Discrimination, Prejudice, and Exclusion: Obstacles to Accessing Work for Trans Women in Honduras
Thalía, Lucía and Amelian are women from different realities, but they all face discrimination and a lack of work opportunities, fighting daily for their survival. Meanwhile, the state of Honduras ignores a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that requires the state to implement a gender identity law allowing trans people to legally change their names on government documents.
Author’s Note: This article was published before Thalía Rodríguez was killed at her home on January 10 of this year. The alleged suspect was captured on Sunday, January 30
This report was possible with the support of the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF) as part of its ¡Exprésate! in Latin America. Editing: Jennifer Ávila Writing by: Telma Quiroz, Amilcar Cárcamo and Helen Montoya Systematization: Stephanie Mondragón
Tegucigalpa/San Pedro Sula, Honduras. On the slopes of a hill, there is a small white plank house with a large black door and a window from which a captivating and unprivileged view can be appreciated. It’s the house of Thalía Rodríguez.
At the foot of this hill, that has been turned into a historical monument, lies Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Homes like Thalía’s are on top of each other, as if at some point they are going to fall down the slopes of reddish earth and crash into the city.
It’s frightening to think how many people are crowded into those little houses. And how much need is perceived between the walls made of wooden boards. Seven out of ten families living in Honduras are in poverty, according to a report published by the National Institute of Statistics (INE) in a 2021 survey that was later retracted.
When we reached the tangled streets, our taxi driver refused to go up the stony alley and got lost at the top. But Tegucigalpa is like this: a city of continuous ups and downs that put the most experienced hiker or driver to the test.
From the window, Thalía sees at her feet the city that she arrived in when she was two years old. Originally from Olancho, a rural department in eastern Honduras, the panorama that dominates from the hill gives to her a deceptive sense of power and security. It’s a power that trans people like her don’t normally have in Honduras.
Thalía says that power belongs to others, it belongs to the elites: the political, business, and even religious classes, who marginalize the LGBTIQ+ community by turning citizens against it.
«Who really is the real responsible for all the damages that we do to the trans women community?» Thalía asks. «It’s the state itself,» she replies. «The one that says it watches over and protects is the [same] one that kills us, the one that hurts us.»
Recently, the current head of state himself, Juan Orlando Hernández, took up the anti-rights flags by calling the defenders of the rights of women and LGTBIQ+ populations «enemies of the state and of independence.«
But it’s not only state institutions that close their doors to people like Thalía. The church has also joined its state peers with speeches against sexual diversity, according to complaints filed by more than 20 LGBTI+ organizations in September.
In addition to the state, other attackers are those dressed in the cloak of religious fundamentalism. «These people say they believe in true love, but they don’t play fair,» says Thalía.
State and religious institutions prevent LGBTIQ+ people like Thalía from accessing all spaces, except for sex work and other activities that endanger their health and lives. Nor do they allow them to guarantee the comprehensive health to which all citizens are entitled. They carry a heavy burden reinforced by prejudice and by the lack of education, opportunities, and employment.
Many trans women suffer from violence in the workplace. According to a study by the Center for Documentation and Trans Situation of Latin America and the Caribbean (CeDosTALC), the trans victims of human rights violations in Honduras are mostly sex workers, representing 42% of the total; 34% are formal workers, 5% are activists and 7% are informal workers other than sex workers.
Talking about the trans community thrills Thalía, but it also concerns her. She moves her hands gracefully as she speaks. She doesn’t look like she just climbed the almost 45-degree incline slope. She doesn’t look exhausted. She is fresh, she wears makeup like a soap-opera actress, her straight black hair seemingly not experiencing the passage of time. «In my 50s, I feel more radiant and mature,» she says.
We have barely caught our breath when she opens the imposing black door that looks like it was taken out of an old church. In the living room, she shows us a meter high golden angel that poses between mirrors. From the window, the light is reflected on the glass that cuts through the darkness in the form of sparkles.
The dramatic effect is complete. «It’s not an angel,» says Thalia as she caresses the almost life-size statue, «it’s Athena, the Greek goddess.»
Talía, without the H, is also a Greek name that means «to flourish.» It’s the name of the muse of the theater. Thalía herself is both theatrical and captivating, just like her namesake. «The name comes from the Mexican singer,” she clarifies. «You want water? Coffee? Cookies?» she asks.
Thalía, Pioneering Entrepreneur
Her hospitality comes from the ten years that Thalía has spent running a grocery store out of her house in the neighborhood. She and her neighbors call it «the skirts of the Juana Laínez hill.» But she began her career selling spices in villages, where she displaced the men themselves on motorcycles, she says with a big smile.
Thirty years ago Thalía came to this hill like many Hondurans come to settle in the non-populated areas where they reside: as «occupants.» They settled on the hill in the 90s, when Thalía was still practicing sex work, which resulted in her current periodic visits to the hospital.
Little by little, the trans activist was building her house, in front of which unrolls the ribbon of a cobblestone path in the reddish earth. «It was not easy» to maintain her business for so long, she confesses, «but not impossible either. It was when I started to go out and travel. I want to work, I want to be an entrepreneur.»
Even during the worst days of the coronavirus pandemic, Thalía kept the grocery store running in the house that she shares with her partner and her dogs. «This is the smallest one,» she says, pointing to a shaky, thin puppy that is bellowing among the furniture. «He’s memeco, he’s a crybaby. But it’s because he’s hungry,» says Thalía.
«It’s called Muñequito and it’s a mix of a pit bull and another breed,» she says.
She takes a handful of food for the puppy and places it on the ground. «I used to wet it with water because its teeth are barely formed, but not anymore,» she says, and she sees the puppy trying to chew.
The grocery store lasted a long time. It was Thalía’s dream come true, but she had to close it three months ago because it was not earning enough money. «It’s hard to run a business,» she says, «and this was tiny.»
Thalía and other trans women should be assured the right to work, the free choice of employment, and fair and satisfactory working conditions. But women, especially those from minority racial groups, are immersed in a cycle of exclusion and poverty that makes them more vulnerable to violence, according to a report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
«LGBT youth and trans people are pushed into the informal economy, criminal activity, and sex work as a way to survive,» the report adds. «Discrimination and violence when they are in shelters and community homes, poverty and exclusion in the lives of intersex people and their families… makes them more vulnerable to violence in health centers.»
This pattern pointed out by the IACHR is repeated in Honduras, where the majority of trans women do not find employment and are forced to engage in sex work, according to the interviews conducted. Companies don’t even interview them.
The sex trade for many of them becomes a «dangerous place.»
«In the street, we suffer everything: blows, screams, stones. You suffer from everything. The downpours [and the] hunger. You leave in the morning to catch a bus because you can’t even afford a taxi,» says the director of the Color Rosa Collective, Gabriela Redondo.
When Thalía decided to quit sex work and open a small grocery store in her living room, she became one of the first trans women to start her own business. To achieve this, this independent human rights activist and entrepreneur used her savings and obtained funding from organizations such as the Red Lesbica Cattrachas.
Money is always a problem. «Being a trans woman in Honduras is one of the most expensive things,» says Thalía. «It’s a great investment since we decided to transition.»
To earn money, most work in informal jobs, that is, without retirement or social security. Why can’t they access formal jobs, with all their rights? Because of their gender expression. That is the biggest challenge for them.
Being a trans woman in Honduras is one of the most expensive things. It’s a great investment since we decided to transition.
«Society does not allow a trans woman who wants to work as a promoter in a supermarket,» says Daryana Palada (42), who is a merchant and mother of a four-year-old girl. «There are limitations even for such a simple job. We just want a decent job. Nothing more.»
The obstacles that Daryana and Thalía face span trans women of all ages. Young women with gender expressions outside of heteronormativity are the most vulnerable because they suffer verbal, physical, and psychological violence.
The experience is traumatic because they do not have an identity document that matches their self-perceived identity, according to a study by Visibles and Cristosal.
It was difficult to contact Amelian, who despite being a 19-year-old trans teenager, does not have a cell phone. She cannot afford it because she can’t get a job.
Although she is young and pleasant, Amelian tries to overcome all kinds of obstacles to get a job in Tegucigalpa. The downside is that it is almost impossible for a trans woman to overcome these obstacles.
«Many family members have told me, ‘If you stop doing this’, that is, my clothes, my way of being, ‘I can even get you a job.’ But it’s something I can’t [do]. It is my true identity and I cannot renounce it,» she says to Reportar Sin Miedo.
Amelian studies Journalism and dreams of being a great communicator. However, her hope collides with the Honduran reality.
It doesn’t matter that trans women like Amelian are educated and even earn college degrees. Despite taking workshops and training for entrepreneurship, trans women continue to face prejudices that prevent them from getting a job in Honduras, according to the Organización Pro Unión Ceibeña (Oprouce).
«HR managers and staff» are «biased and under-informed,» says Oprouce CEO Sasha Rodríguez. «It should not be the expression of gender or identity more important than the capacities of trans women to do a job.»
Amelian is one of the hundreds of trans women to whom business doors are closed. Others have been less fortunate than her, such as the 27-year-old member of the Kukulcán organization, Dulce Guifarro.
Guifarro had to work in the sex trade at an early age after a banking institution turned her down. Although she did an internship at the bank, when she expressed her gender identity, she was harassed and discriminated against. She tried to report the harassment to Human Resources, but they ignored her. «I applied to several jobs, [but] it didn’t help much to do sex work. I was enduring hunger and cold. I had no choice. I had to put bread on the table,» says Dulce.
The areas where Dulce and other trans women carry out the sex trade are generally controlled by gangs that force them to sell drugs and pay rent on street corners, says Gabriela Redondo, Director of the Union Color Rosa Collective.
Violence in the streets can end the lives of trans women when they are still young. At just 19 years old, Amelian is still young, but if we take the IACHR figures at face value, her life expectancy, like that of most trans women in Latin America, is 30 to 35 years.
Danger stalks them in every corner of the cities where they live.
«I feel exposed,» says Amelian. «Something could happen to me. I always go out into the street with that fear [that] something might happen to me. I feel like the police are not going to solve anything [if] something happens to me.»
Amelian is right to be fearful. At least 118 trans women have been murdered in Honduras in 12 years, according to the Violent Crimes Task Force of the U.S. Embassy created in 2013. In addition, nine out of ten hate crimes against LGBTIQ + people have not been solved in Honduras, affirms the Violent Death Observatory of the Cattrachas Lesbian Network.
If we take into account that since 2009, the year of the coup, 390 LGBTQ+ people have died violently in Honduras, it turns out that only about 30 culprits have been punished.
I feel exposed. Something could happen to me. I always go out into the street with that fear [that] something might happen to me. I feel like the police are not going to solve anything [if] something happens to me.
Amelian believes that a gender identity law could help combat discrimination and, to some extent, violence suffered by Honduran trans women. «The name of a trans woman is very important because it characterizes her,» she says.
«The gender identity law would be very useful in my daily life and would resolve many conflicts,» she adds. According to her, this law would help her because «the name and the pronouns affect when they don’t agree with a person.»
Vicky Hernández, a Martyr of Hope
On March 26, 2021, the judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case «Vicky Hernández and others versus Honduras» was announced. The historical and unprecedented event declared the responsibility of Honduras for the violations of various rights to the detriment of four people: Vicky Hernández (a trans woman and sex worker living with HIV and a well-known activist from the Colectivo Unidad Color Rosa), her mother, her sister and her niece, with whom she lived in San Pedro Sula.
Vicky Hernández was assassinated during the curfew because of the coup of June 28, 2009, in Honduras. She was with two colleagues on the street when a police patrol tried to arrest them.
On June 29, 2009, the lifeless body of the activist was found. Her identification was recorded as an unknown male. The report also indicated the discovery of an apparently used condom and, seven meters away, a gray ammunition shell.
The forensic authorities refused to carry out the autopsy report under the pretext of assuming that she was HIV positive. It was concluded, as an apparent cause of death, a brain laceration due to a firearm perforation.
Based on the ruling, the Inter-American Court established the following inter-American standards: that LGBTIQ+ people have historically been victims of structural discrimination, stigmatization, various forms of violence, and violations of their human rights.
Likewise, it indicated the absence of impunity and, in certain contexts and circumstances, reaching generalized situations, stimulating and perpetuating the repetition of violations.
In saying this, it was found that there were several indications of the participation of state agents that point to state responsibility for a violation of the right to life and integrity of Vicky Hernández. Added to this is a context of violence against LGBTI people, in particular against trans women sex workers.
The free development of personality and the right to privacy are protected by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Thus, gender and sexual identity are linked to the concept of freedom, the right to private life, and the possibility of every human being to self-determine and freely choose the options and circumstances that give meaning to their existence.
In this sense, the recognition of gender identity by the state is of vital importance to guarantee the full enjoyment of the human rights of transgender people, including protection against violence, torture, and mistreatment.
There is a close relationship between the recognition of legal personality and the legal attributes that identify and distinguish the human person.
During the investigation phase, the Honduran authorities systematically used gender stereotypes and prejudices. Her self-perceived gender identity was ignored.
Vicky did not have the opportunity to reflect her gender identity and her chosen name on her identity document, in accordance with her self-perceived gender, and that lack of recognition may have fostered discrimination and social exclusion for expressing said identity.
Lucía, a case of success
In the heart of San Pedro Sula, the so-called «industrial city» of Honduras, the first shelter for LGBTI+ people was launched. There we met her.
In the old Museum of Anthropology we met Lucía Valladares. She has a cinnamon complexion and a big smile. It is a rainy day and she is wearing a white and gray velvet coat. She comes over and greets us. She wears a leather wallet and a cell phone around her neck with a cord.
Lucía, 30, has had access to work that other trans women would envy. She has been working in the call center industry since 2011. She is a plant and production supervisor and is in charge of several agents. She feels privileged because she had access to education and development in her workplace.
«I’ve benefited a lot form the fact that my gender identity is respected at my workplace,» she says. «My first name doesn’t appear in my employment documents, and that makes it possible for me to focus on really important things like learning and developing myself.»
However, in Honduras «there’s a lot of ignorance,» she adds. «When asking a trans person for the document, many questions arise, since IDs usually carry outdated photos.»
Lucía’s work history changed when her boss saw that her appearance did not match her name. «My boss, who was Scottish, asked me if I had a name that I’d like to be used. He sent an email to Human Resources telling all the people who worked in the company they should refer to me as Lucía, and in feminine terms.”
That gave her the courage to demand that her name and identity be respected. At her work, Lucía has private insurance that she uses regularly and without any problem since she’s supported by her company. «The health professionals I visit already know me, but in the public health system, the story’s different,» she says.
«It’s understood that they have always oppressed and violated us and we accept the role of victims a lot,» Lucía explains. «Many people understand that they have been victims, but it’s not their lifestyle and they fight to get ahead and for their rights.»
Lucía believes that many people can accuse trans women of posing as victims and of complaining about everything, that their lives are only made up of complaints and requests. «We have to learn to live with it, put it in the past and forge new things for the future.»
For Lu, as her close friends call her, there is a vicious cycle, a toxic relationship between trans women and informal jobs.
«We Are a Lost Generation»
The red traffic lights of the main street in the city delineate the steering wheel of the car that Lucía firmly holds. She says that she doesn’t often see other trans women on the street or in daylight.
«They have become gargoyles,» she says, «creatures of the night, and they don’t expose themselves to such a conservative society.» She asks me if I have ever seen a trans woman in a cafe, a restaurant, or a mall.
«With the little that’s been achieved, the new generations are going to see a real change or enjoy the benefits of the gender identity law,» says Lucía with a mixture of optimism and melancholy.
Many people understand that they have been victims, but it is not their lifestyle and they fight to get ahead and for their rights.
According to Lucía, our parents and grandparents are a tangible generation of everything that has damaged us. «We’re a lost generation,» she adds.
For her, the problems of the community are only a priority when the rulers need to frighten the population. «Or right now during the presidential election.» She says the candidate for the Libertad y Refundación (Libre) party, Xiomara Castro, is an example of this, who includes in her speech the recognition of LGBT+ people.
«Only then do we become a topic of discussion. They use us, the state uses us.»
Lucía parks her car in front of the restaurant where her friends are waiting for her. Before we get off, she talks about the power that others believe they have over trans people. «With me, it’s different. They think twice because they say ‘this one doesn’t look like the others, this one can say something to me.’ But there is [social] pressure that tells them ‘you and I are not on the same level.’»
A Gender Identity Law: the Solution?
Kendra Jordany does not believe that the solution to all the problems of trans people in Honduras is a law that allows them to appear on their documents with their true gender identity.
«We would have legal recognition [and] access to many rights, but a gender identity law does not mean I’ll live in a country where I’ll be respected for being a trans woman,» says Kendra, a member of the Movement of Diversity in Resistance and a staff member of the humanitarian organization Doctors without Borders.
The identity document that both Amelian Zerón, Lucía Valladares, and Thalía Rodríguez carry in their wallets does not reflect who they are now. The state forces them to appear with their original name and without their appearance as women. «Due to the lack of a gender identity law, I feel limited, powerless,» says Thalía.
«My identity does not reflect the person they want to hire. Hence the need for a gender identity law. For this reason, many colleagues cannot find a decent job,» says the member of the Trans Feminist Association, Allysson Hernández.
However, there are signs of hope and change on the horizon. The Honduran state is obligated, according to the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of the 2009 murder of the trans leader Vicky Hernández, to recognize the gender identity of trans people.
Meanwhile, trans women do not have the option of being recognized by their acquired name. For this reason, people believe they have the right to call them by a name with which they do not feel identified. According to lawyer Astrid Ramos, «not having a gender identity law has a direct implication on access to work.»
My identity does not reflect the person they want to hire. Hence the need for a gender identity law. For this reason, many colleagues cannot find a decent job.
The Honduran state’s strategy is not to include the citizen’s sex in the new ID. The document that should be a support to diverse communities becomes a way to deny them recognition and a public pronouncement of the president and his cabinet.
It is worth mentioning that the Judicial Power of Honduras has a Statistics Unit. However, in relation to the LGTBI community, the database does not have a specific variable that reflects crimes or cases of discrimination against these vulnerable groups, but the generalized data of murdered women and men are included and not specifically if they belong to the LGTBI community.
Meanwhile, business unions keep making trans women like Thalía invisible. They say they «don’t handle the issue.» That was the response that the Public Relations spokesperson from the Honduran Association of Maquiladoras gave when we asked her for an interview to include her in this investigation. The same reasoning was given by the National Association of Medium and Small Industries of Honduras. We did not get any further explanations about it.
The lack of specific data on the trans population in the business sector is the result of not being allowed to use their assumed name, only their legal name, the one assigned to them at birth. For this reason, most companies do not have any kind of distinction regarding gender identity, which is why it is more difficult to identify them.
The disinterest of the Honduran business community contrasts with the Honduran Constitution, as well as the Penal Code, which in articles 60, in the first, and 321, in the second, declares all discrimination on grounds of sex, race, class, and any other punishable and harmful to human dignity.
«There is no element that prevents hiring a trans, homosexual or lesbian person,» says German Leitzelar, a lawyer specializing in labor matters.
The constitution establishes that there should not be any type of differentiation.
However, Leitzelar, who has worked in this area for 30 years, clarifies that there is a long way from paper to fact, and that culturally it will not be so easy to impose the aspects mentioned by the ordinances of the Inter-American Court.
The statistics also contrast with the complaints of rights violations against Honduran transgender women. In 2020, the Color Rosa Unit Collective has collected 41 of these cases and, regarding the types of violations, the following table of data is found, according to CeDosTALC.
Similarly, we asked the Public Ministry for statistics of employment discrimination against the trans community in the last five to 10 years before 2020. However, the PM responded to our request No. SOL-MP-1049-2021 saying that it considers «not relevant» to give us that information.
It is worth adding that, although the PM had registered a case of labor discrimination against the LGTBI community this year, there is no categorization of sexual diversity by companies or public institutions where they differentiate trans women and men by their assumed name, only by the legal one, due to the lack of a gender identity law.
According to the Conadeh Statistics unit, through the application SOL-Conadeh-168-2021, a total of 19 «complaints» related to the deaths of trans men and women are registered from 2017 to 2021. However, there is no specification of how many women and men have died.
It is worth mentioning that in the last 10 years, Conadeh has only received since 2016 a total of 11 complaints of labor discrimination against LGTBI people coming from throughout the country, mostly in the departments of Francisco Morazán and Cortés; likewise without specific variables.
Thalía lives in this environment of invisibility, challenges and daily trials. «Every day is a challenge,» she says as she caresses one of her little dogs and watches the sun slowly fall behind the hills of Tegucigalpa through the window. «Today I have to pay the electricity bill, pay the water bill. Every day is a routine, it is a challenge to survive because I cannot stay there.»
Thalía does not want to be «paralyzed.» If she is paralyzed, «the dream does not come true because everything is not going to fall from the sky,» she says. “I have to do my fight. And it’s a big fight.” For her, her struggle and her evolution have been, as long as she can remember, facing her family, society, and her community by being a woman with her own ideas and dreams.
«I faced the world since I was a kid. Through everything that life has taught me, I have learned that there are times to laugh, cry, sing victory, feel defeated, powerless. Times of injustice. You learn from everything and reach have a balance over the years.»
Life dealt her blows, she says. «Only blows, psychological, verbal, physical violence. We are the ones who live in our own flesh what it was to live on the street. Nobody can put themselves in my shoes if they have not lived what I lived.»
«I carry a map,» she adds and points to her back. «But with that map, I learned to walk.»
But Thalía also finds hope around her. “For the new generations and for those who were before, there is a door that says ‘welcome’ to the one who wants to take advantage, and the one who does not, to stay there. Because if for me there had been that door, what would I not have done?
Thalía says that «we are at a snail’s pace» and that «there is still a long way to go,» but she considers that with the condemnation of the state of Honduras for the murder of the trans leader Vicky Hernández and with the ordinances to protect the LGBTIQ + population, «Now there is going to be justice.»