Friday 26 September 2014

Interview with Fernanda Milán

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honor to interview Fernanda Milán, a Guatemalan native, the first transgender person to be granted asylum in Denmark. Hello Fernanda! 
Fernanda: Hi Monika! Thank you for your time and for being so patient with the delay of the interview. I hope you are fine!
Monika: The fight for your asylum in 2013 was a challenging task. Let’s go back to those times. Could you say a few words about your life and Guatemala and emigration to Denmark?
Fernanda: Well, as you say the fight for the asylum was very challenging in so many ways. As for Guatemala, it is a difficult place for a transgender woman. I would like to be more general about the issue of living there because this is the context that I happen to have shared with so many people.
It is an environment of rejection by your family circles, friends, education institutes, and workplaces. When you decide to start transition or to come out of “the closet”, you live ostracized from everything that you know because in general all the girls back there feel that they were born female, which is in contrast with the public opinion that being a trans woman is a choice.
I have decided to be an activist because of that and due to the fact that I have witnessed extreme violence against myself, my friends and the LGBT population in general. After some years I was forced to run away from my home country. I just happened to end up in Denmark, which was not the original plan. But there I was with a story in front of the Danish society and authorities.

Two shots shots of happy, one shot of sad.

Monika: You admitted that the Guatemalan police attacked and threatened you because of your transgender activism. What is the general attitude to transgender women in Guatemala?
Fernanda: As a matter of fact, that was the reason I left. As I have just mentioned, the attitude towards me was completely negative. The Church condemns our “lifestyle” as they call it, and that permeates the rest of society. As a result, we are subject to double standards, rejection and denial of opportunities.
This forces us to do things that are not well seen in the “Guatemalan Moral Code.” Then we are punished and our rights are violated for living in the context that we are force to live in. It might sound complex but it is very simple. The society is saying that we hetero-normative patriarchal practitioners have the right to a normal life, but YOU transgender people don't.
All of this boils down to the common acts of violence and racism. All activists live in constant fear. The Church and the state, which is very religion-oriented, see us sometimes (if not most of the time) as enemies. We suffer from threats, attacks, kidnappings, torture, and many other crimes for trying to change our society into a place that is civil to everyone.
Monika: However, the Danish authorities did not want to believe you …
Fernanda: Well, I honestly think that the Danish authorities are trained to prove wrong everybody who comes in seek of help. It is a more or less well-functioning system that is very jealous of its own prevalence and survival. The lack of information and experience of repression on their part makes them doubtful of our life stories. I do not blame them but it is devastating and exhausting to be an asylum seeker in this land.

Monika: During the whole process, you were assisted by the T-Refugee Project as well as the whole Danish LGBT community…
Fernanda: LGBT Denmark, T-Refugee project, many other entities in Denmark and many individual people, but also internationally, Transgender Europe and ILGA and OASIS Guatemala were key players for my case. The group of fantastic people in England who made demonstrations in front of the embassy, also in Spain.
A great number of blogs, Facebook posts and an uncountable number of people doing things that I wouldn't be able to mention in such a short time, were as much important to save my life. I will be eternally grateful to all these people. I would like to name them one by one but I do not dare because I am afraid to leave someone unmentioned.
Monika: The final asylum decision was reversed just three days before your scheduled departure on 17 September 2013. What did you feel when the whole legal battle was over? 
Fernanda: Actually the case was just reopened that day. My trip back to Guatemala was delayed for “security reasons” for another week. I was somehow compromised not to deliver that information before; now I think it is irrelevant. But on 17 September 2013, they notified me that my case was reopened due to a request of the Minister of Justice. Thanks to that, my deportation (or my voluntary return, as they would like to call it) was put on hold. I had to wait until the last days of November (I can’t believe I don't remember the exact day) when they finally agreed to give me refugee status in Denmark. That day and for about a week more I felt very happy and relieved.
After that I had to process all the feelings that the wait put me through and it was a very difficult process that lasted for one year and a half. I also had to deal with all the factors that brought me to that position. It was a very painful journey and I felt that I wouldn't make it. But I kept remembering the words that my grandmother use to tell me before she died. “There’s no dirt that you cannot clean.” And the only thing that I am sure right now is that I am a survivor and that was only a good point to start.

Fernanda was supported by many LGBT organizations and individuals.

Monika: At that time of your transition, did you have any transgender role models that you could follow?
Fernanda: Well, unfortunately not. As I have mentioned, the attitude towards transgender women back home was very negative. I couldn't access any information until I was sent away from home. Anyway, I don't feel I went through a transition. I have always felt like a female since I could remember. In my Disney period that I like to call it (between 6 and 10 probably) I started to see that anatomically I didn't match with the rest of the girls, So, I was sure that a fairy Godmother would appear to be “ fix me” with magic. I still blush when I talk about that but it was a part of my reality.
Luckily I started hormone therapy very early because I declared my identity very soon too. Away from home, I found girls like me; they shared information that they had. I felt like I grew up with the trans movement in my country and we were together from the scratch.
During my life, I have met many friends and persons who are amazing and their lives are as hard as they are admirable. And I can honestly tell you that every trans woman who is fighting for a place in this world is my role model.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Fernanda: Well, I think I came out when I was around 3 or 4 years old. It is a story that I do not remember well but the consequences were catastrophic for my infant life. My mom asked me for a Halloween who I wanted to be dressed as, and I innocently replied: “As Wonder Woman”. My father went crazy about it and beat me up badly. It was when I started to suffer from bullying not only from my family but also from schoolmates.
In a series of abuses that are uncountable, one day I was sent out from my Drama School because the principal thought that being myself was aggressive towards the alumni of the institution. Parents were concerned, complaints were made, as far as he told me. So I cannot tell what was more difficult, so many unfortunate things that after so many years I have been able to overcome finally.
A real fashionista.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in Danish society?
Fernanda: I think it does not differ as much as the situation in the other countries of the world. The advantage here is the non-violent culture and welfare. Though there are some episodes of harassment and attacks, I guess that they happen more often than the whole society can imagine. I was hearing of an incident during the pride last weekend. Namely, a trans woman was almost killed with a hammer last summer.
But there are also more success stories that I have never seen in Latin America. Still, trans women live marginalized in what I think is a combination of lack of interest on both parts, state and community. I should clarify that I am not an expert on the issue because I have been concentrating more on my well-being than being involved in the general situation. So I can just say what my perception is, based on a very limited knowledge of Danish society.
Monika: Could transgenderism be the new frontier for human rights?
Fernanda: I think that any cause can be the new frontier when we talk about human rights because it is all about the human kind. We are all only that. Human beings. But what I believe firmly in, is alliances.
I think also, that feminism and racism are so close to our problems that in supporting this or any other cause we would make a step forward. If any sector of society gives a step forward we all do.
We are sometimes over-victimized and it is a sad reality that we have to deal with on a daily basis but I would be careful not to diminish or overlook other people’s sufferings and struggles because together we are stronger. And we are all fighting against a big monster that has led us to the place where we are now. Everything is a mess and there are people dying every day and everywhere because of injustice and phobias.
I am learning to live with that and choose my battles, but it is a heartbreaking process. But, at the end of the day, I think transgender people are moving forward slowly, and that is the most important thing.
Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Fernanda: I would start answering that question, by telling you that I do not differentiate between trans women and the rest of the female kind. We are all women; the only difference is that some need reassignment treatments and others reproductive ones. And we can see that more and more women make a difference in their domestic politics. As in the case of Cuba, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, and the first female Prime Minister in Denmark just to mention some of them.
Even though there are some positive examples, it is not yet enough. We need to get involved and support each other to reach the decision-making positions. I have read some statistics that the majority of those who vote for female leaders are not women. And I understand the complexity of the situation but the support starts there. We need to make a front against patriarchy in the whole sense. From the leadership, going through the media image of women, to the way that we relate to each other.

Knitting something fashionable.

Men are also included in this equation because more and more of them can see the potential in having equality. Our male-oriented societies are also hard on them, even though we are the ones who suffer more in the end. Nevertheless, the movement must be inclusive.
Personally, I am involved in some activities on gender issues, human trafficking, and violence against trans women. I have had to put my guard a little down in the name of recovery but I am proudly involved in some fantastic projects, trying to keep a low profile, and mostly when I am asked to. But “none of us will be free till the last of us finish suffering.” So I think it is just a human obligation to be involved as much as you can.


All the photos: courtesy of Fernanda Milán.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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