The Full Story

Transgender and Trapped in Sex-Based Social Distancing

Panama came up with a novel—and uniquely discriminatory—public health measure to combat the coronavirus.

Revelers take part in a Gay Pride Parade in front of policemen in Panama City on June 29, 2019.
Revelers take part in a Gay Pride Parade in front of policemen in Panama City on June 29, 2019. MAURICIO VALENZUELA/AFP via Getty Images

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The day Yineth Layevska was finally able to change the name on her identity card, she felt reborn. When the 38-year-old indigenous transgender woman went out with her friends on the weekends in Panama City, dressed up in high heels, she looked forward to being asked by the security guard at the nightclub door to pull out her national ID card, with her new female name freshly printed on it. “I felt more free,” Layevska said.

But all of that changed with the pandemic. “Now,” the transgender activist said, “I’m afraid to go out.”

In mid-March, when the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases started to rise in Panama, a global hub for transportation, maritime trade, and banking, the country put in place a social distancing measure that no other country had tried before: segregating citizens based on sex.

Since then, women have been permitted to go out on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to perform essential activities, like going to the grocery store, pharmacy, or bank. Men can do so on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. On their assigned days, people can only go out during designated two-hour periods based on whether the last digits of their national ID cards are odd or even. No one is permitted to go out on Sundays, and a special permit is needed to go out on undesignated days or hours, such as for a medical emergency.

The government envisioned the measure as “the easiest mechanism” to enforce social distancing because law enforcement could ostensibly identify men and women based on their physical appearance. But it offered no guidance about what the policy would mean for transgender people, who number at least 1,200 in Panama, according to transgender organizations like Panamanian Association of Trans People and Trans Men Panama, which stress that the number is likely significantly higher. The vast majority of Panama’s transgender residents are women.

The Americas are the most dangerous continents for transgender people, accounting for 86 percent of the world’s murders of transgender and gender-diverse people between 2008 and 2019, led by Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, as documented by the Trans Murder Monitoring project. In Latin America, Panama is among the least progressive on transgender rights. Transgender people can’t donate blood or legally change their sex without undergoing sex reassignment surgery, and same-sex marriage is illegal.

The sex-based measures have sparked broad criticism among LGBTQ, human rights, and women’s organizations inside Panama and abroad, which saw the rule as discriminatory and further demeaning an already marginalized social group. Penalties for violating Panama’s sex-based restrictions, which remain in effect, are high. The police have reportedly detained transgender people for hours, forcing them to pay fines of $50 or more. (The average salary in the country is $789.) Police agents and security guards have subjected transgender people to violence and threats. Between April 1 and July 17, two Panamanian transgender organizations identified at least 28 complaints of discrimination against transgender people, nearly two-thirds of whom were transgender women.

No matter what day she goes out, Layevska says she is terrified. If she leaves her house on a day assigned to women—along with thousands of other women with whom she identifies—security guards at the supermarket or bank often don’t let her in. Though her ID card shows her new female name, it still displays an “M” for male. She is not a woman, the security guards tell her, with a clear order: Come back on a day assigned for men. “That makes me feel so helpless, so angry,” Layevska said. Her elderly parents are at higher risk for COVID-19, so she does the shopping for the family. “I’m not going out for fun,” she said. “It’s about buying essentials.”

If she goes out on a day assigned to men, Layevska, with her cascade of black hair and skinny jeans, says she faces constant harassment. Men mock her and catcall. Guards block her from entering stores.

By the end of May, the country had just over 11,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. Then, beginning June 1, the government started loosening restrictions, including the sex-based social distancing measure, to enable some business sectors to resume trade operations and to jump-start economic activity. (Roughly half of all goods transported by sea between Northeast Asia and the East Coast of the United States pass through the Panama Canal, which remained open during the shutdown but at reduced capacity.)

By June 9, confirmed cases had surged to more than 17,000. The country went back into lockdown and reimposed its sex-based social distancing policy, among other measures, to prevent transmission, but it was too late. The brief reopening allowed the virus to spread, especially in poor, crowded urban areas, and adherence to the social distancing rules has lagged ever since. Panama is now one of the world’s worst coronavirus hot spots based on weekly cases per capita, alongside Brazil, Peru, and Bahrain.

According to the Panamanian epidemiologist Arturo Rebollón, the sex-based restrictions helped curb the spread of COVID-19 early on because they were a relatively straightforward way of enforcing social distancing, but there was no scientific reason to use biological sex as the basis for it. Other visual cues, he added, such as a certain colored sticker on people’s cars or colored clothing, could have worked just as well while also mitigating the harm to the country’s transgender residents.

“When you talk about gender, it’s a gray area,” he said. Peru and Colombia only use odd or even ID card digits to restrict people’s movements. The two South American countries briefly tried sex-based social distancing, but they rolled the policies back after public backlash to police harassment and overcrowding in supermarkets on days assigned to women.

Venus Tejada, the director of the Panamanian Association of Trans People and a transgender woman herself, doesn’t oppose the sex-based social distancing measures implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19. But she believes the government should state unequivocally that transgender people are allowed to go out on days that correspond to their gender identity. Her phone rings at all hours with queries from transgender women who say they don’t have any food left or that they have been evicted, problems that the social distancing policy has only exacerbated because transgender people don’t feel safe going out or seeking help. Some transgender people, she said, haven’t left their homes for weeks or have had to interrupt hormone or antiretroviral treatments because they can’t access essential medication. (15 percent of transgender women in Panama live with HIV.)

“Now with the pandemic, we don’t exist,” Tejada said on a video call from her mother’s home. COVID-19 lockdowns forced Tejada to close her beauty salon—her main source of income—and move back with her mother because she couldn’t afford to live on her own.

At first, Tejada thought the controversial measure could open up an opportunity to broaden people’s understanding of gender. Many people in Panama and elsewhere aren’t aware of the difference between sex, the biological attributes that distinguish men from women, and gender, socially constructed roles and expectations of men and women that influence an individual’s concept of themselves. The Panamanian Association of Trans People reached out to the government and to private security companies to offer training on issues related to transgender rights. So far, they have been able to train security guards in several supermarket chains across the country. But the police have been unresponsive, according to the organization. “They don’t know how to deal with us,” Tejada said.

It took over three months for the government to publicly acknowledge the impact of the social distancing policy on transgender people. On July 16, the Ministry of Health finally issued a statement rejecting all types of “xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, or discrimination.” Even still, people must only go out on days corresponding to their biological sex. After months of public pressure and activism, Tejada says she is “embarrassed” by the government response.

In the last two weeks, transgender organizations have noticed an increase in abuse complaints. And as the coronavirus crisis continues and economic insecurity surges, transgender women are growing more desperate. Many are turning back to the streets and selling sex to get by, Tejada said, estimating that some 90 percent of transgender women in Panama rely on sex work. Transgender leaders say these women are more exposed to police abuse and arrests, which they link to the uptick in complaints. The Panamanian Association of Trans People is ramping up its response, providing transgender women with condoms, lubricant, HIV tests, face masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer.

Despite the uptick in reported abuse complaints and the devastating toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, Layevska says that there has been a silver lining. “It has made us more visible as a collective,” she said.

Marta Martinez is a journalist and contributing editor with the Fuller Project, a global nonprofit newsroom reporting on global issues that affect women.

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