LGBTQ+ community in progressive Argentina says President Milei has turned back the clock

May 13, 2024
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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — When Luana Salva got her first formal job after years of prostitution, she was ecstatic.

A quota law in Argentina that promoted the inclusion of transgender people in the work force — unprecedented in Latin America expect in neighboring Uruguay — pulled her from the capital’s street corners into the Foreign Ministry last year.

Yet just months after Salva got her first paycheck, right-wing President Javier Milei entered office and began slashing public spending as part of his state overhaul to solve Argentina’s worst economic crisis in two decades. Abruptly fired in a wave of government layoffs, Salva said her world began to unravel.

“The only option we have left is prostitution … and I don’t see myself standing on a corner, getting cold, enduring violence,” Salva, 43, said. “This government is unaware of all that has been built to make us feel included.”

Salva’s sudden reversal of fortunes reflects the political whiplash being felt across Argentina. Past left-leaning presidents who enacted some of the most socially liberal policies on the continent have given way to a self-proclaimed “ anarcho-capitalist ” whose fiery appraisals of social justice and efforts to dismantle diversity and equity programs have made him into a global far-right icon.

Luana Salva, a trans woman, poses for a portrait
Luana Salva was ecstatic when a law had promoted the inclusion of transgender people in the workforce — but she lost her job amid Milei’s slashing of public spending and dismantling of DEI programs. Natacha Pisarenko / AP

“The only thing this radical feminist agenda has achieved is greater state intervention to hinder economic process,” Milei said in a speech met with enthusiastic applause at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year.

Few in Argentina are more enraged by Milei’s anti-woke agenda than LGBTQ+ activists, who worry his government is rolling back their hard-won gains. Since drawing attention as a brash TV personality, Milei has lambasted feminist and human rights movements as a “cult of a gender ideology.”

“Unfortunately, we are going backward,” said Alba Rueda, a trans woman activist and diversity adviser in the former center-left government of President Alberto Fernández, who made Argentina the first country in the region to allow nonbinary people to make “X” the gender on their national identity documents.

“What we have achieved is being discredited,” Rueda said.

After taking office in December, Milei wasted no time jumping into Argentina’s culture wars. He shut down the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, banned the government’s use of gender-inclusive language and closed the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism.

In an announcement timed for International Women’s Day on March 8, Milei renamed the Women’s Hall in the presidential palace to Hall of Heroes. To the delight of his conservative fans — and the outrage of tens of thousands of women’s rights protesters outside his residence — he had portraits of historical female leaders in the room taken down and replaced with those featuring Argentina’s founding fathers and soldiers.

Milei has also scrapped a decree calling for gender equality in companies and civil society groups and ended gender-focused training programs. He has repeatedly railed against abortion — or, as he calls it, “murder aggravated by the familial bond.” A lawmaker from his party has presented Congress with legislation demanding the repeal of Argentina’s breakthrough legalization of abortion in 2020.

It’s a far cry from the past years when Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage and a few years later recognized choosing one’s own gender identity as a human right. In 2021, the Fernández administration passed its employment quota law, requiring the state to reserve 1% of all jobs for transgender, transexual or nonbinary people who would otherwise struggle to find formal work.

Before Milei became president, efforts to fulfill the quota were just gaining traction, with 955 transgender people on the public payroll — far below the 5,551 positions allocated to them in compliance with the law. The fate of the legislation is now unclear.

“The quota does not make much sense,” presidential spokesperson Manuel Adorni said. “Each position will be occupied by the best, most capable person, be it a man, a woman, a transvestite or anything else.”

Some 105 transgender people have lost their civil service jobs in the last three months, according to the union representing state workers.

It’s a small drop in the ocean of 15,000 state workers who have been fired as Milei races against the odds to push the state budget into surplus by the year’s end.

But transgender people who benefited from the law insist each layoff has a ripple effect on Argentina’s gender and sexual minorities who remain vulnerable to hate crimes and face widespread discrimination in the labor market. In 2016, 70% of trans women reported making a living from sex work. In 2022, after the law was passed, that figure fell to 56%, according to a study released last year by Buenos Aires government officials.

“The quota, for me, meant the possibility of changing my life,” Salva said.

Milei’s libertarian administration says the layoffs are part of its austerity program and not targeted at LGBTQ+ people. Milei has also devalued Argentina’s currency, slashed subsidies, eliminated price controls and closed other government ministries unrelated to gender and sexual identity.

But those in the LGBTQ+ community insist the president’s populist shock doctrine disproportionately impacts them. In his much-memed Davos speech, Milei slammed “women’s ministries and international (feminist) organizations” for employing “bureaucrats who do not contribute anything to society.”

“There is a focus here,” said Clarisa Gambera, a gender specialist at one of Argentina’s main labor unions. “Many of these people being affected worked in gender offices of public departments that were dismantled.”

LGBTQ+ activists have fought back the way the government’s many other political opponents have — on the streets.

“We obtained our rights thanks to the many warriors who gave up their lives for this cause,” Ariel Heredia, a recently fired state worker who identifies as nonbinary, said at a protest earlier this year in Buenos Aires. After being laid off, Heredia, 36, lost health insurance he needed to access anti-HIV medication.

In his hunt for find work, Heredia says he’ll dress as a cisgender man, hiding an identity he struggled for years to accept.

“It’s a contradiction for me,” Heredia said. “But I have to adapt.”

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