Out in the World: South America sees anti-LGBTQ incident in Argentina; Peru declares gender ID mental disorder

  • by Heather Cassell, BAR Contributor
  • Friday May 17, 2024
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Argentine queer women protesters took to the streets of Buenos Aires, the country's capital, May 13, marching against hate crimes following the recent deaths of three lesbians in an arson attack. Photo: Courtesy Buenos Aires Times/NA/Daniel Vides
Argentine queer women protesters took to the streets of Buenos Aires, the country's capital, May 13, marching against hate crimes following the recent deaths of three lesbians in an arson attack. Photo: Courtesy Buenos Aires Times/NA/Daniel Vides

South America appears to continue to roll backward as policies, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, and violence escalate against LGBTQ people. This week an arson fire killed three lesbians and severely injured another in Argentina's capital, Buenos Aires. Meanwhile, Peru declared gender identity a mental disorder.

Attack in Argentina

Argentine LGBTQ activists are calling for the suspect of an arson attack against two lesbian couples earlier this month to be charged with hate crimes. Three of the women died in the blaze. A fourth woman is recovering after being in critical condition in a hospital.

Activists blame the country's right-wing President Javier Milei for the increase in violence against the queer community. He has unleashed inflammatory anti-gay rhetoric since he took office in December 2023, as well as during the presidential race.

On May 6 at around 1 a.m., a man was seen throwing a Molotov cocktail into the women's second-story bedroom they shared at the boarding house in Buenos Aires, the South American country's capital. Neighbors told the police they were woken by the women's screams as the fire quickly spread throughout the building. Local news outlet El Pais reported neighbors tried to save the women by using a fire extinguisher and taking them to the nearest shower.

Severely burned, Pamela Fabiana Cobas, 52, died almost immediately.

Cobas' partner, Mercedes Roxana Figueroa, also 52, died of organ failure two days later. Burns covered 90% of her body, according to Human Rights Watch.

Andrea Amarante, 42, who suffered from burns that covered 75% of her body, died in the hospital on May 12.

Her partner, Sofía Castro Riglos, 49, who was in critical condition in a local hospital, is now out of danger and is expected to live, according to the Advocate. El Pais reported that the suspect was identified as Justo Fernando Barrientos, who is in his 60s.

At least five others were injured and taken to local hospitals. Roughly 30 people were evacuated from the building, reported the Washington Blade.

Barrientos was reportedly another tenant at the boarding house who witnesses told police previously threatened to kill the women. He sustained an injury to his neck during the incident and was taken to a hospital. It is unclear if the injury was self-inflicted or happened during the fire. Police arrested Barrientos immediately after he was released.

Authorities have not announced a motive for the attack, reported HRW. According to El Pais, Barrientos has not testified before a judge. The judge is awaiting a mental health evaluation to determine if he can be held accountable for the crime or if he suffers from a mental disorder. Activists are requesting authorities to add hate crime charges, reported the Blade.

The investigation into the incident is ongoing.


Local residents and activists vented their anger at a demonstration May 13 near the site of the fire.

"They were set on fire for being lesbians," a spokesperson of the neighborhood association Barracas Lesbian Assembly told more than 200 protesters at a demonstration in front of Plaza Colombia, reported El Pais. "They were set on fire for being poor lesbians. They were set on fire for being poor lesbians creating a community."

Protesters carried signs reading, "They killed them," accusing Milei's government of promoting hate speech and fostering a culture of intolerance, reported The Guardian.

A small altar was erected at the burned boarding house site in the Barracas neighborhood where the four women paid 50,000 pesos (about $50) for the single room without a bathroom that the couples shared, according to the Barracas Lesbian Assembly spokesperson. Argentina's LGBTQ community has been shaken by the incident. For more than a week people have stopped by the site lighting candles and leaving flowers.

"The attack is one of the cruelest hate crimes in recent years and takes place in a context in which hate speech is on the rise across the country," María Rachid, the head of the institute against discrimination in the ombudsman's office, told El Pais.

Last year, the office issued a report from Buenos Aires' LGBT ombudsman that found Milei and his administration's ongoing offensive speech, including social media posts and official speeches during his presidential campaign, "built a climate of segregation, rejection and discrimination; the most fertile ground for violence toward historically vulnerable groups," reported HRW.

HRW's report last year examining hate toward queer women around the world, which included Argentina, found queer women "couples have been murdered, sexually assaulted, dismembered, or physically attacked alongside their partners." The report found that this "risk of lethal violence" to couples is chronically under-documented.

The human rights organization reported that in 26 countries, including Argentina, interviewees repeatedly cited "the extreme danger of appearing in public with an LBQ+ partner as a reason to stay home, refrain from holding their partners' hand, or otherwise limit their movement and queer signaling." In Argentina, where government data from 2023 showed 41.7% of the population lives in poverty, lesbian couples face heightened barriers to secure housing, limiting their ability to use the privacy of a home to protect themselves.

Milei's administration denied calling out the fire as a targeted act against the women due to their sexual orientation.

"It seems very unfair to me to only talk about this event, when violence is something much more comprehensive than simply an issue against a certain group," Manuel Adorni, the presidential spokesman, said at a May 13 news conference, reported El Pais. "There are many women and men who are suffering violence and these are things that cannot continue to happen."

Argentina's former president Alberto Fernández spoke out against the women's murders.

"Such an atrocity cannot be silenced. It challenges us as a society," he posted on X, reported El Pais. "The facts must be investigated and judged with a gender perspective. We must all repudiate what happened for what it was: a hate crime in times in which a rhetoric of discrimination and hate is emanating from the national government itself."

Cause for concern

In the five months since Milei has been in power, the self-described libertarian president wasted no time eliminating gender equity and human rights government offices set up by his more liberal predecessors. The slashing of government offices has put 15,000 government employees, including 105 transgender workers, out of work as part of his quest to stabilize Argentina's worst economic crisis in two decades, according to the Washington Post.

Critics claim Milei's crusade to get Argentina back into the black is a cloaked attempt to do away with the country's progress in gaining hard-won protections for LGBTQ, women, and human rights for more than a decade. Progress Milei has called a "cult of a gender ideology," reported the Post.

For more than 10 years, Argentina led the way for LGBTQ rights in Latin America, starting with legalizing same-sex marriage in 2010 and declaring gender identity as a human right a few years later. More recently the South American country instituted 1% employment quotas for transgender and nonbinary workers and recognized gender "X" on government-issued identification in 2021. It installed the country's first LGBTQ expert, well-known Argentine gay activist Alba Rueda, in 2022 reported the Blade.

Since coming into power, Milei shut down the Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, banned the government's use of gender-inclusive language, and closed the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism, reported the Post.

"What we have achieved is being discredited," Rueda told the newspaper, stating that Argentina is going backward.

Amnesty International, HRW, and Argentina's LGBTQ community demanded the country's government conduct a full investigation that takes into account a gender perspective and the women's sexual orientation as "motivation for the attack," reported The Guardian. HRW added calling for transparency, to "ensure proper medical care and housing for the surviving woman," and called for government officials to "cease and condemn rhetoric that stigmatizes queer women and may contribute to a climate in which they are seen as deserving of violence."

Peru declares gender identity a mental illness

Meanwhile, in Peru, President Dina Boluarte officially declared gender disorder a mental illness.

Peru's first woman president signed a decree defining "transsexualism" and gender disorder in children as mental illnesses May 11. Boluarte, a former member of the Marxist-Leninist Free Peru political party, took office in December 2022, reported Global Village Space.

Peruvian transgender activists immediately condemned the decree, calling the policy outdated.

The decree comes days ahead of the World Health Organization's 34th anniversary of the removal of homosexuality from the list of International Classification of Diseases, reported the Daily Mail.

Gender dysphoria was removed from the WHO's disease list in 2019. The latest edition of the ICD came into effect in 2022, the newspaper reported.

OutfestPeru Director Jheinser Pacaya noted on X that the decree comes 100 years after Peru decriminalized homosexuality in 1924.

Pacaya wrote on X that Peru's trans community will not rest until the decree is repealed, reported Pink News.

The country's health ministry defended the decree, stating it was the only way it could "guarantee full coverage of medical attention for mental health," reported Pink News.

Peru's Essential Health Insurance Plan's language will be updated to reflect the decree. The order conflicts with Peru's law protecting LGBTQ people from so-called conversion therapy that was passed in 2021.

Conversion therapy is the practice of attempting to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. The United Nations declared the practice a form of torture along with the WHO, and other international organizations and some countries have banned the practice for children and in some cases adults.

The Daily Mail reported that Peruvian authorities have ignored the 2018 Inter-American Commission of Human Rights ruling in the case of Peruvian transgender woman Azul Rojas Marin against the country for denying her justice after she was arrested, brutally raped, and tortured by three police officers in 2008. Peru's government continues not to act on the ruling or compensate Marin despite a second IACHR 2020 decision that found Peru responsible for the police officers' torture and sexual violence against Azul.

Peruvian authorities finally acknowledged their culpability in 2022, but only after the minister for justice at the time formally apologized to Azul. Compensation to Azul remains undecided.

A 2023 Ipsos poll found 81% of Peruvian citizens believe trans people face a great deal of discrimination in society today, reported Pink News.

Got international LGBTQ news tips? Call or send them to Heather Cassell at WhatsApp/Signal: 415-517-7239, or [email protected]

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