LIMA – Gahela Cari, Peru’s first-ever indigenous trans-gender candidate, has spent half of her life on a quest for dignity and basic rights.
She was told that as a trans-woman she would have to work either as a hairstylist or a prostitute but instead earned a law degree. After being denied the right to have her chosen name appear on her diploma, she now is seeking to represent Lima in the Congress of the Republic of Peru and change discriminatory laws.
Wearing a hat featuring the multiple colors of the Wiphala flag (associated with native peoples of the Andes region) and a braid down the right side of her neck, Cari has been walking the streets of Lima in recent weeks and urging voters to back her in the Jan. 26 parliamentary elections.
Some give her a smile or words of encouragement, but she also has been the target of insults and even acts of intimidation and violence.
“They tried to kick me a few days ago at a train station because some people in the most anti-rights, fundamentalist sector of this country don’t like equality. They don’t like the advance of women’s rights,” the candidate told EFE about her experience on the campaign trail.
The daughter of immigrants from the southern highlands, Cari was born and raised in the southwestern city of Ica - 300 kilometers (185 miles) south of Lima - and lived there until earning her law degree.
Her beliefs changed radically while at university, leading her to abandon her work as a catechist at a church and become a staunch LGBTI activist.
She then continued that struggle in Lima, where in 2017 she and other fellow activists carried out a well-publicized protest against plans by rightist forces in Congress to remove the terms sexual orientation and gender identity from existing hate crime and anti-discrimination laws.
Cari said that effort bore fruit even though those lawmakers won an initial legislative victory.
“We took to the streets to make our demands, and that led (congress members) to change their vote in the next session. That shows that civil society also can have an impact,” she said at a campaign office of her leftist Juntos por el Peru party.
When visiting gay nightclubs in downtown Lima Cari says she tells would-be voters that if elected she will work to promote greater equality and respect for the LGBTI community by, among other things, working in Congress to pass a bill on comprehensive sexual education.
According to the Lima-based Cayetano Heredia University’s LGBTI Rights Observatory, trans-gender women are the most vulnerable members of the LGBTI community.
That organization said it has documented 406 cases of reported violence against LGBTI individuals and that trans-women account for around 46 percent of the alleged victims.
The absence of a gender identity law in Peru, meanwhile, prevents these women from obtaining a document that reflects their identity, thus infringing upon their rights to employment, education and health care.
Around 70 percent of these women become sex workers because they have no other employment alternative; 50 percent have abandoned their studies and 89 percent have no type of medical insurance.
“It’s not fair that my sisters keep having to choose between cutting hair or becoming a prostitute when none of us as girls dreamed about that,” Cari said, noting that at one stage she herself was forced to turn to sex work because she needed money for food.
“For me, working as a prostitute was the toughest stage of my life because it’s almost like consenting to rape just to having something to eat tomorrow,” she added.
Cari’s options were limited because her university would not issue her an undergraduate diploma containing her “social name” (the name chosen by a trans-gender person based on the gender they identify with) but only one with the name that appears on her ID card.
Without that academic degree, she cannot receive a license to practice law nor be admitted to a bar association.
Even so, Cari has managed to make ends meet.
“I don’t work as a prostitute anymore. Now I give workshops, talks, lectures. I teach classes and I’ve found ways to get by economically.”