In El Salvador, transgender community struggles for rights and survival

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Fabricio Chicas knows exactly what will happen. As soon as he hands in his ID, the employee on the other side of the counter will look at him with suspicion, asking why he carries a document that identifies him as female.

Whether at a bank, a hospital or a human resources office, the 49-year-old Salvadoran provides the same answer: I am a transgender man who has not been able to change his name and gender on his ID.

His fate is shared by many transgender people in El Salvador, where Catholicism and evangelicalism are prevalent, abortion is banned and the legalization of same-sex marriage seems unlikely.

In 2022, the country’s Supreme Court determined that the inability of a person to change their name because of gender identity constitutes discriminatory treatment. A ruling ordered the National Assembly to issue a reform that facilitates the process, but the deadline expired three months ago, and the lawmakers did not comply.

“It is part of a much broader pattern of weakening the rule of law and judicial independence,” said Cristian González Cabrera, LGBTQ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.


When he was little, Chicas’ mother agreed to dress him in masculine clothes and called him “my boy.” Everything changed when he turned 9.

“I was abused, and my mom started to overprotect me,” he said.

Perhaps feeling that treating Chicas as a boy exposed him to harm, she dressed him again in girl’s clothing. “I was so depressed I didn’t want to live,” he recalled.

When he turned 15, he met a transgender man who advised him to start his physical transformation. The man suggested pressing his breasts with an iron to prevent them from growing.

Chicas ended up in the hospital, with an infection produced by hematomas, and his mother made him swear he would never alter his body to look like a man.

Though he said yes, he promised something to himself: I’ll grow up, find a job and leave.


Early in a transition, lack of support from one’s own family is often the biggest challenge, said Mónica Linares.

The 43-year-old transgender woman left home when she turned 14 and started her transition. She currently works as an activist at the organization ASPIDH Arcoiris Trans.

“It hasn’t been easy, but when you really have an identity and you want to defend what you really want, you are willing to lose everything,” Linares said.

For more than 15 years, she was a sex worker. She lost friends to transphobic killings and saw others migrate because of gangs.

In her current job is she collaborates with other organizations to support LGBT rights, especially to put pressure on lawmakers who show little interest in reviewing a gender identity bill that was presented in 2021.

The bill would comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling from 2022 and go a step further, allowing trans people to change not only their names but also their gender on official paperwork.


The lack of IDs that are consistent with the gender identity of trans Salvadoreans can make their daily life troublesome.

Some employees of internet companies refuse to solve complaints made by phone, alleging that the voice of the person issuing the complaint does not match the gender they have on file.

Insurers don’t allow trans people to register their partners as beneficiaries in the event of death, since their guidelines state that couples must consist of a man and a woman.

Chicas has had problems collecting remittances, banks have denied him loans, and employers have not hired him because his applications reveal that he is a transgender man.

In hospitals, he said, health personnel have delayed his appointments, claiming that they cannot treat “people like him.”


In this deeply religious country, discrimination against transgender people goes beyond paperwork.

Three decades ago, Chicas tried to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “I admire that they are a family that takes care of each other,” he said.

He put away his pants, bought a skirt and allowed his hair to grow. He spent time preaching alongside them, but he always felt monitored.

One day, while toying with the idea of being baptized, the elders advised him as if he were a criminal. “You must reread the Bible … Close your bedroom doors when your nieces are visiting.” They also wanted him to date another church member.

When he did not agree to date a man, he said, the congregation began to ignore him. Soon, they denied him access to worship.

“I had to let go. I went back to dressing like a man. I went back to the world, rejected by Jehovah’s Witnesses.”


A report by Human Rights Watch and COMCAVIS TRANS in 2022 details how transgender people in El Salvador suffer violence and discrimination.

“Security forces, gangs, and victims’ families and communities are perpetrators; harm occurs in public spaces, homes, schools, and places of worship,” the report states.

Latin American countries such as Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Colombia and Mexico have issued laws that protect some rights of the LGBTQ community and allow transgender people to modify their official documents to match their gender identity. In El Salvador, though, since President Nayib Bukele came into power in 2019, there have been setbacks.

Among other actions, the government dissolved the Ministry for Social Inclusion, which investigated LGBTQ issues nationwide, and it restructured an educational institute for addressing sexual orientation in schools.

Bukele has said that he will never legalize same-sex marriage and the Catholic Church has backed his position. The archdiocese’s office did not respond to multiple requests from The Associated Press for comment.


In the backyard of Chicas’ house, Pongo and Polar Bear wave their tails. Behind the dogs comes Elizabeth López, Chicas’ partner for the past seven years. They met soon after Chicas’ mother died, when he decided to use hormones and start his transition.

At first, López seems distrustful. Too many strangers have hurt them beyond words.

She remembers a guard who ordered them to leave a public pool after Chicas said he was unable to remove his shirt, given that his physical transition was incomplete. They both recall the time when he had emergency surgery and health personnel forbid her to visit, alleging they were both “women,” so they could never marry or become a family.

Chicas disagrees. Family, he said, are not the ones who share blood; they are the ones who support each other.

The couple has been sharing their home with a young transgender man who left his own home. Chicas offers care and advice.

Recently, the young man came home accompanied by his girlfriend and approached Chicas to introduce them. He told his girlfriend : “Meet my old man.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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