“I Know Who I Am, But My Country Doesn’t Recognize Me”
Nahil Zerón came out twice. First, at age 14, as a lesbian. Then, in his late adolescence in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, as a trans man. The first in his family to enter higher education, Zerón, now 24, looks back on his teens as a time of mixed emotions.
“At first my family had trouble accepting me,” says Zerón, an advocate at Honduras-based lesbian feminist and human-rights watchdog Red Lésbica Cattrachas. “I was confronting my body and then I started to adopt a more masculine identity. But my parents realized something was happening and they decided to transition with me. That allowed me to redesign my life and rename myself.”
Zerón, whose chosen first name means ‘strong’ in the language of his Lencan, Central American ancestors, considers his more recent work in political advocacy to be an extension of his family’s multi-generational and indigenous rights activism.
“There are many acts of violence against trans bodies—some are perpetrated by the state or allowed by its institutions,” he says. “Our bodies become the first level of resistance, and living our gender identities shows that LGBTI people are everywhere in Honduran society.”
Cattrachas recorded a total of 312 LGBTI violent deaths between 2009 and 2019. Of those, just under one third were murders of trans people. Brutal killings of trans women and gay men continued in 2019.
While specific articles of the Honduran penal code now criminalize acts of hate against LGBTI people and femicide, only 65—or one-fifth—of the cases resulted in prosecution. Convictions were secured in fewer than 20 cases.
“We can’t count on the police to recognize a hate crime against us, or to seriously investigate it,” says Cattrachas founder Indyra Mendoza. “Especially because law enforcement agencies are among the perpetrators of the violence.”
Mendoza has lived an openly lesbian life since the 1990s, a decade of consistent police surveillance and pejorative media coverage around Tegucigalpa’s clandestine bars, including Incógnita, Igual, and El Closet, a cubicle-sized space where clientele literally “squeezed in for a drink”.
“Religious fundamentalists closed the doors for us,” Mendoza says. “They preached against us, and we went from the media’s morbid fascination that was not actually killing us to hate campaigns that presented us as enemies of society and destroyers of the family.
“From there, we were not able to stop the killing.”
Among the dozens of known but unprosecuted murders of trans women since the 1990s were 34-year-old Leonela Zelaya, found dead after a violent assault by police officers in August 2004; and 22-year-old Vicky Hernandez, killed in June 2009 during a military curfew imposed under the country’s most recent coup d’état.
Cattrachas and its partners have taken both cases beyond the national level, to the Inter-American judicial system, alleging state responsibility for endemic violence against Honduran trans women.
In a landmark decision in January 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights acknowledged that gender-related name changes in identity documents and public records are “vitally important” for protecting trans people against violence, torture, and ill-treatment.
Latin America stands out as the region with the highest number of reported transphobic killings in recent years: 167 in Brazil and 71 in Mexico were recorded between Oct. 1, 2017, and Sept. 30, 2019, by the Trans Murder Monitoring Project. (The numbers also reflect relatively high levels of reporting across the region).
Although the court’s 100-page ruling is not legally binding, it applies to all countries—including Honduras—that have signed the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty ratified by a majority in the region since it was adopted in 1969.
“Having [the ruling] will shape the way the whole system reinterprets the question of inclusion,” says Stefano Fabeni, executive director of Synergía, a non-governmental organization working on gender, sexuality, and human rights, with a focus on the Latin America, Caribbean, and Africa regions.
“Amending gender markers and names gives people a better life quality,” Fabeni says, noting that the real value of the court’s ruling will depend on how much civil-society organizations use it at the national level.
The group, together with a coalition of more than 60 civil society organizations in 27 Latin America and Caribbean countries, has successfully advocated for more than 11 LGBTI or related human rights resolutions at the general assembly of the Organization of American States.
Synergía plans to assist grassroots groups pushing for policy changes in areas highlighted by the court’s decision in Mexico, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Within a few months after the Inter-American Court’s ruling last year, Cattrachas lodged a petition at the Honduras Supreme Court challenging the state for failing to set up an official name- and gender-change process for trans people, and asking for recognition of same-sex marriage.
“I know myself who I am, but my country doesn’t recognize me, or other trans people,” says Zerón. “That means I don’t get respected when I go to school, hospital, look for work, or travel out of the country.
“But changing my name has to be more than a legal act. Acceptance also has to come from deeper within our society,” he said, noting that one of LGBTI Hondurans’ major achievements so far is organizing in groups and creating spaces that bring visibility in spite of intense violence.
“That I can have a job like this and be true to my gender identity at work is something we couldn’t imagine in our past,” Zerón says. “Our vision is that the work we’re doing in the present will have a very big impact in the future.”