the government mentioned us. I had never mentioned the trans community ”, celebrates González. “The best thing is that we make ourselves visible enough so that they recognize that we exist and so that they see that we are not asking for favors, but demanding our rights as human beings that we are with a basis and foundations.”