Rape and torture: Transgender women open up about their suffering under Argentina’s dictatorship

by Ryan Lee
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Transgender women

Julieta González entered the stark white edifice that once served as her prison during Argentina’s military dictatorship, and immediately, haunting memories flooded back. The sight of bloodstains on the mattresses, the echoing screams from neighboring cells, the forced labor of cleaning blood-soaked cars, and the unrelenting sexual abuse—all became vividly etched in her mind.

Recalling those nights when guards would appear, transgender women like González would pretend to be asleep, hoping to evade further torment. “I always bore the brunt,” shared González, now 65, during an interview with AP journalists while revisiting the very cell where she endured her captivity. “I was younger back then.”

González and four other transgender women provided testimonies at the trial of former security officers in April, who faced charges of crimes against humanity. This marked an essential step in Argentina’s long-overdue acknowledgment of the trans community’s suffering during the military rule from 1976 to 1983. In a recent demonstration, members of the community rallied in support of a proposed bill in Congress, advocating for a lifetime pension for transgender individuals above the age of 40.

Patricia Alexandra Rivas, now 56, bravely shared her experience of being raped and tortured during her illegal detention in 1981, at the tender age of 14. Those who carried out the heinous acts on behalf of the dictatorship were particularly brutal towards the transgender community, which continued to endure hardship even after democracy was restored in 1983. However, Argentina has been witnessing a gradual change in attitudes. Over a decade ago, the country passed a groundbreaking gender-identity law, enabling individuals to change their gender on official documents without requiring permission. More recently, Congress enacted a law that reserves 1% of public sector jobs for transgender individuals.

Assistant prosecutor Ana Oberlin, standing outside a set of cells at the Banfield Pit, one of the many illegal detention and torture centers in the capital, described the atrocities endured by transgender women. “They were brought to this place, tortured, raped, subjected to slave labor, deprived of their freedom, and then released,” she explained.

During the 1970s and ’80s, military rule gripped much of Latin America, with human rights organizations estimating that around 30,000 people were illegally detained and forcibly disappeared in Argentina alone. Until recently, the suffering of the transgender community under the military regime remained largely unacknowledged. Marlene Wayar, a transgender activist and author who provided expert testimony at the trial, attributed the delay in recognition to the normalized violence faced by transgender individuals.

Since 2006, after amnesty laws were abolished, Argentina has witnessed 296 trials related to crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship. Out of these, 1,115 individuals have been convicted, according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. It is only now that Argentina has begun to address gender roles and sexual norms prevalent during the dictatorship, including the enforced model of family and prescribed gender roles.

Oberlin played a crucial role in ensuring that the testimonies of the five transgender women who were detained in the Banfield Pit were included in the trial, which commenced in 2020. In this trial, 12 officers face charges of crimes against humanity committed in three clandestine detention centers, affecting around 700 victims.

González was no stranger to violence at the hands of security forces when she, along with other transgender women, was apprehended by the police in either 1977 or 1978 while working as a prostitute. Their journey ended at the Banfield Pit. González vividly recalled the moment when she resisted boarding the truck, resulting in a rifle strike to her back and a forceful grip on her hair, with the officer commanding her, “Of course you’re going inside.”

Confined in a cell with unseen cries of pain from others, González still ponders the memory of a girl’s repeated screams one night, followed by the sound of a crying baby. “I spent my whole life wondering” about that child, she confessed. Security officers often seized babies born to pregnant detainees, who were then made to vanish.

Forced into various types of labor, including cooking and cleaning cars that frequently carried traces of blood, González testified in April about the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her captors. When asked by Oberlin if she could refuse, González shrugged and replied, “No, no. At the time, it was normal.”

González even recounted an incident when she was gang-raped by a group of soldiers, choosing to mentally detach herself from the horrifying reality. As she stood once more in her old cell, she reflected, “When those things happen, you know, I think about other things.”

Beyond rape and torture, Oberlin emphasized that transgender women faced extreme brutality specifically because of their gender identities. The forthcoming verdict in this case, expected by year-end, carries immense significance. As Oberlin noted, transgender women were held in illegal detention centers nationwide, and a favorable ruling could pave the way for others to come forward and share their stories.

For González, testifying at a trial was something she “never” imagined. For a long time, she believed her experiences at the Banfield Pit were inconsequential. But now, she has come to realize their significance. “Now that we can talk… be listened to when we were always so quiet,” she expressed.

Note: This rewritten text maintains the essence and key details of the original text while presenting it in a slightly condensed and clearer manner.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Transgender women, Argentina dictatorship

What is the context of this text?

The text discusses the suffering endured by transgender women during Argentina’s dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 and the efforts to recognize their experiences.

What are some examples of the atrocities mentioned in the text?

Examples of the atrocities mentioned include rape, torture, forced labor, and sexual abuse suffered by transgender women while detained under the military rule.

How has Argentina addressed the suffering of the trans community?

Argentina has made progress in recognizing the rights of the trans community. Over a decade ago, a gender-identity law was passed, allowing individuals to change their gender on official documents without permission. More recently, a law was enacted to reserve 1% of public sector jobs for transgender individuals.

How many people were affected by the military dictatorship in Argentina?

Human rights organizations estimate that around 30,000 people were illegally detained and disappeared without a trace during Argentina’s military dictatorship.

What steps are being taken to seek justice for the victims?

Trials have been held to address crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship. In the mentioned trial, former security officers are facing charges, and the testimonies of transgender women are being included. The verdict is expected by the end of the year, and a favorable ruling could encourage others to come forward and testify.

Why has it taken so long to recognize the suffering of the transgender community?

One reason for the delayed recognition is the normalized violence faced by transgender individuals, which has hindered their stories from being acknowledged. However, recent efforts have shed light on their experiences and brought about discussions regarding gender roles and sexual norms during the dictatorship.

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