Historians' Watch

No uterus, no opinion? Travestis, Gays & Maricas’ Activism for the Abortion Legalization in Argentina

In the early morning hours of 30 December 2020, thousands of protesters surrounded the Argentine parliament. With their masks and green handkerchiefs – the symbol of the National Campaign for Legal, Safe and Free Abortion (NCRLSA) – the crowds celebrated the vote that turned Argentina into the largest Latin American country to legalize abortion. Since the 1970s, Argentine feminist groups have struggled for the right over their own bodies. After decades of activism, the NCRLSA was founded in 2005 as a result of coordinated activities across more than 305 grassroots organizations, from catholic groups to leftist movements.

Although the struggle for the right to abortion was led by the cisgender women’s movement, trans and non-binary activism widened the subject of the right to abortion to include all “people with the capacity to conceive.” This meant demanding that the State recognize that there are diverse bodies with the potential to conceive, and that it should enable persons to terminate a pregnancy despite their gender identity. This legal expansion is in dialogue with the 2012 Gender Identity Law that requires State agencies to recognize self-perceived gender, and forces private and public health systems to provide free access to gender-affirmation treatments.

Flyer delivered by the Argentine Feminist Union and the Homosexual Liberation Front on Mother’s Day (1973) Source: “Archivos Desviados”

While previous genealogies have focused on the activism of people with reproductive capacities such as women and trans* men, this article reconstructs the contributions of people without the capability of conceiving. This group includes travestis (a non-conforming identity that does not fit into the binary male-female), gays and maricas (men who embrace their effeminacy, and who reject gay identity as masculine and conservative). They too have contributed to the making of a legal right to abortion in Argentina, by challenging biologically centred discourses and so expanding the definition for those covered by the right. By advocating for full sovereignty over one’s own body, these grassroots organizations and activists helped to build alliances from below in order to expand sexual rights. This conflicting but also potent coalition encouraged Argentine feminists and expanded the horizons of the struggle for full bodily autonomy and sexual freedom.

The often contentious alliances between feminists and LGTBIQ+ movements in the struggle for reproductive rights have a long history in Argentina. During the 1970s, the Homosexual Liberation Front had supported the Argentine Feminist Union’s struggle for the right to abortion. Together they founded the “Committee against the Prohibition on the Sale of Contraceptives” in 1974, in response to the decision by the government to ban access to birth control methods. After a bloody dictatorship, feminist, gay, lesbian, and travesti movements flourished and challenged the sexual limits of democratic transition. In 1988, the feminist-Trotskyist Dora Coledesky led the Commission on the Right to Abortion.  In the context of the constitutional reform of 1994 led by the neoliberal conservative Carlos Menem that proposed that life begins “from the moment of conception,” the organization Gays for Civil Rights endorsed feminist critiques that this posed a major obstacle to legal abortion. Carlos Jauregui, the most prominent Argentinian gay activist, declared: “We permanently support the rights of women to decide about their own bodies. We not only believe that abortion should be decriminalised, but also that it should be legalized”.

Since its creation, the NCRLSA has been endorsed by travesti/trans organizations such as the Association for the Struggle for Travesti and Transsexual Identity and the Argentine Association of Travestis, Transsexuals and Transgender People. Although many feminists have been resistant to including travesti/trans activists, they gradually built a common agenda around opposing clandestine medical practices, opposing patriarchal oppression, and bodily autonomy.

Prior to the enactment of the Gender Identity Law, travestis did not have access to safe medical practices of body affirmation and were persecuted by police forces on charges of wearing “anti-sex clothing”. This was why the travesti leader Lohana Berkins considered the freedom to make decisions about one’s own body as fundamental for travestis.  She also pointed out that for women, the criminalization of abortion made it impossible for them to develop a sense of self beyond the social pressure to become mothers. Berkins highlighted that the “claim of ownership of the body (in this case, women to decide their procreation, when to have children, why to have them and with whom), made links with our claim: We want the body to transform it, to live it, to show it or whatever”. Despite the rejection of several feminists, Berkins was the first travesti to be accepted at the National Women’s Meetings – an annual conference that brings together most women’s organisations.

Lohana Berkins in a demonstration supporting the Gender Identity Law (2012) wearing the green handkerchief, a pro-abortion symbol. Source: Luis Barbeiro´s Personal Archive

Berkins’ claim about the right to the body affirmed that both women and travestis were facing the risks of clandestine penalized practices: abortion and gender-affirmation practices which sometimes led to death. During the 1980s and 1990s thousands of travestis performed risky gender-affirmation practices such as self-administration of hormones, liquid silicone injections not suitable for human use, and surgeries unregulated by medical control. Similarly, it is estimated that 450,000 abortions were performed in Argentina in clandestine clinics or by people with no medical training.

The approval of the Same-Sex Marriage Law  in 2010 and the Gender Identity Law  in 2012, against the severe opposition of the catholic and evangelical churches, drew pro-choice movements’ attention to LGTBIQ+ strategies. Against the background of conflict between the catholic church and the government, the widening of a social consensus for sexual rights, and these new strategies of lobbying, LGTBIQ+ demonstrations and public campaigning provided an effective model for the movement to legalize abortion to emulate. While this made alliances between sexual dissident and feminist coalitions stronger, it also prompted gay and marica activists to join the fight for legalizing abortion. The 2014 conference “Men and abortion: their decision, conquest of all” – one of the first events to address this issue within the NCRLSA—made the participation of people with no capability of conceiving and of trans men visible  among pro-choice activists.  Their presence in the conversation ceased to be governed by their biological impossibility to conceive, with the pro-choice movements joining hands to reinforce the right to sexual freedom by separating pleasure from reproduction.

The opposition to the right to abortion, led in 2018 by a coalition of evangelical and catholic groups, had the effect of bringing together the LGBTIQ+ and feminist movements. Using light-blue handkerchiefs (an appropriation of the pro-choice symbol but using the color of the national flag) and the slogan “Let’s save both lives,” this movement became a platform against abortion, LGTBIQ+ rights, and sex education – all of which they termed “gender ideology”. As in other Latin American countries, conservative-religious movements have become a menace to basic rights and democracy, such as the consolidation of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency in Brazil. Likewise, by rejecting the alliance with LGTBIQ+ organisations, trans-exclusionary feminist groups increased their public activity in their search to restrict pro-choice agenda to a women’s issue. In 2019, the Sex-Gender-Dissident Political  Collective grassroots organization was founded, with a membership that gays, maricas, lesbians, travestis, bisexuals, trans men and non-binary people. Enrolled in the NCRLSA, the Dissident Collective played an important role in reinforcing the links between feminist and LGTBIQ+ movements. The collective pointed out that the movement should challenge both the neo-conservative advance to deny the access to sexual and reproductive rights, and the Trans-exclusionary who erased the LGTBIQ+ contribution to legalizing abortion. To do so, it developed an active public campaign for LGTBIQ+ visibility that included seeking prominence in public demonstrations, participating in feminist assemblies, and organizing events for a wider audience. The collective thus challenged cisgender and heterosexual limits to the agenda of legalizing abortion, and collaborated to reinforce the feminist and LGTBIQ+ movement’s alliance.

Workshop “Sexual Diversity and Abortion” held on 20/08/2018 during the discussion in the Senate Source: Luis Barbeiro´s Personal Archive

After the refusal of legalization in 2018, the centre-leftist coalition administration led by Alberto Fernandez promised to legalize abortion in order to obtain the massive endorsement of feminist voters. Moreover, further supporting the LGTBIQ+ agenda, Fernandez’s administration founded the National Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity and appointed Alba Rueda, a trans* activist engaged with feminist movements, as head of the National Sub-Secretariat for Diversity Policies. In the last decade, feminist and LGTBIQ+ movements have rapidly grown to become major Latin American political actors. From #NiUnaMenos to the green-wave in 2018, as well as, the LGTBIQ+ mobilization for equal marriage, gender identity law, and nowadays the travestis’ public employment quota, they have deeply changed the Argentine political landscape. Despite continued offensives by right-wing conservative religious movements, acknowledging the history of these coalitions that advocate for the sovereignty over one’s own body can activate new horizons of radical transformation.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie-Sklodowka Curie grant number 886496. 

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *