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Coronavirus: They grabbed my breasts and said, 'You're not a woman'

By Megha Mohan
Gender and identity correspondent

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
image copyrightMonica

Lockdown in Panama is strictly enforced, with men allowed out one day and women the next. But this has been used by some as an excuse to harass members of the trans community.

Monica is an excellent cook. Like a lot of people, during the coronavirus lockdown she has been making elaborate meals to distract herself during the long hours spent inside.

One Wednesday last month, Monica fancied making some marinated chicken in a rich spicy tomato sauce with rice. She had most of the ingredients already, but needed the chicken. So she left the small detached house near Panama City airport that she shares with her extended family to go to the local corner shop.

She passed groups of women on her way, some of them linking arms with their children. It was quieter than usual in the neighbourhood, as the government had just introduced a new measure to curb the spread of coronavirus, allowing women to leave their homes to buy necessities on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and men on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. On Sundays, everyone has to stay at home.

image copyrightMonica

Monica walked into the shop. She knew the Chinese family who ran it well. They adored her. But as she entered, the atmosphere changed. The owner approached her silently, his face not breaking into the smile she was used to seeing.

"We can't serve you, Monica," he said. "The police said we can only serve women today. They said, 'No maricon.'"

The transphobic term made Monica shudder, but at the same time, it wasn't a complete surprise. The police in her neighbourhood had targeted her before for being a trans woman.

Monica started going to school dressed as a girl from the age of 12. She had never felt like a boy, and now she wanted to be open about her identity.

Coming out as a girl wouldn't have an impact on her home life - it was hard enough already.

"My father was a macho man," Monica says. "He needed no excuse to beat me, my two sisters or our mother."

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Monica gradually began feminising her hair, and wearing closer-fitting clothing. At school she was mocked for her feminine appearance, so she kept to herself. At least she had the friendship of her sisters and the warmth of her mother's love.

Then, when she was 14, her father died unexpectedly and the family lost their only source of income.

Monica felt she had to support the family. She'd heard that there was an appetite in Panama City for transgender sex workers, and that the money was good.

Monica, still a child, decided that would be the best way to provide for her family.

At the corner shop, the apologetic owner explained to Monica that it was not his wish to ask her to leave at all. It had come directly from the police.

While sex work is legal in Panama, that doesn't mean it comes without stigma, and Monica says the neighbourhood police have taunted her for years, driving past on their motorbikes shouting homophobic and transphobic words as she goes out to work. At 38, she has now been putting up with this for 24 years.

"Many trans people work as sex workers here in the city," Monica says. "Is it our first option? No, but it's regular and it means I can look after my family."

Since the lockdown began, though, work has come to a halt, and money is increasingly tight.

Eight family members share the home. Her two sisters have children, four between them. They're both single, one recently having left an abusive relationship, and aren't working. Neither is Monica's mother.

Arriving home from the shop, Monica's phone buzzed with a WhatsApp message. It was the shopkeeper. He said he felt bad he had sent her home empty-handed, and not to worry about sending her sisters out to fetch the chicken, he'd bring it over himself.

image copyrightMonica

Monica smiled. There was kindness in her community and that would help during the lockdown. But she didn't want to rely on handouts during the pandemic. She wanted to keep looking after her family.

She made a decision to go out the following day - men's day, the day of her biological sex.

But this time her experience was even worse.

She decided to go to a larger supermarket and get all the supplies they would need for a couple of weeks.

When she arrived she joined the queue to get in, but it was worryingly long. Under the rules of Panama's lockdown each person is allowed out three days per week, but even on those days they can only leave the house for two hours at a time, depending on the number on their identity card.

Monica waited in the queue of men, who smirked as they saw her.

Time was ticking down. Then the two hours were up.

Almost at that very moment, six police officers approached Monica, singling her out in the long queue.

"They told me that I was now outside my time limit for going to the shops," she says. "They began to do a body search on me. One of them squeezed my breasts in the search and said, laughing, 'You're not a woman,' and repeated a transphobic slur."

Everyone looked away and did nothing.

Monica had never felt more alone.

"The gendered days in Panama mean the trans community are damned if they do and damned if they don't," says Cristian González Cabrera of Human Rights Watch. "We have spoken to more cases like Monica's. It sadly isn't an isolated incident."

The Panamanian Association of Trans People says that since the gendered days have begun, more than 40 people have got in touch with them to say they have been harassed when going to supermarkets or buying medicine.

In early May, authorities in Colombia's capital Bogotá, decided to lift gender-based restrictions, after LGBT groups said the days discriminated against trans people.

Following an open letter by Human Rights Watch to the Panama presidency, citing mistreatment of trans people by Panama police, Panama's Ministry of Public Security released a statement this week saying that it had "instructed the security forces to avoid any type of discrimination against the LGBTI population" during lockdown.

image copyrightMonica

"This is a welcome step that should be commended," says Cristian González Cabrera. However, he says it's unclear what "avoiding discrimination" means - and when exactly trans people are allowed out of the house.

"We are dealing with a historically marginalised population in the country and so the statement is not clear enough."

Monica isn't convinced she can trust the ministry's assurances. She went out to the bank after the statement was released - on a day that women were allowed to leave home - and a police officer approached her.

"I would go home if I were you," he told her. "I'm saying this out of love, but you are not supposed to be out today."

The BBC asked Panama's Ministry of Public Security to comment, but they didn't respond.

"I don't know what to do. When do I go out?" Monica asks. "I'm not trying to fool anyone. I just want to be able to take care of my family."

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