Just a little more than a year ago, I became the first transgender person elected to office in Venezuela — and one of the first in all South America. Despite the euphoria of being part of such a historic moment, to be a politician — transgender or not — in the new Venezuela can be described in one word: frustrating. As a human rights activist and now an elected leader, I find it endlessly frustrating that no single legislative advancement regarding LGBTI rights has been achieved during the 17 years of Chavist domination of the National Assembly. And given the state of the country today, it has been impossible to push forward the much-needed laws granting equal rights to our communities.
The stagnation and frustration comes from the fact that Venezuela is no longer a democracy and that the National Assembly has been deprived of its right to enact laws. The erosion of democratic standards and principles was recognized by the Organization of American States in a session held last week — but how did we get here?
When the Chavist party acquired power in 1998, it began to change all the relevant rules concerning separation of powers, elections, accountability, and democratic rights and guarantees. It took over private businesses, severely harming production, which led to exports concentrated almost entirely on oil. When oil prices dropped, the entire system began to fall apart. We could no longer import the products we needed, and inflation rose to an estimated 1,700 percent just this year.
Among this chaos, the opposition won a supermajority of seats in the National Assembly during the 2015 elections, yet the victory was immediately blocked by the government. New members of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice were appointed unlawfully, and they suspended four of the elected members of parliament to destroy the supermajority. Since then, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice has rendered more than 40 decisions aimed at annulling the powers of the National Assembly. Budgeted funds were cut. MPs no longer received salaries, and we are now “volunteers for the country’s sake.”
Despite this, I continue to fulfill my duties, as does most of the National Assembly, even knowing the laws enacted or discussed cannot be implemented until the dictatorship is defeated. The importance of being the only openly transgender MP in the country is not diminished. Representation matters, and staying visible and continuing to push for equality regardless of immediate realities is essential. That is why I recently introduced an act to amend our Civil Registry Law — which would legalize same-sex marriage and adoption by gay people, recognize the appropriate name and gender of transgender and intersex people, and recognize marriages or gender changes done abroad. I’ve also introduced an act that would institute a hate-crimes law covering LGBTI people.
Those pieces of legislation are currently being debated, and I expect to present them in plenary sessions over the next few months. Yet even if they became law, they almost certainly would be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice because of the legislature’s reduced status.
Importantly, however, is that I have made an impact on other legislators’ views of trans equality. Beyond legislation, my presence alone in the National Assembly has been critical to ensuring that other MPs understand the need for equal rights laws. And as I participate in various legislative conversations unrelated to LGBTI matters — such as the Defense Commission or the Internal Affairs Commission — I’m able to demonstrate that our communities are not single-issue politicians or voters. We are multifaceted and truly care about our country and its people — and this reduces stereotypes of trans people, and helps change hearts and minds.
This power in representation is felt deeply here in Venezuela despite the lack of democracy — and it is a tested model throughout all Latin America and the Caribbean. It was on full display in Santo Domingo earlier this month, when 350 LGBTI leaders and elected officials from the region came together at a conference held by Gay and Lesbian Victory Institute, Caribe Afirmativo, and Diversidad Dominicana. The participants were witnesses to the effectiveness of achieving equality through representation, and many of them acquired the skills, training, and inspiration needed to return to their countries and run for office.
This gives me immense hope for Venezuela and the region. The protests that are currently taking place around the country are the result of people from all communities demanding representation — representation that can lead to real laws and real action. It is certainly difficult being a transgender MP in a parliament under a dictatorship. But representation — my voice being the room — still matters.
TAMARA ADRIAN is a member of the Venezuelan National Assembly.