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How Panama Sits at World’s Crossroads of LGBTQ Rights

Panama, a Country Divided: LGBTQ Rights at the World’s Crossroad

LGBTQ people have little protection against discrimination under the law, and the police consider their existence a grave offense.

Una version en espanol de este articulo esta disponible aqui.

Indi Lucia can't use the women's bathroom. Last time she did, someone filmed her. A previous time, a coworker reported her to Human Resources. She is a trans woman in Panama, a nation that until 2008 considered "sodomy" a criminal offense.

Panama City faces the Pacific Ocean. Waves gently come into the bay area, crashing at the foot of monumental skyscrapers. Seen from above, dozens of ships freckle the seascape as they set course toward the Panama Canal. It will take them less than a day to complete their journey into the Atlantic Ocean and carry their wares to the other side of the world.

This is what my country is known for. A canal, a bridge between oceans, a point of transit and exchange. It is a diverse, vibrant country. It also has an extreme prejudice against LGBTQ people, especially transgender people. They are, in effect, second class citizens. Worse, the law supports this discrimination.

Panama, one of the most thriving economies in Central America, currently has some of the most backward legislation on LGBTQ rights in the continent. LGBTQ people have little protection against discrimination under the law, and the police consider their existence a grave offense. Changes to the Constitution that are being discussed could make things even worse.

It all starts with the Constitution. Panama's magna carta doesn't contemplate any specific protection for citizens with different sexual identities or orientation. The Family Code, a legal text that dictates family issues, specifically stipulates that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. So same sex marriage is illegal.

Adoption is also not an option for same-sex couples. In one case, a gay couple married overseas and adopted a child. They are fighting so their son can get Panamanian citizenship, since the law doesn't recognize them as his legitimate parents.

Right now, Panama is in the process of massive Constitutional reforms. Among the proposals is to incorporate the definition of marriage as solely the union between a man and a woman into the Constitution, not just the Family Code. Another would stipulate that International Law should never be considered superior to Panama's own laws.

This last bit comes from the fear by many conservative and religious groups that have observed the worldwide trend in which Supreme Courts of many countries such as the United States, Mexico and Colombia have ruled in favor of same sex marriage. There are three lawsuits before the Supreme Court in Panama regarding this very issue and a lot of anticipation about the final ruling.

Indi Lucia is a 3D animator and graphic designer working for La Cascara, a comedy tv show made up of skits about popular Panamanian tropes. Homophobic slurs are played for laughs. There are even sound effects to mock someone for being effeminate.

When she started working there, Indi Lucia used her birthname and hadn't started socially transitioning yet. "Locker room talk" was common, and it was not rare to hear jabs at her about some piece of clothing she was wearing, or the time she put on makeup to go to the office.

Finally, she told her boss, one of the biggest "jokers," that she was a woman and wanted to come to the office dressed as such.

The laughs stopped. Surprisingly, for all the poor taste jokes, her boss was supportive. But not everyone in the office was. Female coworkers complained to Human Resources about her using the bathroom, sneers and mocking laughs could be heard behind her back. Sometimes, when she entered a room, silence ensued, followed by the buzz of gossip. There is barely any legal protection for Indi Lucia.

Anti-Discrimination policies to protect LGBTQ people are left in the hands of each private company. If she tried to present a claim to the Labor Ministry, she'd have to provide ample documented evidence of blatant hate and discrimination. Most likely, a devout Catholic or Evangelical clerk would be responsible for accepting or dismissing the claim. It's a Sisyphean task, a seemingly pointless endeavor requiring immense strength and fortitude.

Discrimination routinely endangers the lives of LGBTQ people in Panama. Though there are no statistics regarding hate crimes, trans women femicides, sexual-identity-motivated rapes, or workplace harassment, there is plenty of testimony.

Venus Tejada, leader of the Panamanian Association of Trans Persons, has reported testimony about police officers using pepper spray against trans women on the streets. Some cases were documented on video and shared through social media. According to the official internal manual of the National Police, being homosexual is a "grave offense" that merits immediate employment termination. So, if Indi Lucia or any LGBTQ person in Panama feels unsafe, there is no guarantee they'd get help from the police. In fact, they may end up being sent arbitrarily to jail for temporary custody.

This is not a hypothetical. Less than a couple of months after starting her transition, Indi was harassed in a public bus, and even by an Uber driver who saw her as an opportunity to fulfill his sexual fantasy and explicitly told her so.

Where do you go when the police consider your existence a "grave offense"? Who do you turn to when the church points at you as a perverter of values and preaches your eternal damnation? When your government representatives bow down before of a cross and vow to protect "traditional families," where can you turn to safeguard your rights, your safety, your dignity?

The first question President Laurentino Cortizo was asked when he received the election results was whether he would stand by traditional families. He looked up, opened his arms toward his wife and daughters and replied: "Look at me. Laurentino Cortizo is a family man."

Indi Lucia is one of many. She is a friend, a daughter, a hardworking, tax paying professional who every day makes Panama an amazing country, a bridge between worlds, between hearts. She deserves better.

Adolfo Berrios Riano is a Panamanian journalist working on Human Rights issues in Panama

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Adolfo Berrios Riano