In honour of Pride month this June, this blog focuses on the struggles of Honduras’ transgender community, featuring stories of discrimination but also of resistance. Written by Dr. Sayan Dey and educate. director Antonia McGrath. Sayan is an Assistant Professor at Amity Law School in India and much of his work focuses on decoloniality and de-constructing the legacies of colonisers in formerly colonised countries. In this piece, he draws on his experience and knowledge in his home country, India, and we work together to tie this to the context of Honduras, where individuals who do not conform to “traditional” (colonial) binary gender identities are still widely discriminated against.
This is a story about intolerance, discrimination and violence against the transgender community in Honduras, the roots of which lie in the country’s colonial history. As in much of the formerly colonized world, the colonizers (in this case the Spanish) uprooted existing socio-cultural beliefs and practices of the indigenous peoples and replaced these with their own the colonial ethics. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores in the 16th century, the ancient Mayan civilization in Honduras regarded non-binary, third-gendered and transgender persons in high esteem and believed that they were a bridge between the human and the spiritual world – in fact, they were invited as shamans to perform various religious rituals.[i] But, as the colonizers arrived, along with missionaries, scientists, medical “experts” and educators, they criminalized the existence of non-binary and transgender individuals and called them anti-religious, non-humans and biologically distorted beings. These violent colonial ideologies became deeply embedded within the socio-cultural existential psyche of Honduras and continue to be present today.
In fact, the colonialist heteropatriarchy of contemporary Honduras has resulted in the largest number of LGBT deaths (relative to population) across the world over the last decade. According to human rights organization Amnesty International, 300 LGBT deaths were reported between 2010 and 2018, out of which almost a third were transgender people. Honduras also has one of the highest overall homicide rates in the world and high levels of violence are present throughout much of society, but the rates of LGBT and transgender murders continue to stand out. The intolerance towards transgender people as well as other LGBT groups in Honduras is largely driven by the sexually violent and highly prevalent culture of machismo and is prominently reflected through the victimization of transgender people by their families, constitutional laws and the police.
For instance, The Nation reported on the story of Alexandra, a transgender woman from the city of Santa Barbara in western Honduras, who was continuously harassed by her father when she came out first as gay and later as transgender. Whenever she passed her father on the streets she was verbally abused and sometimes even beaten in public. Besides being harassed by one’s own family, the ambivalent laws of the Honduran constitution are also a point of concern. On the one hand, Article 321 of the constitution states that any form of crime committed against LGBT people in Honduras – including inciting discrimination – is a punishable offence, yet on the other hand the same constitution refuses to recognize same-sex marriage as legal (Article 112) and prohibits same-sex couples from adopting (Article 116). Moreover, the relevance of Article 321 is also highly questionable because, on most occasions, the police are reluctant to register complaints regarding violence against LGBT people. According to a study by Cattrachas, an organization dedicated to research, advocacy and defense of LGBT rights in Honduras, out of the 34 LGBT people killed in Honduras in 2017 only 9 cases were reported to the court.
Apart from the discrimination they face in their own country, the immigration policies of the United States also prove troublesome for transgender and LGBT individuals fleeing Honduras. The Guardian Newspaper told the story of Honduran transgender woman Nicole Garcia Aguilar for example, who was detained in a US immigration facility for seven months in spite of being granted asylum. She was released on April 17, 2019 only to be detained again a week later. Nicole fled from southern Honduras after being subjected to death threats, sexual assault and attempted murder linked to her gender identity. Even the police had refused to help her, instead saying she should to accept her suffering “because of the way [she is]”. So, after escaping from Honduras, when she arrived at the southern US border in April 2018, she claimed legal asylum. She was transferred to the only specialist transgender unit in Cibola County, New Mexico and finally in October 2018 she was granted asylum by an immigration judge. But this did not ease her situation, as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) refused to release her, citing inconsistencies in her testimonies. After several ethical complications, she was released on the 17th of April, but without official release papers. Accompanied by advocates from the Detained Migrants Solidarity Committee, when she went to collect her papers on 24th of April, she was detained once again. When she went to argue with the agent, she was told that it was out of his hands as the orders come from higher up. Despite having left Honduras fleeing for her life, the barriers transgender individuals like Nicole face upon applying for asylum in the United States are unprecedented.
A gay activist from Honduras (asked to remain anonymous), who works on issues of transgender rights for a local LGBT rights organization, described how it is structures of violence, as enforced by the state and security entities, as well as a lack of understanding surrounding “non-traditional” gender identities which are the major concerns in Honduras today. He says:
“The challenges with gender norms is clarifying that everyone is just different. For example, in the training processes I run (at the LGBT rights organization) we talk about gender roles from various perspectives, something that is different from each person. For example, I can be a cisgender man, homosexual, and with a masculine gender expression.”
The above stories and discussions reveal how the legacies of colonialism continue to shape and (re)enforce socio-cultural and political ideologies that invalidate and criminalize gender identities and sexual orientations that do not fit the cisgender, heterosexual “norm.”
This is not only the experience of the transgender people in Honduras, but also in other formerly colonized nations. For instance in India, in the year 1864, the British, who were the self-proclaimed representatives of ethics, morality and decency, criminalized sexual activities that were against the patriarchal/heterosexual/Euro-white-centric norms through developing Section 377 of Indian Penal Code Section. As a result, along with gays, lesbians and bisexuals, transgender people were also penalized. Like in Honduras, precolonial India had a different perception of the transgender community. The narratives of Mahabharata and Ramayana (the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India) reveal that the transgender people in ancient India were held in high esteem. Besides these texts, within the Hindu theological structure Lord Shiva is also portrayed as an androgynous figure known as ‘Ardhanarishvara’ (half male-half female). But again, with the arrival of the colonizers these narratives were delegitimized and diminished, replaced by Eurocentric ideologies. Even in 21st century India, the situation continues to be the same. Though Section 377 of Indian Penal Code, which made homosexuality a crime, was ‘officially’ abolished on September 6, 2018, in reality the transgender community remains socially, culturally, politically and economically marginalized. Indian society continues to show its reluctance towards the transgender community’s access to voting rights, education, jobs, health and socio-cultural activities. Ranjita Sinha, a transgender activist from West Bengal argues:
“Till date the central and state governments in India have not introduced any health scheme specifically meant for the transgender people. Moreover, each and every hospital has separate wards for men and women, but there are no such facilities for transgender [people]. It is important to remember that our anatomical structure is completely different from men and women. Therefore, such an ignorant social attitude keeps on reminding us that we are nothing more than a laughing stock of this society.”
But, of course, there is more to the story than simply persecution, fear and violence. In spite of threats to their very existence, members of the transgender community and the wider LGBT community in Honduras are coming into public spaces to call for their socio-political rights to be recognized and to protest against the violence, discrimination and ignorance they experience on a habitual basis. Last year, Honduras held their first ever Pride march, a clear step in the right direction, and local organizations like HUMAC (who organized the march) are continuing to fight for LGBT rights in their own communities through a combination of protests and educational programmes. Colonial gender identities are continuing to be questioned and challenged, with the transgender communities of Honduras, India and other formerly colonized nations playing a leading role in this struggle.
With that, we wish everyone a happy, powerful and peaceful Pride month! Let us know your thoughts on this post in the comments below, or feel free to share other relevant readings.
Links for further exploration:
- A photographic reportage by Italian photojournalist Francesca Volpi on the life of Darwin, a 22 year old gay man in Honduras who works as a transvestite and in the sex industry: http://www.francescavolpi.com/honduras-lgbt-darwin
- An academic piece on re-envisioning sex and gender in ancient Mesoamerica: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00438240500404375
- Read about what the organization HUMAC is doing to fight for LGBT rights in Honduras (Spanish only): http://humanosenaccion.org
[i]Roper, Danielle. “Museo Travesti del Perú”. Global Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) History. Gale, Cengage Learning. 2019.