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Trans Rights in Mexico and Canada: The Geopolitics of Privilege

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Oralia Gómez-Ramírez, University of British Columbia
Guest Contributor  

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

When I asked trans activists Angie Rueda Castillo and Irina Layevska what this blog entry should be about, the two of them encouraged me to account for what is happening in the struggle for trans people’s rights in Mexico, and how this may contrast and compare to the state of affairs in Canada.  

In Mexico City, a local law was approved in 2008 allowing trans peoples to change their name and sex on birth certificates and other official documents. Despite its narrow provincial jurisdiction and current limited accessibility and affordability, this legal change has been viewed positively by members of the trans communities. The measure allows trans peoples to obtain birth certificates without marginal annotations indicating the sex and name legally assigned to them at birth, and they are not required to undergo a genital surgery to obtain their identification documents. Acutely aware of the status of trans-related legislations in other parts of the world, activists in Mexico have praised the law not only for addressing some of the issues of social stigma, but also for opening up space to live and think about the wide array of trans experiences without the imposition of a medicalized frame.  

In the field of critical intersectional studies of gender and sexuality, there is a general willingness to be self-critical and open to new ideas and transformation. At the same time, coming from and having carried out my doctoral fieldwork in one location in the global South, specifically in Mexico City, I continue to notice the ways in which many concepts, categories, discourses, policies, strategies, and the like emerge in the global North, become influential and, subsequently, are circulated and taken up in the global South as desirable models of sensible, good or best practices. Needless to say, those flows of ideas are not unidirectional or unequivocal although it is an intricate task to trace the genealogy of an idea or a concept and how it travels worldwide. Yet, it would be really hard to be oblivious to the fact that such circulations occur against a backdrop of uneven and hierarchical global geopolitical configurations in which nation-states’ wealth and power differentials matter.

It is common to encounter media representations and everyday interpretations both within and outside Canada that simply assume that the terms and practices adopted in the global North as inherently better. Despite the widespread consensus among critical scholars that these ranking scales are historically and politically constructed, oftentimes the concepts and policies used in the global North find echo around the world, while the notions and strategies emanating from the global South do not have the same fate or privilege in other geopolitical locations.

It is common to encounter media representations and everyday interpretations both within and outside Canada that simply assume that the terms and practices adopted in the global North as inherently better. Despite the widespread consensus among critical scholars that these ranking scales are historically and politically constructed, oftentimes the concepts and policies used in the global North find echo around the world, while the notions and strategies emanating from the global South do not have the same fate or privilege in other geopolitical locations.  

Let me draw briefly on some of the findings of my doctoral research project on trans women’s efforts to obtain rights in Mexico City to provide further example of these uneven travels. Among lower class male-to-female persons, many of whom are street-based sex workers, the terms “jota” and “vestida” are widely used to name each other and themselves. These naming practices emerge out of and reflect the historically specific labour, class, and gender configurations of Mexico City today. The socioeconomic context and the lived experiences that explain these particular naming practices are complex and they deserve more attention than I can give here. Suffice it to say that context matters and these terms are employed differently to refer to what we would understand as transgender or transsexual women. As well,  a growing number of studies in the field have shown they have been in circulation for at least two decades, if not longer. More recently – prior to and particularly after the approval of the 2008 local legislation – terms like “transgénero” (transgender) and “mujer trans” (trans woman) began to be used.  

The introduction of these terms with global currency has not displaced the use of the domestic terminologies. Yet it has led to a local symbolic struggle in which the globally circulating terms are valued higher while the geographically influenced terms are viewed as seemingly backwards, incorrect, and derogatory. Their coexistence is certainly hierarchical. Were it not for the resilience of the local notions to stay alive, one would be tempted to overlook the historicity of all of these concepts. More importantly, their conflicting simultaneity in the shared space of Mexico City allows us to remain critical about the ways in which the concepts travelling from the global North tend to be constructed as intrinsically-superior taken up as common sense, or in terms of an always-there kind of vocabulary due, in large part, to geopolitical privilege.  

In Mexico and other locations in the global South, the notions of “gay” or “queer,” for example, have been taken up by some people, for diverse reasons, and with ever changing meanings. In Mexico City terms available at the local level (that could have potentially resulted in the rise of a movement for jotas’ or vestidas’ rights, instead of trans women’s rights) have not been politicized or reclaimed. In its place, embracing global terms and notions has helped trans people articulate their demands and to gain relative legitimacy in the socio-legal fields. I am not suggesting they had to steer clear of “foreign” or “imposed” concepts in their mobilizing efforts. Rather, I am encouraging us – scholars and activists based in the global North – to remain aware of the geopolitical and epistemic privilege underlying these processes, and to find ways to help dismantle the disparities and inequalities existing in today’s world system that inevitably shape the ways in which gender- and sexuality-based social justice struggles play out worldwide.  

The trans population is one of the most marginalized groups in Mexican society today. Structural and systemic vulnerabilities and pervasive discriminatory practices are expressed in higher rates of HIV/AIDS incidence, hate crimes, rates of incarceration, and police extortion, among other problems. Thus the challenges facing trans peoples in Mexico are still multiple. In the legal terrain – to speak of just one of the fields in which they are seeking to effect change – these include the acquisition of legal literacy and enough economic means to benefit from local legislations, as well as the effort to overturn the prevailing system of partial citizenships in which many trans people, due to absence of a federal law, are in effect undocumented in their own country of birth.  

Why would this matter to a Canada-based audience such as the one reading this blog series? Why is it important to talk about what happens in Mexico, and elsewhere in the global South, in the Canadian context? As I have maintain, what happens in the global North does matter to what goes on in global South – that is, to  how gender- and sexuality-based struggles are framed, what issues are highlighted, what vocabularies are rendered politically viable, what strategies are employed. I want to suggest that we continue reflecting on the ways in which Canada plays a key role in holding, allocating and administering asymmetrical socioeconomic and political privilege worldwide, and how this conferred privilege may shape lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex, two-spirited (and other) political and academic efforts taking place within and beyond the geographical confines of Canada.  

Having a broader geopolitical dialogue that gets translated into meaningful transnational alliances is needed now more than ever. In other words, we should keep an eye out for the ways in which the geopolitical privilege resulting from being based in the global North, including in Canada, structures what takes place in other latitudes. This proposition is certainly not novel, but as a woman of colour from the global South, I still see value in insisting upon this kind of mindfulness and critical engagement.

Oralia Gómez-Ramírez is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology, and a Liu Fellow and Vanier Scholar at the University of British Columbia. She thanks Angie Rueda Castillo, Irina Layevska, Julien Henon, and Mario Ulises Delgado Jaime for their suggestions on this piece.

  

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Equity Matters

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Lesbian/ Gay/ Bisexual/ Transgendered/ Queer/ Intersex/ Two-SpiritedGender equity