Tania poses in the middle of one of the university’s hallways

My Name is Tania

On Colombia’s Caribbean coast, a trans activist takes on the establishment

Tania holds up a photo of herself and her sister as young children

She was once called Jason.

And even though her family accepts her, they still won’t call her Tania.

“I don’t know exactly when I knew,” says Tania, speaking about her gender identity. “I don’t think you are born knowing these things. They go building up and they happen when they happen. In the right moment.”

Misunderstood

Like many transgender women in Cartagena and throughout the Caribbean region, Tania Duarte Díaz has suffered at the hands of a society that doesn’t understand her and a justice system unable—and often unwilling—to protect her rights.

Tania sits on her bed and gets ready to put on her makeup for the day
Tania sits in front of her computer while she applies her makeup
An upclose shot of Tania applying her makeup

“To be a trans woman is to be immersed in mockery, in satire,” Tania says. “You are seen only as an object for sexual use or pleasure.”

An upclose shot of Tania standing in the park area of a university in Cartagena

Unlike many transgender women in this region, Tania is able to pursue a higher education.

In fact, she is the first transgender student to enroll at a public university in Cartagena, where she studies philosophy.

She can recite her legal rights by article number and by verse. She lectures on the difference between biological sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

And she is helping others understand their rights as well.

Bringing perpetrators to justice

She does so through her work with Caribe Afirmativo, a group in Colombia that advocates for equal rights for the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) community.

The group was formed in 2007 after the hate-motivated murder of professor and advocate Rolando Pérez. Today, it documents cases of abuse, trains police and policy officials on human rights, does outreach with the LGBTI community, and fights to bring perpetrators to justice.

Tania and Wilson Castañeda Castro sit together and discuss their work for Caribe Afirmativo
A close up of several USAID LGBTI rights pamphlets
A portrait of Wilson Castañeda Castro, the current head of Caribe Afirmativo

Wilson is the founder of Caribe Afirmativo.

Wilson Castañeda Castro—who was Rolando’s close friend—explains the group’s genesis: “We quickly realized that it was not just Rolando; there were many deaths, many police attacks, many cases of violence.”

One of Caribe Afirmativo’s first major initiatives was to begin to systematically document cases of violence, aggression and discrimination against the gay and trans community. The numbers were jaw-dropping.

Wilson speaks to Cartagena’s police force about LGBTI rights

In just seven years—from 2007 to 2014—Caribe Afirmativo recorded 119 murders of LGBTI individuals on the Caribbean coast, says Wilson. Seventy percent of those murdered were transgender women. What is perhaps just as shocking are the rates of impunity: Of the 119 murders, only 25 cases have been brought to trial. There have been just five convictions.

With Wilson as her mentor, Tania serves as an advocate and field organizer.

As part of a theater group, she helps choreograph performances that bring LGBTI issues into public spaces. She helps Wilson train Cartagena’s police force to respect legal protections, and even participates in a weekly radio program, hosted by the police, to talk about issues that affect her community—everything from discrimination to adoption.

Alongside other advocates, they work with legal and judicial entities to ensure legislation is enacted and enforced.

Tania speaks to two Cartagena police officers about LGBTI rights
Tania and Wilson discuss LGBTI rights on a local Cartagena radio station

Unemployment, discrimination, violence

Along with its advocacy work, Caribe Afirmativo works directly with Cartagena’s transgender community.

In the predominantly poor Nelson Mandela neighborhood, Tania talks to a group of trans women about the troubles they face—problems with employment, discrimination and systematic violence.

“This city is sexist and racist. We are still seen as sick people who can only work as prostitutes or hairdressers,” she says.

Tania and Wilson sit down with a group of local trans women to discuss the issues they face daily
Tania takes a photo with a group of local trans women

The stereotypes, Tania says, stifle the economic and social prospects of those whose sexuality falls outside the mainstream—creating a vicious cycle of poverty. “They are thrown out of their houses very young, most of them at 14, 15,” says Tania. “What other option do they have than the street? Adapt to the street, survive in the street, adapt to the stress. There are no work options.”

A group of local trans women discuss with each other many of the issues they face on a daily basis

But there is plenty of danger.

“Sometimes they have rocks thrown at them,” says Tania. “They are insulted, public transport sees them and doesn’t want to let them ride. There is trafficking of drugs, there are gangs.”

A trans woman holds one of Caribe Afirmativo’s posters

“A hairdresser or a whore”

Vicki, a 19-year-old attending Caribe Afirmativo’s outreach meeting in Nelson Mandela, shares her experience working as a prostitute from age 16.

“In this place, you are either a hairdresser or a whore,” she says, explaining that she trades sex for money “to put food on the table.”

For Vicki and other transgender women who often turn to sex work to support themselves, better, safer options can often feel beyond reach.

Tania realizes that against this panorama, she is the exception, not the rule.

Where some cower, she is confident. Where doors close, she opens them. Where some preach, she advocates.

“Tania is the greatest example of growth in our organization,” says Wilson. “Someone who came knocking because they felt their rights were being violated and wanted to be an active citizen. She ended up becoming a leader and transforming her own life.”

Tania and Wilson sit down after their presentation to the Cartagena police force
Tania presents to the Cartagena police force about the legal rights of the LGBTI community Columbia

What really matters

When Tania looks to the future, she says she will continue down the path she has forged under Wilson’s tutelage. “When I finish my degree in philosophy I want to keep doing what I am doing: human rights and defending people,” she says.

And although her family still calls her Jason, they continue to support her in their own way.

“What really matters is how you feel as a human being and that you are not defined by a gender to feel like one.”

Tania gets ready for the day in her parent’s house
A close up of Tania in her parent’s house

About this story

For the past decade, the U.S. Government has worked in Colombia to support the efforts of the LGBTI community to fight discrimination and stigmatization.

The civil society group Caribe Afirmativo was founded in 2007 to support LGBTI rights in the Caribbean region, and began receiving U.S. support in 2013 through its Human Rights Program.

The U.S. Government helped train police officers, public officials and civilians about LGBTI rights, sexual diversity, and legal and public policy tools.

It also helped create communications pieces, including a training video for police officers and a virtual training program for public officials.

Across the Caribbean and around the world, the United States works to ensure LGBTI people have equal rights as enshrined in international human rights and domestic law, and access to education, employment, healthcare and housing—crucial elements of inclusive sustainable development.

Photos and video by Thomas Cristofoletti