In the coastal province of Santa Elena, Ecuador, catholic fishing villages demonstrate a surprising liberalism in their attitudes towards trans women.
In these small comunas trans women of all ages agree that they have reached an unprecedented level of acceptance and integration, one that is greatly at odds with the prevalence of machismo culture in our country.
‘I was speaking to two straight guys from San Pablo [a neighbouring comuna of Valdivia] and they told me that if they were to date a trans girl it wouldn’t be a problem. That it isn’t seen as anything out of the ordinary, that it is normal? Is it like that here?’
‘Yes, its normal. We live happily, calmly. But to get to this point we have paid with tears, sadness and we have had critical moments- nothing is easy. We have had to fight for ourselves, because if we didn’t, who would?
Personally, I am a super strong person. In the past others have mistreated me, they have humiliated me, they have beaten me for being trans, but I have turned the other cheek, looked to the horizon, and seen that there is a god who is the only one that can judge me.
It has been a very interesting journey; presently we are living in the best time, because in the past we were excluded, but now we are accepted by our family and have integrated into society.
People now respect us more, they love us more. We have gained this new place because we have also worked to make people think differently.'
‘Singing is incredible, in fact it is the greatest wonder I could experience because my dream was always to be on stage. Perhaps if a transphobic person sees us perform and says, 'what are these girls doing here?' (To not be disrespectful towards my community I am saying 'girls', right? They as transphobes would use other words.) But we always win our public over, people love us, we make them dance- performing is the most beautiful experience one can have. We have participated in many events, in the company of many other national artists here in Ecuador; we have toured all that is our province. It’s a great privilege and I am very proud to be a member of Las Chicas Latinas.’
'What we say is that when our family kicks us out it’s like we are born again because we go out into the world and learn what life actually is- what it means to survive. Why? Because from the bottom we learn to grow and to make a life for ourselves.
When my parents kicked me out I survived thanks to a friend named Soledad, she offered me her home, took me in and we lived together. This girl helped me out when I needed it the most, when my parents turned their backs on me, she gave me her house, she supported me and gave me the most that she could. Now she is in a difficult situation- look at how life is! And I am the one who is helping her because you should know to value the past. I feel so grateful to her because she gave me a roof to live under; she gave me food- what my parents never did, they gave me their backs. It was hard- life for people like us is very hard. In order to be who we are and to get to where we are we have to go through many things.
People would throw things at us in the street-oranges, tomatoes- I was about 17 or 18. That was the reality that I lived; we couldn’t even go out at times as they would chase us off. But with time things started changing little by little and look at it now! Now everyone greets us, people seek us out because we are good hairdressers, they get their hair done. Now yes, we are accepted by society.
I have my partner and we have been together for 3 years. His parents know that I am trans and accept me, though they didn’t at the beginning.
Did you see just now when a motorcyclist brought me fish? He is my boy's dad. Its not like it was before, where if their child went out with one of us his parents would beat him up or be abusive to us. Now that doesn’t happen. That life has changed. '
‘In my family there are 4 of us. Sheila and Ashley are my cousins and my sister is also trans. Her life was very beautiful- I was the one that suffered. When our parents realized that she was trans too, they didn’t discriminate against her, they did not throw her out, she was able to stay. The one that suffered was me. It is unfair. Can you imagine, my dad used to say, ‘I do not need a ‘homosexual’ in the house, I need a son because my sons are the ones who are going to look after me when I am old.’
Now, he is old and lives alone and his sons don’t ever visit him. They seem to forget that our father needs to eat. So, I like to remind him, 'Papi, do you remember when you would say that you didn’t want a faggot in the house? Yet now, here you are, able to eat only because of that faggot’. I always make him remember that.
He has asked for my forgiveness, he has said ‘Son, please forgive me, but in that era it wasn’t acceptable to have a ‘homosexual’ in the house. Forgive me for treating you like that, and now I realize that I was wrong.'
My parents separated- my mother is with someone else and my father is alone. In the past he was awful, he would get drunk and hit my mami. It was our fault, because he would say to her, ‘you accept these children as they are, yet they are the shame of our family.’
My siblings don’t speak to my mother because she left him. But why? She suffered so much because of him and never left us. She only left him when we were adults. I don’t understand their resentment. Perhaps my mother is looking for the happiness she never had with him.’
'Who chose that name- ‘Soledad’ (Solitude)? Its a very sad name. ’
‘My friends. I used to spend all day walking alone on the beach and they told me ‘Your name is 'Soledad'’ and so it was. I have tried to change it, I like the name ‘Lesley’ but everyone calls me ‘Soledad’.
‘My dad would say 'men are men and women are women', there was no room for anything else. When I was 11 years old he threw me out for being trans and I accepted help from a man. He worked as a witch doctor. He said he would look after me but took me to Guayaquil and kept me as a domestic slave for a year. I would faint from the work and lack of food, but I was able to escape with the help of one of his clients.
Now things aren’t like that. I see that the parents of the younger girls no longer throw them out but rather let them stay and help. The girls no longer suffer as we did before.
They would even put us in jail. This was about 20 years ago- there were orders form a homophobic politician from Manglararto [the neighbouring comuna] that we should all be arrested.
In those day we couldn’t go out because people would insult us. Sometimes they threw things at us and when they were drunk they would try to hit us. I sometimes had problems because they would try to hit me, and I wouldn’t let them. There are always chauvinists. But I do not know if it is and act of God, or if its fate, that those people who were so terrible to us then now have children, nephews or grandchildren who are like us.
Those times were awful, people did not accept that we were like this, but what guilt did we have? Its not like we decided, because if I was going to choose I would have accepted myself as a man. Why would I choose to suffer? I didn’t' decide, I’ve been like this since I was little, I realized since I had the use of reason. What I did decide was not to live a lie; a double life- only one life.’
'My family are very Catholic. When the pope visited last year they all went to see him. I have never had any problems. I began to live fully as a woman since I was 18 and I have always been accepted by them. I still live here with them and my partner lives with us too.'
'What about his family? Are they as accepting of your relationship?'
'No, at first there were problems because his family didn’t want him to go out with me but now everything is fine.'
'Did they have a problem with you because you are trans?'
'No, it was because his cousin had wanted to go out with me first and spoke badly about me when I told him I wasn't interested.'
‘It has been a long time, we are already in another era. We are more accepted, we enjoy more of our rights- we know that we are born with our rights- only that in the past they weren’t respected. But today, thank God, we have achieved a lot in this country, like civil partnership and the right to go to the civil registry and have identity cards with our true gender, names and image.
I was the first case of the ‘right to self-image’ in this country. 8 years ago I was discriminated against for going to the civil registry and presenting myself as I am, feminine. I was wearing make-up, earrings and I had my hair done, toda una dama, no?’. I was denied the right to have my identity card because my birth names were male, and I had to take the picture according to that. At the time I was living in what was known as La Casa Trans in Quito, where we were given access to education, food and legal aid. We took the civil registry to court for discrimination and we won. From that moment on we all had the right to present ourselves in our IDs as we saw fit, however we felt best.’
Ana Valeria Salazar Guzman
‘It's not something I’ve made up- it's something that really happened to me; it's something that a trans person is telling you about. And it changed my life. Many people say that we are born like this and not ‘made’ this way, but honestly, that isn’t my experience.
When I was 8, nearly 9, I was raped. Before that happened, I felt that I was male, I had a girlfriend, I had even seen the [feminine] inclinations of several of my male cousins and it didn’t interest me at all.
Some of the other girls say that they have felt like this from a very young age, but before that happened I did not feel anything of the sort. When it happened, I left Guayaquil to come to the peninsula to live with my mother and her family, to try to erase that trauma. I managed to achieve that, I overcame it, but it had a great consequence in my life-that I am trans. And well, I say that with great pride-I am a trans woman, I like my life. Maybe if that hadn’t happened to me, I wouldn’t have the [male] partner that I currently have, and I would not be as happy as I am. I think that everything in life has a purpose and perhaps my fate was to go through what I went through to finally achieve the happiness that I now have as a trans woman.’
'I disappeared from home for 19 years. It was as if I was missing, as if I was dead. I was very hurt because my parents were so physically abusive of me, they used to hit me very hard and left my body marked. They would hit me because of how I was. Before they would hit me for other reasons but when they found out that became the main reason for the violence. That was like a rupture for me and it made my heart close up…it did not want to know anyone, I was too hurt. But that time has passed, and my parents came to look for me, they talked with me, they now welcome me in their home and I am in contact with them.
In the past our parents did not love us, they hated us, they threw us out. Nobody wanted to have a child like us, transgender, but nowadays people understand. And thank God people are collaborating a lot. I feel very loved by others because everywhere I go people help me out, they give me a smile, they laugh, they do not discriminate against me, I am always calm. We are respected in all communities.'
‘Well, my temper is quite strong which is something normal in my roots. I'm very resilient, my star sign is Scorpio but more than anything its down to my ancestry- I'm from Manabi and there we all have that temperament . Sometimes my partners have left me because of it, they can’t handle it, but overall I do get along with the people of my choosing. Of my own gender? Well, I don’t get along so well with all of the girls, but there a few. I don’t know, perhaps it’s because I'm not from here.’
'In primary school they gave me the [feminine] nickname ‘Pinina'. At the time I didn’t know why they called me that but later on looking at my pictures from childhood, I realised that all the kids and all the teachers knew.
My family never threw me out, my mummy, she loved me all her life, until she died, and she never said anything negative about it to me… my siblings, my daddy…no, nothing, no one.
My mummy was always there for me and she always knew that I was like this. She looked after me a lot.
She would get angry when the boys would wolf whistle at me and I would go downstairs from my room to chat with them- she made me go straight back upstairs. And to make sure that I wasn’t going out she would make me sleep in her bed with my dad- the three of us slept in the same bed, just to make sure I was home.
Until I was 17 I was wearing old torn pants because my mummy didn’t buy me new clothes so I wouldn’t be able to go out. At 17 I decided to work in Guayaquil so I could be independent. My mummy would cry a lot, she would beg me to come back home because she thought I was up to no good in the streets, but I was only working and always indoors.
Even now that I am many years older than I was then, I do not like going out, I am very homey- I love keeping myself indoors. I do not get anything out of being out, getting drunk and having a mala noche. I can be watching television in my bed and sleeping quietly instead. I do not like it also because before she died my mom made me promise a lot of things and that was one of them- to stay off the streets- and I keep the promises I made to her. She also made me promise to keep the house looking beautiful and before they died, my parents left the house to me, so that I wouldn’t go anywhere else. And here I am, living here and maintaining the house so that I keep my promises.'
‘I have always felt like this, but I kept it inside. I only began this year. I started to put on shorts, to grow my hair out, to put on makeup, fake eyelashes, things like that and little by little my mother accepted me. The month of February I began to wear flicks on my eyes, and in March I continued with the flicks, then the following month I put eyeliner on my bottom eyelids, and the next month I darkened my eyebrows. 2 months later I would paint my lips in a very soft colour, but the following month I painted them red.’
'Then they start shouting like, one call outs to me, then the other, they always buy me drinks. I have the best time. All the girls say that each one of us will have her time, for example, when we first begin to come out all dressed up, the boys give us lots of attention, but after a while they lose interest. That’s why the girls tell me to enjoy it while I can.
When we are out, for example in a bar, yes, the boys seek us out, they buy us drinks, but being out, going somewhere, taking a walk together-no- its only accepted socially in a bar. Heterosexual men give us a lot of attention at clubs, in front of their friends, it isn’t an issue.'
For a man here, it is the same to go out with a trans girl or a cis girl. Since I've had a partner, they treat me just like they would a cis woman There is no kind of difference.’
‘My situation as a trans girl was not easy, first of all in regard to my family, but despite everything that happened, thank God I always had my mother who supported me. My dad has been dead for 6 years but when he was alive I told him and in the end he accepted me too.
On my mother’s side I get along with all my relatives; on my dad’s side, very little, because my aunts are all like, you know, bitter. We are 5 siblings in total, 3 men and two women, and up until now everything has been fine, thank God.’
'In San Pablo we are not discriminated against, maybe there is the odd person who will not refer to us as ‘trans’ and will call us ‘faggots’ but most people respect us as we are, even the police are respectful. Everyone treats us as if we were (cis) women. We are not discriminated against here… In San Pablo I always felt the freedom to be trans.’
‘But San Pablo is hyper-Catholic? Despite this people are accepting of trans-women?’
‘Of course. There are some preachers who spread the word of God in the street, and they don’t ever say anything to us, that we should change; that we are doomed or anything, never… They accept us as we are. I have never had any problems.’
‘Well his family don’t accept it. You saw the boy downstairs? He lives here with me, he is my boyfriend. That lady, those type of people, they are the ones that like to criticize, ‘how can you live with another man?’ -those type of things. But my family accepted that I live with him. I don’t know why his family don’t accept it. We have been together for 8 years. I was with him since I was 16 years old, since I began to dress like a woman.’