Editors' Note: Guest blogger Brian Tofte-Schumacher is Communications Associate at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
International arrivals terminal, JFK. My assignment: meet and accompany Johana Esmeralda Ramirez, an LGBT Human Rights defender to the UN for a series of meetings and hearings where she would testify to the conditions faced by LGBT people in her country.
So far, my work at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has led me on an amazing journey. I've met people who have opened my eyes to perspectives I'd never dreamed of. This time was no different.
Johana is a Guatemalan trans activist who came to New York to present a report to the UN Human Rights Committee. I've been fortunate, getting to know activists from around the world through my work, but I was in for a particular challenge this time: Johana only speaks Spanish. While I have a few years of Spanish classes under my belt, I'm far from fluent. Having lived in mostly white Washington State before I moved to New York I had neither the language immersion in Spanish nor the personal preparation to carry out a nuanced conversation on human rights violations with a trans activist from Guatemala. Are our worlds too far apart for me to be helpful? I didn't know.
Waiting for Johana, my stomach was in a knot; would I forget the most basic Spanish vocabulary? An hour passed. The stream of international travelers started to trickle, and I wondered where Johana was. My mind raced through possible scenarios: Is she having difficulty with customs? She is a trans woman--has her appearance, or identification papers caused her a problem? Is it something more mundane? Did she miss her flight? Am I in the right terminal?
Finally, I saw Johana heading in my direction with a beaming smile, wearing the rainbow colored scarf she'd emailed me about. To my surprise, she was dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, sneakers and windbreaker. Dark eyed and petite, she looked like a very appealing gay guy rather than the stunning woman in makeup and heels I had seen photos of. With a quick mental note to think about my assumptions on gender presentation and a sigh of relief that she made it safely, I welcomed her with a hug and pieced together a greeting.
During the taxi ride to her hotel, we talked and I realized that I had no idea of the extent of discrimination and violence trans individuals face in Central America. In Guatemala, trans women are not only denied access to jobs, education, and health care, they are also the targets of torture, forced disappearances, and sexual violence. As Johana spoke steadily and softly, I realized just how much courage, and endurance was inside the person sitting right next to me.
Spending time with Johana, I heard stories of her friends who had gone missing or had experienced violence. Johana is now the spokesperson for OTRANS Reinas de la Noche (Trans Queens of the Night), an organization, founded by a group of her friends who wanted to do something about the discrimination the trans community faced. She and a team of advocates wrote a "shadow" report for the United Nations, outlining the violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals.
Shadow reports often document human rights violations that are either not considered or blatantly ignored by reports submitted by government officials. These reports are an important tool for civil society to have our voices heard. Johana presented the shadow report to the UN Human Rights Committee, which is responsible for monitoring a states' compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
One especially distressing section of the report, about violations of the Right to Life, states:
"At least 35 LGBT people were murdered in Guatemala between 1996 and 2006 on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. From 2009 to 2010, at least 30 transgender individuals were killed, including a three-week period from late October to early November 2009 when no less than 3 transgender women were murdered. During the first months of 2011, the government itself recorded the killing of 4 transgender individuals."
The report chillingly notes, "These official numbers do not reflect those LGBT individuals whose sexual orientation or gender identity was not accurately recorded at the time of their murder."
Finally, it tells us, "A prominent activist described the experience of living as a transgender woman in Guatemala as a virtual 'death penalty.' Due to a multitude of factors - including, but not limited to, the prevalence of HIV infection, entering sex work at a young age, the risk of severe physical and sexual violence on the streets - the life expectancy of a transgender woman in Guatemala is approximately 25 years."
As I was learning Spanish in high school, my family often asked me: "Why are you so passionate about this language, Brian?" I wanted to be able to communicate with people who interact with the world differently than I do. At 14 when I begged my counselor to switch me from choir to Spanish class, I had no idea of the journey my language skills would take me on.
Johana's short stay in New York wasn't all UN meetings and reports. I wanted to share some of our world with her...we went dancing at a gay club, shared a couple of meals and talked throughout. Johana has an infectious personality and a way of speaking with ease about extremely upsetting realities.
As a last stop before heading to DC for a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Johana came to the IGLHRC office to meet our crew. Speaking of her experience her eyes filled with tears as she said that working with an LGBT organization such as ours was so helpful, especially in this work, when sometimes she feels so alone.
Hanging out with Johana reminded me of an aspect of this work that I think is sometimes lost. Johana and I shared laughs, we shared tears, and we shared an experience.
She reminded me that behind all of the meetings and hearings at the United Nations, behind documents and reports that are submitted and discussed, and behind the government officials who claim there are no LGBT human rights violations in their country--behind all of these abstractions, there are real people... People who risk their lives to document and report the violence and discrimination faced by themselves and other marginalized people... People who are forced to hide their own identity in order to stay alive... People who are just as entitled to the freedoms and protections some of us take for granted, but are not allowed to enjoy them.
If there's one thing I hope I'll always remember in my work going forward, it's the people.
You can read the shadow report, "Human Rights Violations of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) People in Guatemala," presented to the UN Human Rights Committee. When you do, please remember Johana.
(Arrivals clipart via Bigstock)