Joseph Soto is a young trans man from the combative working-class barrio of Manicomio in Caracas and one of the founders of Colectiva Transgresores, an activist group that organizes around trans issues. In this interview, Soto reflects on his own transition process and the pending tasks on Venezuela’s LGBTIQ agenda.
Carol Hanish coined the slogan “the personal is political.” Beginning with this premise, I would like to ask you about your deconstruction and reconstruction of identity, from lesbian woman to trans man. Can you talk to us about your journey?
As a trans woman friend said once to me: “Transiting is all about happiness.” Indeed, ours is a process led by the desire to seek happiness and pleasure.
In my experience with transition processes, we are driven by the liberating potential of seeking a particular and individual desire – and it is emancipatory to the degree that it is a conscious and reflective process. I think that is the key, the essential issue at hand.
It is often considered that transitioning is something mechanical and measured: I pull out a sheet of paper and divide it into two. On the one side, I have these pluses as a man, where I get this and this. On the other side, I get this and this as a woman. And with this calculation, I decide if I stay or if I go. The truth is that desires and pleasures are not quantifiable – this mechanic approach does not work.
In my case, and this has much to do with happiness, something that triggered my desire to transition is my own militant experience. The left still sometimes oppresses difference; it is blind to the plurality of societal oppressions and moreover, reproduces a patriarchal logic. For much of the left, the only “relevant” issue is class struggle: class and the struggle for power. This brought me to a situation where, in spaces of militancy, I was discriminated against for being sexually diverse. I was a lesbian woman then, and I came to understand that the sum of my experiences and needs wasn’t satisfied and registered in those organizational processes.
Working through that contradiction helped me to understand that I want to help build something else: a richer, happier, and more pleasurable society.
You come from Manicomio, a combative Caracas barrio. Having lived there, I have also witnessed patriarchal attitudes in the neighborhood. How was your transition received in the barrio?
This is not an easy process as it comes with permanent tensions: the imprint of sexual assignation by birth is very strong in our society.
However, I can say that I have been lucky because my family has been very supportive. Of course, for my mom and my dad, this has been a painful process of mourning. They lost a daughter, with all the societal expectations associated: getting married, having children, etc.
But my family was willing to accept my transition: they are loving and, unlike many families, I wasn’t expelled from home as often happens to trans people when they announce their intention. All this allowed me to go through this turbulent process with some basic conditions assured: having a roof over my head and being cared for allowed me to study and to figure out things regarding my employment while unraveling the labyrinth ahead of me.
Of course, as you said, barrios are loaded with patriarchal ideology and sexist behaviors. In this regard my family, again, is a cornerstone of my transition.
When a transgression such as this one occurs, it is very important that those close to the person support them not only at home but also on the streets. In the case of trans people, when those closest to you call you by your self-chosen name or by your chosen gender pronoun, that sets an example. This speech-act helps people, neighbors, and friends, go through the reflection process of saying: “Ah, ok, this person identifies male and the pronoun must be masculine.” When my sister, my mom, or my dad enunciate my name in accordance with my identity, that encourages the community to understand me as the person that I am.
Of course, there are pockets of resistance. Religious fundamentalists, some of whom are part of the UBCHs [base unit of the PSUV party] locate the root of our society’s problems in “whores, maricos [pejorative term for gays], and lesbians.” Also, men in general are more resistant, perhaps because they feel their masculinity and their privilege threatened. But in general, and particularly due to my family’s support, the barrio community has come to understand.
Of course, there have been other things that have been important in my transition. I opted for making this public from the early stages. I wrote about it on Facebook, I published reflections on social networks, and that has been an important part of the process. It has brought other people into the loop, including my extended family.
Unfortunately many go through their transition in more isolated and rougher circumstances.
In the Bolivarian Process, there have been important advances regarding women’s rights and gender issues, but there are many pending battles in the political, ideological, and legislative spheres. What is next in this regard?
The first thing is to place these issues in the public sphere. There is, in fact, growing visibility of trans and dissident identities, but within the popular movement, the debate has to grow. This shouldn’t be a marginal issue.
All Venezuelans must reflect on the deconstruction of our identities. The process makes us think about how to deconstruct and build a better country. In fact, the trans experience invites us to deconstruct preconceived ideas.
The Bolivarian Process has opened spaces of debate and reflection. Now, it is time to put these issues on the table.
The feminist movement itself shows that there is a lot of work still to be done. What I have experienced within the movement has been difficult. Surprisingly, there are many prejudices and much ignorance even among feminists. There is a historical resentment with masculinity and some assume that, in the case of trans men, we transit to obtain male privileges. In my case, nothing is further from the truth.
In juridical terms, the issues of discrimination and transphobia have to be addressed as there are no laws protecting us. Within the Colectiva Transgresores, we have received information about cases of discrimination and violence, but the legal framework offers no possibility of registering these situations accordingly. The transphobic or LGBTIQ-phobic actions that happen on a regular basis leave us no recourse within the existing legal framework.
When trans men suffer rape, beatings, intense bullying, discrimination at work or in institutions, they have nowhere to turn. Let me give you an example: a while back a trans man was raped by the Carabobo State Police. He got pregnant and had his child, and eventually, he left the country. But the question at hand here is, where is this person going to submit his complaint?
Reporting machista violence against women is hard enough due to the patriarchal logic within institutions and the society as a whole, but there are laws and channels. However, how does a trans man deal with harassment? We can turn to the Ley de la Mujer [referring to the Organic Law on the Right of Women to a Life Free of Violence, 2007] because that is how a trans man is recognized by the state: as a woman… but that opens another set of contradictions and reproduces the existent violence against our life in a society that tends to invisibilize our existence.
So yes, a legal framework for violence and discrimination against trans people is part of our agenda. Actually, to be more precise, the law must address violence against the sexually diverse community as a whole.
Of course, we don’t believe in magic: laws don’t solve all the problems in our society. Opening the debate about legislation is very important, but once the law is passed, we will have to work so that the legislation is understood.
And this brings us to another item in the agenda: we need centers attending to the issues of the sexually diverse community. There is an Instituto Nacional de la Mujer [National Women’s Institute] and a Defensoria de la Mujer [Women’s Public Defender]. We should have a debate about the incorporation of sexual diversities to these institutions, if that is the path, or if there should be a national institute that would attend the LGTBIQ community. Our lives are compromised, so this is an urgent need.
In those places, there should be legal and psychological support. Of course, the point here wouldn’t be to pathologize us nor to certify if a person is trans or gay or lesbian. The center should accompany those who are overcoming something as static as the social construct of sex and gender.
For now, we are building an affective network where we give each other mutual support. That is very important, but it’s not enough.
What about medical attention for trans people right now?
This is one of the important items on the trans agenda. There is now a debate regarding medical attention. My position is that we should struggle for a medical system that works for everyone. Of course, in the case of trans people, we go through a transition that can imply a medical process, be it hormonal, surgical, or both. For that to happen, we have to struggle for a truly public healthcare system that adjusts to all our needs.
In the meantime, from the Colectiva Transgresores, we promote educational processes to sensibilize medical personnel, but this is quite difficult because the medical profession is a power bloc of its own.
It all boils down to the fact that there are no institutional or medical channels to address our transition while our society continues to pathologize sexual dissidences.
As you may know, until 2018, the WHO identified transsexuality as a “mental illness.” In other words, we suffer a “psychological disorder” that must be “cured.” On top of that, our society is strongly patriarchal, which also affects the medical profession.
In our society, sex is understood as something “natural” and, in the best cases, gender is understood as something that is constructed. So if sex is something natural or something that was assigned by God, then something must be wrong with those who transgress it.
But as it turns out, sex is also a human construct. When a person is born with a vagina or with a penis, society assigns to that person certain personality traits: dependent or independent, caring or tough, etc. So, as it turns out, sex isn’t natural either.
These definitions and the implications that come with them sustain the organization of contemporary society, and that is why pathologization occurs.
We can see this when we turn to places where there are, theoretically, protocols for the attention to trans people. One of them is the Centro Bianco in San Bernardino [Caracas], a sexology center. There they have an 18th-century protocol that treats trans people as mentally ill. In fact, when I went there, they told me that I had paraphilia, which is a sexual disorder that includes necrophilia and pedophilia!
There is also a new foundation at the Vargas Hospital [Caracas], but the medical personnel there is understaffed and has very little training and preparation for understanding our situation. There, they more or less follow old protocols established by North American NGOs that also view transsexuality as an illness.
In addition to pathologizing transsexuality, or as part of it, I had to hear things such as: “Well, if you want to be a man, you have to behave like a man, you have to cut your hair, you cannot be effeminate, and you have to prove that when you were a child you played with toy cars and not with dolls.”
Basically this is an attempt to reimpose heteronormativity.
Exactly, they cannot come out of the binary schema. You can transit from one pole to the other and vice versa. But as it turns out, human sexuality is much richer and more diverse. There are non-binary people who don’t identify themselves within the pre-established conceptions of “man” or “woman.” In my case, for instance, I identify as a trans man because I’m not interested in being recognized as a man in the common use of the word… at the end of the day, that is not what I am. My experience is richer. For 25 years I lived with a feminine identity which allowed me to identify with all the oppressions that women face. We are talking about a set of patriarchal oppressions that are inherently violent. I experienced that.
Then, when I decided to transit, the patriarchal violence remained present. So my experience is quite different from that of a heterosexual man.
Going back to the earlier question, how does a person transitioning navigate this world?
We try to get by with whatever tools we have at hand. Now there is a large number of people self-hormonating, which is dangerous in itself. Hormonal treatments come with a lot of changes in the body, and it is important to have medical support. Unfortunately, that is often unavailable.
Additionally, there is also the psychological stress that we face during the transition.
Basically, we are on our own, so building a community of mutual support is key. Actually, the Colectiva Transgresores emerged out of the need to break with the isolation imposed by society. We count on ourselves, on people who have done this before us, and can point us to a doctor or a psychologist who is sensitized to these issues.
This community has been really important for me.
Heteronormative sexuality is an instrument of control in our society. Fidel said, “Revolution is changing all that must be changed.” Do you consider that an open debate about sexuality is one of the keys to our society’s emancipation process?
Absolutely. A society loaded with prejudices cannot emancipate itself.
The feminist movement is doing important work to make sexual and gender oppression visible, from abortion to machista violence. All these issues are becoming part of the public debate – in this regard, our organization has a particularly rich exchange with the Faldas R compañeras.
However, we have to promoted a wider debate about people’s right to exercise their sexuality in the form that will make them happiest, which brings us back to pleasure – for that to happen there has to be a collective deconstruction process, a process of leaving behind heteronormative precepts and abandoning rigid and static conceptions of sexuality and gender.
Any person who strays away from the patriarchal mandate is vulnerable and that, in a society that struggles for emancipation, has to change. If your existence is not functional to the reproduction of the working class by building a family – so that society continues to work as it does now – then you are useless to the system. Thus we are marginalized and proscribed by society.
In conclusion, we propose that we learn together, and the trans condition opens for much-needed self-critical reflection. We call on society to question all its precepts.