On April 1st, 2020, Panama implemented a new measure to minimize the spread of COVID-19: a gender-based quarantine that allowed men to leave the house on even days and women to leave the house on odd days. To learn more about the measure, click here to read a previous article I wrote that explicates it and its societal implications in full. The quarantine outraged a great number of people around the globe because it put certain sectors of the population in a precarious position, namely the transgender community. Many trans individuals were unsure of which days they could go out because the police were checking the gender on every individual’s identification papers before they entered a store. As a result, the trans community faced systematic discrimination from the authorities, whether they went out on the day that corresponded with their biological sex or their experienced gender.
After many voices from around the world expressed their concern for the trans community’s human rights, Panama decided to abandon the gender-based quarantine on June 1st in favor of a general curfew that allowed individuals to leave their homes between the hours of 5:00 am to 7:00 pm. However, this progress was short-lived because on June 6th, the Ministry of Health announced that it would return to the gender-based quarantine as a result of increased cases of COVID-19. This decision, once again, sparked outrage from many trans activist groups, including Hombres Trans Panamá (Trans Men Panama). I had the privilege to interview the organization’s president and founder, Pau González, about his experience as a trans man in Panamá, how HTP began, and how his community has been affected by the gender-based quarantine.
Latina Republic: What was your experience growing up as a transgender man in Panama? Did you experience any discrimination?
Pau González: Growing up as a trans man in Panama during my childhood was not easy. I did not have the tools or the information that I have today, and neither did my parents nor my relatives. I remember that in my childhood and adolescence, my parents would frequently correct and scold me. I recall that in grade school, when we were all between 8 and 9 years old, things were not as difficult. My biological gender was female, and although I liked to play with boys on the playground, no one treated me much differently. But later on in my adolescence, things got a little harder. During those later years, kids made fun of me, discriminated against me, and made me repress who I was. It was such a difficult time in my life. I suffered from despair, and I didn’t know what to do about it because I felt so alone. At one point, I even thought of doing things that would have been horrible, if I had done them, like committing suicide. However, despite these hardships, I began to find myself on a path to self discovery and acceptance. Panama is a very conservative country, so it is very difficult for people to learn to accept people who are different from them, like those in the LGBTQ community. Because of this culture, I repressed who I was in my youth in order to avoid discrimination.
Later in my teenage years, I actually came out of the closet twice. The first time, at age 18, I told my mother that I liked women, and because of our lack of information about the spectrum of the LGBTQ community, we both assumed that I was a lesbian because I was still a female at the time. Then, later on, after learning more about the LGBTQ community and the full spectrum of identity, I realized that what was really happening to me was that I had rejected myself and who I was to please the people around me. I was a man, not a lesbian woman, and my body just didn’t reflect my gender identity. Coming to that realization was very difficult for me, and I felt like I was drowning and that I could not move forward; I was very afraid. But, at that moment, I told myself that if I die tomorrow, I would die pleasing everyone except myself, and I decided that even if society rejected me or if my family disowned me, I would prefer this rejection than to die not being myself. So, I decided to fully embrace who I was and face every obstacle that I had to confront with strength, hope, and optimism. I also decided to share this strength, hope, and optimism with the people I surrounded myself with in order to give them the opportunity to accompany me on this path and give them the information to better understand my journey.
Latina Republic: What inspired you to start Hombres Trans Panamá? How did the group come to be?
Pau González: The group started after I decided I no longer wanted to feel alone. In high school, I would tell my mom that I wanted to become independent so I could find myself; at that age, I already knew that I liked women, for example, but that was all I knew. So, I told my mom that I had to find myself, and I left the house and started to work and study. From then on, I recall that I had begun a process of self-discovery. Even though I did not completely understand what was happening to me, I did not want to let the repression and internalization I suffered through in my adolescence make me feel alienated or suicidal any longer. I started to familiarize myself with human rights and learn about the LGBTQ community, and I spent 12 years learning, growing and figuring out who I was.
When I was 30, I met two other trans men, and I realized that we were not alone and that there had to be more trans men in Panama than just us. With that said, we created a FaceBook page to see if anyone would write to us or if anyone else felt alone like we did, and that was where Hombres Trans Panama started. We first called ourselves Chicos Trans Panamá (Trans Boys of Panama), but we later changed the name to Hombres Trans Panamá. After that, whenever a new person came along it was like, “Oh, wow, now there are four of us!” It felt really good to know that there are more people out there like me and that I wasn’t alone anymore because I continued to find more people embarking on the same journey as me.
Next, we made a WhatsApp group in order to share the unique situations we had faced as trans men. As a group, we started to get to know our rights, how to defend them, and how to approach people of different sexual identities. One of the issues we frequently discussed was how the healthcare system needed to be improved because there was little support or coverage for trans men and women within it. After discussing the issue extensively in WhatsApp, we came up with a way we could make a difference. In 2016, we approached the Ministry of Health with our issue. I remember that we went to the ministry director’s office who oversaw the sexborne diseases program and who ran clinics that were referred to as “friendly clinics” (clínicas amigables). We said “This is us, there are only three of us here today, but there are more of us, and it’s important that we have access to healthcare.” Our group learned a lot from that first act of activism, and from there we continued to expand, learn, and grow. Today, the group has 102 members, and I still can’t believe it.
As we grew we learned new things. For example, we are named Hombres Trans Panamá, but we did not realize that there were intersex people and people whose gender identity was non-binary that wanted to join the group. Due to this growth, we have a more diverse group. We currently have members whose ages range from 18 to 49 as well as people of different nationalities who live in Panama. We are also delighted to have three moms representing their children in the group; these mothers joined because they wanted to help their kids through their transition. When a younger person approaches us and wants to join the group, we always ask him if he has an older family member or friend who would like to come with him or on his behalf. We don’t want the young person to feel alone outside of the group, and we want to help his family better understand him and his journey. Our philosophy is that if we are human beings, we can share our experiences and continue to learn from and with each other.
Latina Republic: While on the topic of the role of parents in a trans individual’s journey, what are some recommendations that Hombres Trans Panamá has for these parents?
Pau González: The most important thing that I recommend, because of the experience that I had with my family, is that you give them information. It’s not so much about demanding that parents immediately accept and understand the situation, but it’s more so about giving them information and the opportunity to accompany their child on their journey. What we see most often with the majority of moms and dads is that they initially react in a negative way. In Panama, for example, due to the prejudices that have been passed down to our parents from previous generations, it is very difficult for a parent to hear the news that their child is transgender for the first time. Many parents think that they have done something wrong or failed their child. But above all, this, like everything, is a process, and every person takes it at his or her own pace. I believe that there are certainly times in which there are parents who do not accept the child’s path, but the love that mothers and fathers have for their children often moves them and encourages them to make an effort to understand and support their children. The most important things are that they have information and love for their children that will inspire them to help and to listen.
Latina Republic: Is HTP allied with any other trans groups in other countries or in the region? Are there groups for trans women and is HTP allied with any of them?
Pau González: Yes, we are members of the network of the Colectivo Americano de Hombres y Personas Trans (American Collective of Trans Men and People), called RECA (Spanish acronym). The network includes groups from countries in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Also, we are allies with an organization called the Asociación Panameña de Personas Trans (Panamanian Association of Trans People); this is an organization that has existed for many years in Panama, and they are made up of trans women. In fact, we worked as a team on the letters regarding the gender based quarantine that were sent to different government offices when they announced the measure. As president of HTP, I contacted the director of the Panamanian Association of Trans People, and I said, “I think we have to work together to do something so that we can do as much as we can for trans people.” All the letters that we sent were sent together and were cosigned by both organizations. We are also allied with PFLAG Panamá which is a group that consists of fathers, mothers, friends, and relatives of trans people. We also support all other LGBT groups in the country and the initiatives they take.
In addition, we have supported non-LGBT organizations because we think that it is important to be present in different sectors of society. We have supported organizations such as the Fundación de Relaciones Sanas (Foundation of Healthy Relationships), which is an organization that focuses on mental health, because last year we had several cases of trans people who had suicide crises, and we wanted to learn things that can be done to help someone dealing with suicidal thoughts. I always want to help the trans men that are going through such a crisis, but I sometimes don’t know how to help and I don’t want to make the situation worse if he does not receive the appropriate help or support. For that reason, we started a relationship with that organization, and, in fact, this organization now, in the wake of COVID, has implemented a support hotline for mental health crises because, in Panama, there is no state funded crisis hotline. There are hotlines that can supposedly give you medical attention, like 911, but the Fundación de Relaciones Sanas’s hotline is managed by mental health personnel who can handle a suicide crisis situation. I am also a volunteer of the Te Escucho Panamá (I Hear You Panama) team. This group helps to establish stable, remote programs for different psychologists and gives them the means to reach clients, such as receiving calls on its platform. HTP and I, myself, have supported these organizations because I think it is important to be part of society, not only among LGTB groups but in environmental groups, groups for the elderly, and more.
Latina Republic: Panama’s gender based quarantine has had a profound impact on the trans community. How have you seen the quarantine’s effects in your life and in the trans community?
Pau González: Wow, that’s a powerful question. The effects have been really evident in both my life and in the trans community. I consider myself to be a very resilient man, a very calm man, and a balanced one, but the quarantine and its implications have been very difficult for me to grapple with. The measure was announced on March 31st and we were told that it would go into effect on April 1st, and at that moment, I felt the world shift. For me, it has been three years since I have completed my transition, and most times when I go out in the streets, strangers will not know that I am a trans man, unless I tell them that I am. However, this measure mandated that I go out on the day designated for women because my ID and my papers don’t match up with who I am. In Panama, there aren’t laws that respect the autonomy of trans people to choose their own identities. So, to force me to comply with my biological gender, with which I do not identify, made me think This can’t be, I am a man. What am I going to do when I leave my house looking like a man on a female designated day? They’re going to look at me weirdly, and I don’t even know what they may do to me. Panama was the first country to implement the quarantine dividing men and women, though Peru and Columbia followed. However, the difference is that Panama never accounted for trans people and how it would respect their gender identity, but the other countries allowed trans people to choose which day they identified with.
At the beginning of the quarantine, there was a report circulating in the trans community about a trans woman, Barbara, who left her house to do volunteer work. She was handing out bags of food to people in her community, and the police stopped her and took her prisoner. Not only did they arrest her but a female police woman said, “You’re not a real woman, you shouldn’t go out on women’s day, you’ve got the letter “M” on your ID card. You’re a man, not a woman.” They detained her at the police station and made her pay a $50 fine. However, she was very strong through it all. That same day, women’s day, a trans man who was a member of Hombres Trans Panamá went out because he thought Well, nothing’s going to happen to me because I am going out on the day that corresponds with the “F” for female on my ID card, even though I am a man.” That day, he went to the supermarket to buy food, and at the entrance of the supermarket, a policeman said, “Sir where are you going?” The trans man explained, “According to this biological gender based quarantine, I legally have to leave today because my ID says that I’m a woman, but I’m a trans man.” The policeman said, “No, no, you can’t come in. This day is for women. I don’t understand who you are, and you better not come in.” The trans man said, “Please, I have to buy food.” In response, the policeman told him, “You can take money out of the ATM but you can’t go inside because this day is for women and you’re nothing.” So he withdrew money from the ATM and went home, but he couldn’t buy food.
As a result of these incidents, we realized that if we went out according to our true identity or if we went out according to the identity written on the document that doesn’t represent who we are, we were going to have a problem either way. As a result, Hombres Trans Panamá created an online solidarity network for trans people affected by the quarantine. We thought Ok, this picture is very negative, but it’s something we have to deal with, and we can’t just do nothing and accept defeat. With that said, we decided to make a forum to collect all the cases of discrimination during quarantine. We also included a forum to bring together allies of the trans community and trans individuals who needed support during this time. Many trans individuals utilized these forums to document incidences of discrimination that they experienced. However, some trans people are afraid to report these cases. For example, I have received audio messages saying, “The other day authorities wouldn’t let me in a store and yelled at me, but I am too scared to report them.” We also had been writing letters to the Ministry of Health, the ombudsman, ILGA, allied groups, and even the High Commissioner of the United Nations since the measure was first announced. Eventually, Human Rights Watch contacted us, and they said that the situation was very serious and that they were going to help us. Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the President of Panama asking him to reconsider the measure and its impact on the trans community because public health measures should not violate human rights.
Every night in Panama, there was a press conference at 6:00 pm on national television in which they told us about new cases and statistics, and there was supposedly going to be an opportunity for the public to participate and ask questions if they used the hashtag #PMA. On April 1st, we used the hashtag to ask about the precarious situation that the trans community was in as a result of the measure, and they never answered us. Eventually, we got a virtual meeting with the U.S. embassy in which we had several people share their experiences and explain how the authorities were discriminating against the trans community. In the meeting, I shared everything I received from the online solidarity forum.The person who ran the meeting told us that he was going to see what he could do and that he would share our sentiments with public health officials.
On Monday, May 11th, a month after our virtual meeting, a statement from the Ministry of Security came out that said that the LGBT population could not be discriminated against. It felt like a breakthrough that they had at least recognized us and that we were suffering after ignoring us for more than a month. However, we were worried because there was no specificity about which days trans people could leave their houses. We decided to go out on whichever day we felt more comfortable (whether it be the day for our biological or experienced gender), but a new problem arose. Now, when trans people tried to explain their situation to the cops, they said “It’s not that you can’t be here, it’s that you can’t be.” With that said, there are no clear measures in place. We keep sending letters to the Ministry of Health saying, “Look what has been happening to us since April 1st! This treatment has existed long before the quarantine because the police have always been prejudiced against and violent with trans people. The national attention of the gender-based quarantine is only highlighting prejudices that have always existed.”
Latina Republic: What do you think is a solution that would better respect the identity of trans individuals while maintaining social distancing and preventing the spread of COVID-19?
Pau González: The truth is that I have seen Columbia and Peru abandon the measure because they did not like how it affected certain groups of people. I think there are other ways to maintain social distancing than to assign people to different days of the week based on their identity. In Peru, they gave clear sanctions to police who discriminated against trans people and issued standards that demonstrated how to treat people with respect. However, just because they abandoned the measure and issued these rules does not mean that the prejudice that has already existed and that still exists among some of the authorities will not persist. A solution that we have proposed in the letters that we have sent is that authorities respect the identity of trans people whether there is absolute quarantine or not. I also suggest that there be clear protocols that consider a human rights perspective and instruct officials on how to treat people of all identities and in all areas of life, such as in the arenas of healthcare, education, and work. I also think that dialogue is very important so that officials can consider the voices of the people they represent. It is very important that creating clear protocols is a joint endeavor between the authorities and civil society because I believe that citizen participation is crucial when measures are going to be implemented that will disproportionately affect some sectors of the population. So, in short, the simplest thing to do is to implement clear measures that protect different groups of people.
Latina Republic: What do you envision for the future of the trans community? What steps are necessary to achieve this vision?
Pau González: Honestly, I am very optimistic. The truth of what we have lived through is very difficult and has been a very big challenge to our community, but they have also given us an opportunity because they have made visible the inequalities that already exist and have made apparent the need for all these rights to be guaranteed. I envision that HTP will continue to grow, it will continue to be visible, and we will be able to help more trans people throughout the country. And I feel that the steps to follow are similar to the ones we have already been taking: first, to empower trans people so that we know our rights and can defend them. Second, to continue to fight for the country to implement the rules and international agreements it has signed. Since Panama is part of, for example, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that issued Article 24 in which it very clearly delineates how to handle sensitive trans issues, such as their sex change on their papers, the right to identity, the right of name change, official sex change procedures, and marriage equality. These are tools that already exist that Panama has neglected to put into effect, despite the IACHR’s mandate. That is where civil society relies on us? when there are agreements that were signed from the outside and that have yet to be fulfilled on the inside. I also believe that many countries that have made progress have instituted laws to ensure that progress. I feel that a comprehensive law that covers all factors of our struggle is very necessary? a law specifically for trans people.
But beyond a law, we are in need of a social change and a cultural change because a law cannot be expected to solve everything. For example, the IACHR’s Article 24, which guarenteed the LGBTQ community’s right to equal protection, is a very good instrument and is one that I feel should be put in Panama’s civil registry because it can easily implement the measures mentioned within it. In fact, Panama is also part of the OAS (Organization of American States) and other international conventions that have been signed that categorize freedom of identity as a human right. As humans, we should always be able to enjoy all of our rights, just because we are human. So, I think that the next steps are to continue fighting for our rights to be recognized, to take different concrete actions, to create clear protocols, and to ensure that more people know their rights and how to defend them. Despite what seems to be a lot of opposition, I really feel very positive. Especially since Costa Rica and Colombia, our neighboring countries, have recently advanced; Costa Rica has made such progress that it legalized same-sex marriage. With that said, I believe that Panama is in a situation in which it has everything it could possibly need to advance along with its neighbors. The only thing missing is political will, which depends on how we as a civil society advocate for change on a uniform, fundamental basis, because there are many ways to demand rights.
Where to find Pau and Hombres Trans Panamá:
FaceBook: Hombres Trans de Panamá
Zenia Grzebin | Wake Forest University
Zenia is a rising Junior at Wake Forest University who is pursuing majors in Politics and International Affairs & Spanish as well as a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Zenia became interested in Latin American and Spanish Studies through her travels to Costa Rica and Spain. In the summer of 2019, she conducted research on international relations and Spanish domestic politics for La Asosiación Profesional de Sociología de Castilla y León. On campus, Zenia is active in organizations such as Project Pumpkin and HerCampus as well as a member of the Sigma Delta Pi Spanish Honor Society. She is looking forward to working with Latina Republic to amplify marginalized voices and learn more about issues affecting Latin America.