Each day when Pau González wakes and looks at his phone, he feels as if he is running a call centre. As the founder of the activist group Hombres Trans Panama, he has been inundated by members of the transgender community seeking advice on how to navigate Panama’s sex-segregated social distancing laws. Some callers have been cautioned or abused by police. Others report feeling suicidal and scared to go out.
In April, Panama announced one of the most aggressive Covid-19 policies in Latin America – dictated which days its citizens could go out according to their sex as stated on their national identification cards.
The gendered lockdown rules – finally lifted this month – meant women could leave their homes on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and men on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
A London School of Economics study has found the response “failed to recognise diverse gender identities and may reproduce inequalities and injustice for non-binary individuals with unknown long-term effects”.
The controversial measures were meant to halve the numbers of people on the streets at any one time but the rules left trans people vulnerable to victimisation.
González said he was devastated at the announcement. “These measures meant I could only go out according to my sex assigned at birth as shown on my ID card. I was afraid to be the only man going out on women’s days.”
In the first week of lockdown, González was called by more than 86 people requesting help with buying essential items, too scared to leave their homes.
Two incidents on the first day of lockdown highlighted the impossible contradictions . A trans man who went out in accordance to the sex on his identity card was turned away from a supermarket because, he was told, he would stand out among the women. Meanwhile, a trans woman was arrested because she went out on a day for women, but that did not match the sex on her card. “The police humiliated her and said she was not a real woman,” said González.
Between 1 April and 14 September, Hombres Trans Panama recorded 50 incidents of discrimination. “It was as if we were forced to be in jail in our own homes, relying on others to bring us food and medication,” he said.
González was among dozens of people interviewed as part of the LSE study, due to be published next month. It collected GPS data to track the mobility of men and women between 15 February and 29 May, and used the findings to interpret how the policy compounded existing inequalities.
“The policy failed transgender, non-gender or sex-binary Panamanians from its inception,” said Clare Wenham, assistant professor in global health policy.
“Further investigation is required to ensure future policies to do not use gender in ways that erases individual identities or compounds existing inequalities, particularly those borne out through law enforcement.”
As one interviewee told researchers: “Transgender people in Panama are being humiliated and accused of breaking the law under the quarantine policy simply for being themselves.”
Cristian González Cabrera, a Human Rights Watch researcher, which documented the violence and discrimination against trans people during lockdown, said: “Trans people are used to violence and discrimination but the gendered quarantine singled them out for abuse by giving police and businesses the discretion to decide who is a man and who is a woman.”
He warned the stigmatisation will not end simply because the lockdown has been lifted and that Panama must introduce gender recognition laws so people can easily change their documents to reflect their identity.
“The second major thing is for the government to use this moment to educate the population about sexual orientation and gender identity more generally – it needs to teach Panamanians that trans people are part of our society and should be respected.”
On 16 July the government made a statement acknowledging transphobia and affirming that Panama respects “the diversity of identity and expression”. It also announced sanctions for those found guilty of discrimination.
For González, whose organisation has supported 173 trans people across six regions of Panama, the policy should be a catalyst for change.
“We need legislation to protect the LGBT community including gender recognition laws and marriage equality. The pandemic has brought out the best and worst in people but it gave us the chance to highlight the rights of trans people and I hope Panama will choose to be on the right side of history.”