Saturday, 23 February 2013

Interview with Lizethe Alvarez Echeverry

Monika: Today we are going to Helsingør in Denmark to meet Lizethe Alvarez Echeverry, a remarkable woman and transgender activist born in Colombia. Lizethe participated in many initiatives targeting the improvement of transgender rights in such countries as Colombia, Spain, Germany, and Denmark. Hello Lizethe!
Lizethe: Hi Monika! Thanks for the invitation!
Monika: You have worked for over 20 years for different organizations that defend human rights in such countries as Colombia, Germany, Spain, and Denmark. Could you say more about these organizations and your work there?
Lizethe: It was a great experience for me, where I learned a lot about human rights in different periods of my life. For example, in Colombia I worked in the field of HIV/AIDS; in Germany, I worked for the rights of transpersons and in Spain, I focused more on labor insertion for immigrant transpersons. Now in Denmark I work for the visibility and human rights of transgendered couples.
Monika: In the case of transgender women, can you see any progress in the improvement of their rights in these countries?
Lizethe: Yes I see now because we are talking about a period of more than 20 years, but of course we still need more rights especially for transwomen of Latin America.

Copenhagen LGBT Pride 2012.

Monika: There are more and more transgender women that come to Europe from other continents seeking asylum because of transphobic attitudes in their home countries. In most cases, the European governments are against granting asylum to them. How to change it?
Lizethe: We have a great experience just now in Denmark with the case of Fernanda Milan, who came to Denmark. The Danish government did not give her asylum. But she is strong and with the help of other persons, campaigns, visibility, and the media, the Danish government has now included transphobia as a reason to get asylum in Denmark.
Monika: You could witness the case of Fernanda Milan, a transgender immigrant from Guatemala, being dealt in Denmark. Could you say more about her case?
Lizethe: As I said, we must create more visibility, social discussions, and campaigns on the issue of transphobia. In addition, we need to make an assertive political discourse to help governments of other countries to accept gender identity as a real reason for asylum.
Monika: In the case of Milana, what was the attitude of the Danish media and the public in general? Hostile, friendly, or indifferent?
Lizethe: The Danish media were interested in the development of the case of Fernanda during the whole process. Also, the public listened to the debate. It could have been better, but given the fact that it was the first time when the Danish society talked about asylum for a transperson, it was OK.
Monika: You have been living in many countries. Where did you grow up?
Lizethe: In Cali, Colombia.
Monika: Could you describe your childhood? When did you feel for the first time that you should not be a boy or man?
Lizethe: All my life I felt more identification with “female things”.

Thinking about how to improve the life of trans-brothers
 and trans-sisters in Latin America.

Monika: For most transgender girls, the most traumatic time is the time spent at school, college, or university when they had to face lots of discrimination. Was it the same in your case?
Lizethe: Yes, it was so very difficult for me. I had to stop my university education because of bullying.
When I finally could complete my new choice of career, I didn't have promotion and support of this sector for finding work and the final result was that I didn't find a workplace because I was trans. My school colleagues all found work. I didn't have anyone to help me find a future for my career.
Monika: At what age did you transition into a woman? Was it a difficult process? Did you have any support from your family or friends? Did it have any impact on your job situation?
Lizethe: I will say that the transition was not very difficult for me, but more difficult was the attack from society. Because they are two different things. I mean, when I was alone in my apartment I felt happy with myself and was in peace with myself, but when I was outside, I received a lot of attacks and disregard from other people for my transition.
Monika: Did you have any problems with passing as a woman?
Lizethe: When I started my transition, yes I had problems with passing because my body was subject to masculine hormones. Today I do not have any problems with passing as a woman at all.

Monika: We are living in times of modern cosmetic surgery that might allow transitioning even in the late 50s or 60s. Do you think it is really possible? What kind of advice do you have for transgender ladies at such an age?
Lizethe: I will say it is more a problem for the society how it perceives transwomen and also the stereotype of woman's beauty. We must change this mentality and the way women are looked upon. All women are different and transwomen should be accepted as women regardless of their looks.
Monika: At that time of your transition did you have any transgender role models that you could follow? What was your knowledge about transgenderism?
Lizethe: At that time I used to read articles about Lynn Conway, who is a transgender engineer and professor in the USA. I knew only her. Back then there existed no groups for transpersons in Colombia.

In the Danish newspaper, claiming human rights
for trans couples.

Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Lizethe: The hardest thing was the transition itself because I had to do it alone because there were no support groups or YouTube-transition videos.
Monika: What did you feel when you were finally a woman?
Lizethe: I  felt like a woman all time but when I finished my body transition I felt like I had to and wanted to continue my life, my professional career, my friends, building my own family, culture, sports.
Monika: What do you enjoy most in being a woman?
Lizethe: Now I feel free being who I am. I don't feel more discrimination from society for expressing myself. I never did agree with society's narrow definitions of what is feminine and masculine. I am not so focused on the body, but more on my feminine spirit and this inner being must be free to live life. If I am not free, I cannot live.
Monika: In the USA there are more and more transgender ladies coming out. Unlike in the previous years, some of them have the status of celebrities or are really well-known. Do you think we will have more and more such women in Europe and South America?
Lizethe: No, it is not the same. South and Latin America need more empowerment. But they are getting there. But it is difficult. The culture is “macho” and violent. It's so difficult for transwomen, but more for transmen in these countries. There is poor or no visibility.
In Europe, we need more help and solidarity between us transpersons, especially in the work field and in sport. There are good specific examples in Europe of transpersons in the parliament but we need more collaboration between us.
Monika: At the same time sometimes we get horrible news about transgender women being killed or beaten. How could we prevent it?
Lizethe: First we must recollect human, economic, and political recourses and create grand projects. In addition, we must collaborate and involve other human rights institutions and the government. And we must make these grand projects visible by going to the media and via public discussions.
Also, we must work with the trans communities to identify possible dangerous situations, where you can risk your life. When you identify these situations it is possible to prevent them from happening.

With her man, a trans human rights activist too.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any political lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Lizethe: I think we can make a difference, but also if we give our service to other non-trans communities. For example, to families with problems, women with problems, seniors, lonely people, etc. Because we - as tranpersons - are a part of all these communities and of society in general. They have the same problems as us.
Monika: Have you read any book or article which shed new light on the transgender phenomenon recently?
Lizethe: Yes, about the Danish woman named Maria Hanning, who is the youngest transgender person to undergo a sex change in Danish history. She makes positive visibility for young transpersons.
Monika: What do you usually do in your free time?
Lizethe: Normal things. I do sport, like swimming with my man, Alexander. I still do transvisibility via Internet, update my knowledge on trans-issues. I take a walk here in the quiet city where I live now, Helsingør.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Lizethe: Maybe in the future, when I have more experience to write about it. But I want to write a memoir not only for me but for ALL people – not only trans.
Monika: Could you say that you are a happy woman now?
Lizethe: Yes, I felt all time very happy with myself and my spirit. And now more, because I have a life project with one person, my man. And that is very interesting for my life.
Monika: Lizethe, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!

All the photos: courtesy of Lizethe Alvarez Echeverry.
© 2013 - Monika Kowalska  

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