The fight for the rights of trans people in Peru
Because of who Miluska Luzquiños is, fighting is an intrinsic part of her life. As a trans woman, she faces a daily battle just to be allowed to exist in a conservative and patriarchal country like Peru. To merely survive, however, is not enough, and she turned this experience into an ongoing struggle, working with other trans women and opening pathways to a future of opportunity and hope.
At the age of 40, Miluska is the national coordinator of Red LacTrans (Red Latinoameicana y del Caribe de Personas Trans, the Latin-American and Caribbean Network of Trans People, in a free translation) in Peru and the founder of Casa Trans Zuleymi, which shelters trans women who are immigrants, victims of violence, or that have no place to live. Miluska says that this work makes her happy and explains: “The defense of human rights allows me to meet more comrades, to go out into the world, to talk, to build.”11. Daniel Contreras, “Miluska Luzquiños: ‘En la Casa Trans Zuleymi no hay ninguna abeja reina, todas somos obreras’”. Somos Periodismo, February 6, 2019, accessed December 31, 2022, https://somosperiodismo.com/miluska-luzquinos-en-la-casa-trans-no-hay-ninguna-abeja-reina-todas-somos-obreras/.
Miluska is a person that thinks about the collective before the individual aspect. She modestly shares the merits of her work and tells Sur that it was her comrades that led her to where she is today. “I did not do a single thing. They are the ones who were always encouraging me and I am very grateful for them”. As an attorney and an activist, she sees herself as the result of many trans women who she has met along the way: “Miluska is the result of the exclusion of trans women from the human rights advocacy system”. She is also a person who responds to challenges as someone who is used to dealing with them in her daily life, in a quick and efficient manner.
Being a pioneer was not part of her plan, and the choice of transforming her private struggles into activism was not an obvious one – in fact, this happened almost by chance. Miluska had never considered activism as a professional career. When she was finishing law school, she thought of working at a court of justice or a notary office. One day, she was invited to a meeting of an LGBTQIA+ group that worked with issues pertaining to HIV/Aids, and she then realized that the reduced participation of trans people led to a lack of awareness of their true needs. She then became engaged in what she believed to be an isolated issue, but was surprised with funds and the mission to implement a countrywide project. This was how the Northern Peru Trans Women’s Platform was created, currently known as Transorganização Feminista (Feminist Transorganization), which is where she works today.
In 2016, upon discovering that there was a large number of immigrant trans women in Lima without support, she once again acted in an innovative way to solve the issue. Miluska created Casa Trans Zuleymi with the purpose of sheltering these people. In the space – which she refers to as “a place of hope” and now has four establishments throughout the country –, trans people who are immigrants, victims of violence or that have no place to live receive food, health counseling, and legal aid, or just find a comfortable and safe place where they can stay. “We must demand our rights on a full stomach!”, the activist states.
Her work defending trans people’s human rights was already renowned, having received a Franco-German Prize for Human Rights in 2019. However, in 2020, with the arrival of the pandemic, it once again took courage and agility to assemble a plan and work to meet the most urgent needs of the people she worked with. Through Red LacTrans, she managed to raise funds and bring food to trans women throughout the country. During this time, the workload was intense, and Miluska ended up contracting the coronavirus and falling ill before taking the vaccine. In addition to the direct actions, Miluska and Red LacTrans produced a report and published a few articles about the specific situation of trans people in the context of the pandemic.22. See, for instance: Miluska Luzquiños Tafur, “#BONOTRANS: ¿Cuándo fueron las cosas fáciles para las trans?”. Ella - Encuentro Latinoamericano de Feminismos, April 29, 2020, accessed December 31, 2022, https://medium.com/especial-ella-en-cuarentena/bonotrans-cuándo-fueron-las-cosas-fáciles-para-las-trans-498fdc7e67a; “Memoria de Gestión: Trans Organización feminista por los derechos de las personas trans. 2018-2021” (internal document shared by the organization).
One of the hardships faced by the network was the fact that, due to the social isolation caused by the pandemic, many trans women lost their regular access to drugs for the treatment of HIV, which affected their immunity and led to a high tally of deaths by Covid-19. When the vaccination effort began, trans people also had problems accessing the vaccine because they lacked an identification document.
Another aspect mentioned by the activist was the transition to the virtual world. She admits to having neglected this means of communication before it became the only one that could be used, which became yet another obstacle. As structure for digital communication was still lacking, many people, particularly those in the jungle regions of the north of the country, were basically isolated and had more difficulties in accessing information and resources. “Covid left us the lesson of working and coordinating as a community”, she reports.
She now faces another challenge: the political turmoil in Peru. Since early December 2022, the country has plunged into a massive crisis. Former President Pedro Castillo attempted to dissolve Congress and was removed from office. New general elections have been scheduled for July 2023 and protests have taken over the streets of major cities.
In a Peru undergoing complete instability, minority rights are threatened and the perspective of progress has become even more distant. Nowadays, in Peru, the life expectancy of a trans person is of only 35 years33. “Situación de las personas trans en Perú”, Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Personas Trans, 2021, accessed December 31, 2022, https://issuu.com/redlactrans/docs/peru_2021_-_informe_cedostalc_-_no_muero_me_matan/s/15569963.. Furthermore, according to the Reniec (Registro Nacional de Identificación y Estado Civil, the Peruvian National Registry of Identification and Civil Status), 1% of the population of Peru is undocumented, and this percentage is higher among the trans population.44. According to the National Plan Perú Libre de Indocumentación 2017 - 2021, there are no official statistics that show the current situation of undocumented trans people; the few statistics available are usually connected to health issues, specifically HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). A study by Universidad Cayetano Heredia 76 (2012:24) indicated that the percentage of undocumented individuals within this population exceeds 13%. Although these data are only indicative, they show that the percentage of undocumented people in this group is much higher than the national average". “Perú Libre de Indocumentación Plan Nacional 2017 – 2021”, Registro Nacional de Identificación y Estado Civil, March 29, 2021, accessed December 31, 2022, https://www.gob.pe/institucion/reniec/informes-publicaciones/1779616-peru-libre-de-indocumentacion-plan-nacional-2017-2021, p. 87. The lack of documents leads to difficulties in accessing rights, as in the case of the vaccine. Without vaccines, in addition to being more exposed to the virus, trans women were also prevented from accessing multiple places, since they lacked a vaccination passport.
The current situation is concerning for Miluska, who explains that economic, political, and social issues affect women more, particularly trans women. “We are highly concerned that the congress elected by our people continues to be filled with conservative, anti-gender representatives who oppose all progress in terms of rights”, she states. An example of what is at stake right now for trans people in Peru is the gender identity draft bill, which Miluska helped formulate and has been under discussion in the Peruvian congress since 2016. The proposal provides for a judicial and non-pathological process for transsexuality and proposes that the rectification of names in official documents should be made free of charge. Although there was some progress in 2021, when the draft bill was passed by the Women and Family Commission in Congress,55. “La Ley de Identidad de Género de Perú avanza en Congreso tras 4 años parada”, SWI, March 29, 2021, accessed December 31, 2022, https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/per%C3%BA-lgtbiq_la-ley-de-identidad-de-g%C3%A9nero-de-per%C3%BA-avanza-en-congreso-tras-4-a%C3%B1os-parada/46489656. there is no scheduled date for the topic to be discussed again.
Human rights organizations in the country are also facing challenges of their own. With the economic instability, these entities are at risk of losing funds to carry out their actions, which are more needed now than ever. Furthermore, the concession of protection measures for defenders and other activists is also being undermined. “Our comrades who go to demonstrations, our comrades who go to Casa Trans, our comrades who are sitting in the office, they are the ones who directly surround human rights defenders, so we are concerned with the lack of interest on the part of the State, the inaction of the State to take measures for protection”, Miluska explains about the people she considers to be at risk of suffering from the violence inherent to the country’s political moment.
Given the absence of the State, it is crucial to become organized in collectives and, moreover, in networks. It was the combined strength of activists and organizations that allowed trans people to access food during the most dire moments of the Covid-19 pandemic. Networks such as Rede LacTrans, present in 23 countries, also allowed for the production and dissemination of reports such as “No Muero, Me Matan!”, which blew the whistle on the exclusion of trans women in Latin America and the Caribbean and informed the world of the situation in the country.
From her childhood in Lambayeque to the international recognition of her work, Miluska has seen countless situations of loss and setbacks, whether personally or in the collective realm. Discrimination at university, where she was the first trans student, financial hardships, the challenges of life as a sex worker, arguments within the family, threats and attacks as a human rights defender. None of that took away her will to build a better future for herself and her comrades. With the love of her grandmother and partnerships with multiple people who cross her path, Miluska carries on. In her own words, “This is Miluska’s starting point. I have suffered from violence, attempted theft, and we have had sensitive documents stolen too. But I am very happy, because I have met wonderful people who give their lives to promote human rights”.
If, on the one hand, Miluska entered human rights activism almost by chance, on the other, the choice to remain is a conscious one and restated each day: More than awards or national/international recognition, her greatest source of motivation is the people who join her path. “There are things that pay, but not with money”, she summarizes. Just the other day, she was approached by a young woman who said that her work was inspiring and asked to take a picture with her. Miluska, saying she felt like a TikTok user, concluded: we open pathways.