Transgender people in El Salvador are defending their right to vote

Photo of Paula Rosales on a march against transphobia in El Salvador in 2019, used with permission.

El Salvador will hold local, legislative and regional elections on February 28. Although there are laws that guarantee that every Salvadoran citizen has the right to vote, transgender and non-binary people continue to face discrimination. To combat this, I joined a group of 14 LGBTQI people hired by El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). We are working to overcome this discrimination and to ensure that transgender, non-binary and non-heteronormative people can vote in El Salvador, through the use of training programs in polling stations.

The biggest obstacle is that El Salvador still has no Gender Identity Law that allows transgender people to change the name and gender listed on their identity document. This hinders their access to rights such as education, healthcare, employment, and voting, among others.

As a result, a person's national identity card (known as the Documento Único de Identidad, DUI) can display a name and gender that is different from their gender expression. This has been the excuse used to deny transgender people their right to vote. Polling station staff, who are responsible for the electoral process, have refused transgender people access to voting stations in previous elections on the basis of this argument. This is not legally justified as Articles 7 and 9 of El Salvador’s Electoral Code state that a person’s gender identity is neither a requirement nor a reason to prevent that person from being able to vote.

In this photo, the author Carlos Lara talks about the LGBTQI population's access to the vote at a training centre in Jiquilisco, Usulután. Photo by Raul Benitez, journalist, used with permission.

The backdrop to all this discrimination is religion, given that some polling station staff have been heard saying to their colleagues things such as, “God hates homosexuals,” “He created everyone male and female,” and even, “Who told you fags that you have rights?” The Bible is not part of this country’s laws, therefore it is completely unacceptable to use this type of excuse against the LGBTQI population and their right to vote.

Homophobic and transphobic attitudes are felt the minute that LGBTQI people, and particularly trans people, “feminine” gay men, and “masculine” lesbians, walk into the polling station. They are on the receiving end of laughter, wolf whistles, catcalls, derogatory names and insults. They have bottles of water, rotten fruit and vegetables thrown at them and nobody does anything to stop it. In 2014, a transgender woman, Stacy Araujo, was physically attacked at a polling station where she was the presiding officer.

In 2014, Camila Portillo, a transgender woman, went to vote in San Marcos, but the polling station clerk refused to give her the ballot paper. It was not until Camila had alerted trans organisations, who in turn alerted the international observers, that she was allowed to vote.

In El Salvador, the trans population suffers frequently from violent transphobic attacks. “At least 20 transgender women between the ages of 16 and 32 were killed in this Central American country from 2017 to 2019,” according to an article in Deutsche Welle.

A transgender woman exercising her right to vote at a polling station in San Salvador. Photo by Raul Benitez, journalist, used with permission.

Although there is still resistance from a certain section of the population, LGBTQI organisations have taken steps alongside the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to guarantee the LGBTQI community’s right to vote. A few months prior to the 2018 legislative and local elections, the TSE employed two trans women and two gay men to give sensitivity training to polling station staff. For the 2019 elections, the number of these trainers rose from 4 to 14. In the upcoming elections on February 28, there will still be 14 trainers, of which I will be one, and we aim to reach training centres throughout the country.

A transgender man employed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal talks about the LGBTQI population's access to the vote at a training centre in Cuscatlán. Photo by the author.

The recommendations we make include, for example, that no polling station staff should ask a transgender person to return wearing clothing appropriate to the gender listed on their national identity card. This shows a complete lack of respect and is also a crime, as nobody should block another person’s right to vote, according to Article 295 of El Salvador’s Penal Code.

Staff must also check that the person is on the electoral register and that their features match the photograph on the identity card (makeup does not alter facial features and, due to job discrimination, the average per capita income of a transgender person in El Salvador is not enough to afford facial surgery). The training teaches polling staff to respectfully address transgender people according to their gender expression and to avoid using the name on their identity card.

All this work is supported by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 1, 2 and 7), Article 3 of the Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador and the Salvadoran Electoral Code, which guarantees that we are all equal and have the right and a duty to vote (Articles 3, 4, 7 and 9).

The press interviews a trans member of the LGBTQI community. Photo by Raul Benitez, journalist, used with permission.

However, despite the fact that voting is a civil right for all Salvadoran citizens and that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal hired LGBTQI people to support this community’s access to the vote, there has been resistance from polling station staff and from the general population. At times it is difficult for us to find the space to carry out this training. However, we continue with our work, travelling to as many training centres as possible throughout El Salvador. We believe that the discrimination has not yet been beaten, it is merely lying dormant.

We work so that the entire LGBTQI population in El Salvador can vote with pride, united and taking care of one another. Long live diversity!

In this photo, the author, Carlos Lara, one of the trainers hired by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal waits to give a session to a group in Usulután. Photo by Raul Benitez, journalist, used with permission.

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