TRANSSA’s in-house human rights observatory has been documenting hate crimes against transgender women since 2006. It has become clear to King and his colleagues that the burden of documentation and seeking redress falls squarely and exclusively on their shoulders. Police and federal authorities rarely take violations against LGBT people seriously, allowing attackers to act with impunity. “When the police abuse trans women, the women are afraid of reporting, because often when you go to the police, the person you’re accusing is one of their colleagues,” King says. The media often won’t report hate crimes or will euphemize the violation by calling it a crime of passion or a domestic dispute between “two gays.”
This pattern repeats itself across the Caribbean. Much of the region still has laws against buggery and gross indecency that prohibit same-sex conduct. Lethal hate crimes against transgender people are just the more extreme end of stigma and discrimination that permeate police stations, hospitals, schools, and people’s homes.
But if Caribbean states refuse to protect the rights of their most vulnerable citizens, human rights defenders are compelled to take matters into their own hands. Out of a number of grassroots documentation efforts in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, the region’s first human rights monitoring platform was born. Launched by Caribbean Vulnerable Communities (CVC), a coalition of civil society organizations in 2016, the Caribbean Civil Society Shared Incident Database (SID) is a coordinated, standardized online reporting tool for community organizations across the region.
The project supports victims of attacks through access to paralegals, but it’s also building a solid record of violations from country to country and providing evidence for advocates. Carolyn Gomes, MD, the former executive director of CVC who spearheaded the development of the database, says the idea came out her first year working with the organization. “People were coming to me and telling me that all these abuses were happening,” she says. “But without any documentation to back up interventions, it became that much easier for authorities to say to people, ‘Oh, no, that’s just one person,’ or ‘This doesn’t really happen as a pattern.’ So documentation became critical.”
“The very act of telling their story and having somebody listen and document it can sometimes be enough,” Gomes says. “To tell their story and have it believed.”
Thirty civil society organizations (CSOs) that work with LGBT people, sex workers, and people living with HIV in 10 Caribbean countries — Jamaica, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti among them — have used the database to document more than 1,400 violations in their communities, which historically have been hard to access in terms of HIV research and outreach. Violations run from hate crimes and physical violence to verbal abuse and being denied access to public spaces. After documenting the violation, the client decides if they want to press charges, ask for an apology, or just let it be recorded. “Often, in the absence of the desire or ability to move forward with the case, the very act of telling their story and having somebody listen and document it can sometimes be enough,” Gomes says. “To tell their story and have it believed.”
John Waters, MD, program manager at the CVC, recounts the story of being in a meeting with Kouraj, a Haitian NGO, when a man came rushing into the office with a bloody head wound. The NGO was able to refer the person to a clinic, Waters says, “But in a situation like that, you realize that for these grassroots organizations, documenting events such as that one is often of little consolation.”
In the past, when Caribbean NGOs would make presentations to international human rights bodies, most of the information on violence perpetrated against transgender women was anecdotal — transgender women would testify with their personal stories, but offering up actual numbers was difficult, which would make their experiences easier to cast aside. “Essentially, governments would deny that these things were happening,” Waters says.
A breakthrough moment came when organizations in the Dominican Republic wrote a report that documented a significant number of cases of transgender violence and presented it to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). “It was hard data, and so it wasn’t so easy for the government representatives to dismiss it,” Waters says. “I think that’s when, at least in the Dominican Republic, there was a real recognition amongst NGOs that going through the effort of documentation can be worthwhile,” he says.
Documentation efforts like the SID database make it easier to pick up patterns — related to numbers, but also related to perpetrators and sites of abuse — that would keep transgender women from dying of HIV because EMTs don’t want to enter a transgender person’s home. “If you can pick up a pattern of abuse at a particular clinic and document it adequately, you can take it to the responsible authorities to make a change,” Gomes says. “And if they don’t make a change, then you go to the next level and the next level.”
Advocates like Castillo and King have reason to be hopeful. King says their presentation at the IACHR sparked a roundtable dialogue with the state dedicated to developing human rights policies focused on transgender people. “There wasn’t a strong political will for the cases of transgender killings to be resolved,” King says. “But in the last few years, and thanks to the documentation we’ve been doing, we’ve seen that the cases are being treated differently — they’re being processed properly.”
Now, out of the 45 cases of killings of transgender women in the Dominican Republic, King says, there have been five convictions.
Documenting human rights violations not only holds authorities and decision-makers to account, but it also has the potential to empower the communities that are most vulnerable to HIV, like transgender women, who have been driven underground.
“When you’re treated so badly by society, you don’t have any self-esteem, and you think that what people say about you is true. You don’t think that you’re deserving of any rights,” King says. “A lot of my colleagues feel that way. Despite all our efforts, it’s not changed completely yet, but we’re on the right path.”
For transgender people in the Caribbean, there is strength in numbers — and to document the ways society has erased you is to stand up and be counted.