Corpora en Libertad Network: Protecting the rights of LGBTI+ persons deprived of liberty

Monday, May 17, 2021

Why is it mostly trans women who are working with, accompanying and caring for LGBTI+ persons deprived of their liberty? Is it because we know that most of us will go through prison at some point in our lives?

Several activists and human rights defenders of LGBTI+[1] people from Latin America and the Caribbean gathered at the ILGA LAC 2017 regional conference held in Guatemala City. At this event, multiple activities were scheduled, including "caucus" sessions, which were meetings divided by sexual orientation and gender identity. This is how trans leaders from the region came together to reflect, exchange ideas and discuss the situation of trans people in our region.

During the Trans Caucus, various activists addressed issues such as discrimination, social exclusion and the lack of legal recognition of gender identity that we face in our countries. However, during my intervention, I asked the question: Do you know the situation of trans persons in prison in your country? For a moment, there was silence. Then, my dear Collette Spinetti from Uruguay raised her hand and gave an overview of the situation of LGBTI+ persons deprived of liberty in Uruguay. And so did other trans women activists from Colombia, Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua and Brazil.  

From that moment, Collette Spinetti from Uruguay, Malu Cano from Cuba and I had endless conversations over coffee and one or two cigarette about the situation of LGBTI+ persons deprived of liberty in our countries. We expressed our concern and the urgency of accompanying and influencing this agenda not only locally but also internationally.   

I must admit that I had mixed feelings during the ILGA LAC Conference in Guatemala. On the one hand, it filled me with pride to see that it was trans women who were leading this agenda and working on behalf of LGBTI+ persons deprived of their liberty. However, on the other hand, it reaffirmed what many of us already knew. The agenda of LGBTI+ persons deprived of liberty is a forgotten issue within the LGBTI+ movement and organisations. It seems better to ignore it because of the shame and discomfort of talking about incarcerated maricas[2], lenchas[3], vestidas[4] y travas[5], those that jeopardise a decent, dignified and equal LGBTI+ agenda with the rest of society.   

I was also wondering why it is mostly trans women who are working with, accompanying and caring for LGBTI+ persons deprived of liberty? Is it because we know that most of us will go through prison at some point in our lives?

The discrimination, exclusion and violence that LGBTI+ persons face in a heterocissexist[6] and patriarchal world means that we remain on the margins of rights, of social and everyday life. Even the love that we profess has to be in the dark, enclosed in four walls. All this brings us closer to a precarious life, accompanied by loneliness. Above all, we see the prison doors very close.

We must not forget that prisons are a reflection of our society, spaces built in a binary culture, designed to host men and women who comply with the social norms of how to be men and women. LGBTI+ persons, especially trans and non-binary persons, abruptly break into these spaces designed for cis[7] men and women. Prison as a humanising device of punishment, according to Foucault[8], and following the same line of the author, has a differentiated impact on the lives and bodies of LGBTI+ persons, since these places seek to correct, discipline and punish them on the basis of the prejudices, stigma and hatred present in society.  

We were reflecting on all this at the ILGA LAC conference in Guatemala. We knew the importance of creating a network in favour of LGBTI+ persons deprived of their liberty. A space where we could exchange our knowledge and experiences. A network that would make us feel accompanied and supported by activists and organisations that work in the field, on the ground, at the base, those who give up their privilege of freedom for a couple of hours to share the confinement.

To our surprise, we were contacted by a person who was interested in supporting our work. In two months, we were able to raise funds and invite people with expertise on this issue in Latin America to attend a working group in Cuba and formalise the network. With the support and accompaniment of Transcuba Network[9] and CENESEX[10], we were able to see the birth of Corpora en Libertad in December 2017.

From that date on, we have carried out constant work with member organisations and allies such as: hearings with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; the report on the situation of trans women deprived of liberty with the organisation WOLA; report on Covid-19 and its effects on LGBTI+ persons deprived of liberty, the Montevideo Declaration, the result of the 1st International Congress on LGBTI+ persons deprived of liberty held in November 2018 in Montevideo Uruguay. And we are currently conducting research on the situation of LGBT persons in prison in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador with the support of the ARCUS foundation.

The work has been arduous, with many challenges in order to drive changes in the historical and paradigmatic use and purpose of prison. For Corpora en Libertad, prison does not reintegrate, it does not rehabilitate, much less LGBTI+ persons, since we would have to start from the idea that we were once integrated into society in order to be able to talk about reintegration. We are abolitionists. However, to get to the point of not having prisons, at least in the current model, it is necessary to go through a reformist stage that deconstructs its essence.

The founding members of Corpora en Libertad are: Malu Cano, Collette Spinetti, Ari Vera, Gustavo Passos, Mariel Ortega, Josefina Alfonsin, Bianka Rodríguez Katalina Angel, Ludwika Vega, Rihanna Ferrer, Karen Vargas and Frida García. All of them with the conviction to transform prisons into spaces where sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are not reasons for violence, exclusion and discrimination because, even in the darkest places like prisons, respect and love must always be guaranteed.   

Ari Vera

Ari Vera Morales

President of the Network Corpora en Libertad

[1] LGBTI+ acronym used to refer to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and other diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

[2] Marica. A term used in Latin America to denigrate gay people and that has been reclaimed and redefined in the face of sophisticated English-language terminology.  

[3] Lencha. Synonym for lesbian, some people have used it in a derogatory way. Its origin comes from a character called Lencha who did not follow the social stereotype imposed on women.

[4] Vestida. Pejorative term used in Mexico and part of Latin America to refer to trans women

[5] Trava. Argentine term that was used in a pejorative way to refer to trans women, mainly reducing their identity to the practice of cross-dressing. The Trans collective in Argentina has reclaimed it and redefined it as a political identity.  

[6] Heterocissexist. System of discourses, ideologies and behaviours based on sexual orientation, gender and body discrimination against anyone who is not heterosexual and cisgender.

[7] Cis. A term used to refer to people who are not trans, those whose gender identity matches the sex they were assigned at birth. It means "on this side". The prefix Cis is the antonym of the prefix Trans.

[8] Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison.

[9] Transcuba. Collective of trans people in Cuba.

[10] CENESEX. National Centre for Sex Education in Cuba.