“Hay que tener una fortaleza fuerte:” Catholic Coloniality, Sexual Terror, and Trans Sobrevivencia in the Dominican Republic

by Ana-Maurine Lara


Dominican transgender persons’ lives, deaths, and struggles are marked by on-going practices of sexual terror arising from the expectations of a Catholic colonial morality. For trans persons, sexual terror is experienced in the intimate spaces of family and in the public spaces of school and the street, generating a specific ontology requiring the transcendence of biblical conceptions of manhood/womanhood. Faced with the impossibility of being or belonging, the ontological violence that trans persons experience builds on the imagination of murder and death as the only legitimate future for those who fail to perform biblical masculinity or femininity. Based on ethnographic interviews with Dominican trans activists, this article presents key insights into how they “enter into being” their experiences of family, school, work, and daily life. It also discusses the concept of sobrevivencia as a key ontology and strategy in Dominican trans people’s lives and struggles.

Key words: transsexual, Dominican Republic, sexual terror, Catholic coloniality, sobrevivencia


Las vidas, muertes y luchas de las personas trans en la República Dominicana están marcadas por el terror sexual, cuyos efectos surgen a base de las expectativas de una moralidad formada por la colonialidad católica. Para las personas trans, el terror sexual se experimenta en los espacios íntimos de la familia, al igual que en los espacios públicos, incluyendo en las escuelas y las calles. Esto genera una ontología específica a la experiencia trans, lo cual requiere una transcendencia del “ser hombre” y del “ser mujer” bíblico. Confrontados por la imposibilidad de ser o de pertenecer, la violencia ontológica que las personas trans experimentan se basa en imaginarse su asesinato o muerte como el único futuro legítimo para los que no pueden realizar una masculinidad o femininidad bíblica. Basándome en una serie de entrevistas etnográficas, este artículo presenta ideas claves de cómo los activistas trans “llegan a ser” a través de sus experiencias familiares, en la escuela, en el trabajo y en la vida cotidiana. También presenta el concepto de sobrevivencia como una ontología y estrategia clave en las vidas y luchas de las personas trans dominicanas.

Palabras clave: transsexual, República Domincana, terror sexual, colonialidad católica, sobrevivencia

This article presents the perspectives and experiences of ten Dominican trans activists from the group TRANSSA (Trans Siempre Amigas: Organización de Transexuales, Travestis y Transgéneros (TRANS) de la República Dominicana) in the Dominican Republic collected through in-depth interviews in 2013. I had met several of the activists at human rights forums, protests, and other sites of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activity such as parks, clubs, the LGBT Caravana del Orgullo, and the LGBT film festival during my research period from 2010–2013. The interviews focused most explicitly on their personal experiences as Dominicans, as trans persons, and as activists within the LGBT movement.[1] I also asked pointed questions about violence, protest, and religion. Their responses were richly layered, passionate, and adamant. Their overall responses signaled to me that Dominican trans persons experience modes of violence that are related to, but different from, the violence experienced by Dominican gay and lesbian activists.[2] This article presents some of the responses collected from trans activists, positing that a) the boundaries of Catholic coloniality and the institutionalization of biblical manhood and womanhood are challenged by continual trans existence; b) the sexual terror implicit within Catholic coloniality is most explicitly played out against gender non-conforming people in both intimate and public spheres; and c) trans sobrevivencia is a profound response to this sexual terror.

When in 1566 Bartolomé de las Casas wrote, “[there are those men who] wear the apparel of women [who] also labor alongside them and perform feminine tasks. The others in the town adore and revere these effeminate men,” he was deploring indigenous gender and sexual ways of being and using this as a justification for the evangelization of the indios.[3] However, his account also reveals the extant attitudes already present within indigenous island society, attitudes that enabled the full expression of “men” who donned the apparel of “women” performing “feminine” tasks. While a Spaniard’s etic account of indigenous experience cannot completely reveal the contours and layers of how gender was fully lived, or the boundaries that made particular kinds of genders acceptable versus unacceptable, what this passage does reveal is the fact of its existence. All the trans interviewees I spoke with were adamant in assuring me that they are “proud” to be trans; that is, they are proud to exist. When asked what being trans meant for him, Junior[4] responded:

God gave me many things, and one of the things he gave me was to be transvesti. Because I can experiment with this male body, changing it in a matter of minutes – like creation itself, like a work of art. To see a body that is so rigid, so strong, so masculine become something so feminine. To play with makeup, heels, wigs, the way I dress and walk. These are things in which you condition yourself. At first it looks like a game, but it’s a way of being because you have to not only be in the role of being a woman, you have to feel that you are a woman. But when you are in the world as a man, it is not the same. The patterns change. Transvestism for me is a work of art. It is not about a definition. I can have double roles: I can be as much of a man as a woman at the same time.

Paloma, in turn, responded:

When I realized and discovered that I am trans, it is because I felt an attraction to those of my same sex at the same time that I started to explore my body. I liked girl’s toys and accessories. I felt something different. I am transgender because I began to change, physically. I wax my eyebrows. I have my ears pierced. I do more feminine things than masculine, and I use clothes with more fine details. I like all things feminine and I feel feminine physically and spiritually.

Junior positions himself as a transvestite, someone who lives in the world as a man, but enters the “trans world” (el mundo trans) through a particular kind of self-fashioning (Allen 2011) that is as much about crafting a feminine self as it is about re-shaping the basis of the self. Paloma sees herself as transgender because of the process of self-realization and discovery that occurred through her affective development, a sense of “feeling attraction” to someone such as herself that accompanied the physical changes she experienced as an adolescent. That something different is ambiguous: it could signal a particular kind of homo-eroticism, if we are to think of Paloma as a young man or boy; but because it is accompanied with an equal attraction to feminine things, it shifts Paloma’s sense of being from being “gay” to being “trans” – to transcending the implicit rules of homoerotic and homosexual being into a different ontology.

It was Monday afternoon. I was in the offices of the national trans advocacy organization in Santo Domingo, interviewing trans activists, including Shakira – whose words form the title of this article. I had asked her how it is for her as a trans person in the Dominican Republic. In response, she smiled the acquiescent smile of an all-knowing aunt, her right hand in a fist, indicating gathered strength, as she leaned slightly forward to utter the words “Hay que tener una fortaleza fuerte.” Her statement translates as “You have to have a strong strength,” and it struck me not only because of how Shakira said it to me –with a quiet conviction and firmness– but also because of the resilience and determination it implies.

As we sat in a small meeting room overlooking the busy street, one of the other trans activists poked their head in through the door, interrupting us with only a murmur. Shakira stopped mid-sentence to listen. She nodded and turned back to me.

“We just found out that one of our compañeras was murdered this weekend.”

I paused, gauging whether or not it was appropriate to continue.

“Do you need to go?” I asked.

“No, let’s continue. Let’s finish.”

“Was she a friend of yours?”

“We knew each other, but [sigh] these things happen.”

Shakira’s was the first in a series of interviews. That afternoon, and the days following, none of the activists cried or expressed sadness. One activist spoke to me under her breath, “You have to know how to take care of yourself.” The director of the trans organization took the occasion to speak to me about the high tally of trans murders, with the formality of recounting a yearly report. Throughout the week, as I returned to the space to continue interviews and to attend meetings, I heard different narrations of the murder.

“They followed her home and murdered her there. They say she knew the guy.”

“No one is saying anything because she, well – you know: she comes from a family.”

“She leaned into the guy’s car and he shot her point blank.”

“She was working, and she got in the guy’s car, and then he shot her.”

When I asked if they were going to memorialize her, one of the activists told me, “Maybe. Her family doesn’t want anybody to know. And, well, I’m not sure how many people here really knew her. But, we always try to do something when they murder one of our girls.” The “murdering of our girls” was a frequent occurrence –something I know from what activists have told me, but also from my own observations– and there was a palpable sense of frustration about how the victim’s family was making the circumstances of the murder invisible – nobody could publicly bring attention to the case because the family was powerful enough to cause problems for the organization should the victim’s name, gender or type of work be revealed. Because the compañera was from either a wealthy or politically visible family (implied in the expression: “she comes from a family”), her death marks various registers of silencing. First, the family would want to silence the fact that their child was trans; second, that their child was a sex worker; and third, that their child was killed in the act of trans sex work. The death, in this case, would be marked as anonymously and silently as possible, so as to not draw attention to the circumstances of the person’s death – or life.

Several interviewees informed me that as a sex worker, the compañera’s death brought judgment both from her family and the trans community, which has been seeking claims to respectability as one of its political tools in the fight for trans human rights. Within the trans community, the trans activist Michelle pointed out that there is significant discrimination against those chicas who choose sex work as a primary means of sustenance, even though all of those interviewed spoke about how sex work is often “the only option.” The narration of this trans murder by trans activists told me a great deal about their social anxieties more broadly. The murder of one of their compañeras was a reminder of the fragility of their own lives, and the undignified ways in which trans persons may die. It also increased the urgency of focusing on the struggle for trans human rights and dignity. What could be sorrow was channeled into survival, and into the impetus necessary to continue in their struggle as activists. One interviewee, Chantal, with turned-down eyes, expressed the following:

There is a lot of mental, physical and verbal discrimination. Killing one of us is like killing a cigüita (a palmchat [a type of small bird]). I’ll tell you, they even killed one of my compañeras. They killed her because the damn jerk thought my compañera was a woman and when she got in the car –they didn’t even do anything– he just killed her. Just because she got in the car and he thought she was a woman. She got into the car and he shot her and threw her out like she was a bag of garbage, like something that you throw from the side of your car on the highway, and then he ran away.

The constant repetition of “she got in the car” served to emphasize the almost quotidian nature of murder as yet another specter haunting the lives of trans persons. Unlike other people I spoke to, who referenced the need for trans sex workers to take care of themselves –who expressed a sense of control over their own lives and the circumstances of their lives– for Chantal, this sense of control was diminished by the circumstances of her compañera’s murder. “They didn’t even do anything,” she said, not because murder would have been excused had her compañera done something (i.e. engaged in a sexual act or exchange), but rather, because the “not doing” implied that the murder was provoked as a result of being trans.

For Chantal, her compañera’s murder was an insult that highlights the ubiquity of transphobic violence. When she states that “they didn’t even do anything” and “just because she got in the car,” Chantal is pointing to her compañera’s innocence. Trans collective fragility and innocence –as human beings, but also as trans persons– was contained within Chantal’s use of the metaphor of the cigüita – a small bird known for its melodic birdsong. The cigüita is small, delicate, rare. This metaphor is not incidental. The cigua palmera is also the national Dominican bird. Chantal’s use of the cigüita as a metaphor was meant to not only mark trans fragility, but also, trans life and national belonging.

The anxiety generated by the instance of her compañera’s death was directly expressed by Chantal, but in other cases, it reared its head when we explicitly discussed discrimination and violence against trans persons in the Dominican Republic. What constitutes exceptional forms of violence for many non-trans people exists as everyday forms of violence for trans ones.[5] These everyday forms of violence shape the struggle and movement of trans people throughout Dominican society. When asked if they experienced discrimination, the trans activists I interviewed generally began by telling their story in chronological order, a mode of oral history. They often started with their childhood. In response to the question “How was it for you to grow up in your family?” they detailed the violence experienced in their homes. The majority described experiencing violence from the earliest part of their lives, beginning with their families:

Jeisha: When my dad found me [wearing women’s clothes], he would spank me, he would slap me. I would be punished and it was a strong punishment.

 Chantal: At first they would hit me [for not acting like a boy], and they would lock me inside my room. I would stay locked in for several hours. When I was a child.

Junior: In the beginning [after I entered the life], they rejected me. They didn’t want to know anything about me. They would treat me like a contagious disease, like a cold, or the black sheep of the family.

Shakira: [When I was 14] my mother told me to leave the house. It lasted three months and then she slowly accepted me. I had to confront my family for being transvesti, for being gay, for being trans. One has to confront one’s family much as we do the population in general.

The kind of body policing allowable within the rubric of parental upbringing is one enactment of the hegemonic social forces that give definition to gender and sexuality as a biblical binary in which men and women exist as separate natural categories of being with strict boundaries defining behavior, relationship, dress, and identity. These notions of biblical manhood and womanhood that are so central to Catholic coloniality are largely maintained within the country’s political and social fabric. Since the signing of the 1954 Concordat between the Dominican government and the Vatican, the local Catholic church sets the public discourse around civil rights as well as legislative priorities through a range of mechanisms, including direct participation of Church representatives in government legislative processes, the enforcement of mandatory Catholic education in public schools, and the direct and indirect management of media reporting by church officials and conservative Catholic elites. Through this all, reproductive rights and homosexuality are the touchstones against which upright moral nationalism is measured. The familial experiences of violence among trans persons may also result from the extension of specific Catholic colonial modes of biological hegemony that privilege the hyper-heterosexual male, such as those that emerged from the masculinist authoritarian state elaborated during the Trujillato (the 31-year regime under Rafael Leónidas Trujillo that lasted from 1930 until his assassination in 1961).[6] As noted by numerous researchers such as Horn, Krohn-Hansen, and Rodríguez, gender regulation in Dominican public discourse has been a key element in the construction of Dominican national belonging. In particular, the relationship between sexuality and an unquestionable masculinity “define identity, individuality, and what is understood as womanhood and manhood” (Rodríguez, 54). Maja Horn effectively theorizes how particular modes of virile masculinities were established through the Trujillato and subsequently through Joaquín Balaguer’s regime, and how they continue to permeate contemporary political and social relationships, neutralizing hierarchical relationships between political elites and popular classes through masculinist discourses. Even the specific masculinist ideologies that emerged during the Trujillato were very much informed by a colonial Catholic concept of acceptable gender and sexuality.[7]

LGBT activists see this clearly, and carry out their protests accordingly. Unlike in most countries in the Western hemisphere, where protests are carried out before secular governmental offices, the sites of trans protests (and LGBT protest more generally) are often in front of churches, cathedrals, and the spaces between the Colonial City’s monasteries and hallowed pews. When asked about protests, trans activists respond that their priorities include not only seeking the right to an identity (being able to legally change their names and gender identities), but also confronting the cardinal and the religious-state establishment, an establishment they articulate as having colonial roots founded in the extermination of indigenous peoples and the rise of slavery. When they speak of sexual freedom, they include a critique of their formal education, one that is proscribed by Catholic moral boundaries.

What the experiences of trans activists highlight are the ways in which ideas of being good Catholics, good Christians and patriotic Dominicans translate into experiences of gender-based policing in intimate spaces. A trans child who fails to exercise an appropriate masculine role brings up questions about a family’s morality and their patriotic duty. According to the trans activists –in particular Paloma, Shakira, and Dumont– a child who failed to act according to a prescribed biblical gender expectation was punished at home for being “diabolical,” “a bad child,” “a spoiled fruit,” and for shaming the family.

In addition to punishment at home, discipline and disciplinary ridicule was also carried out by peers and teachers in schools. School was an early site of violence and gender policing, most explicitly, through the use of jest and exclusion by peers or through the attention brought to students’ differences by teachers:

Chantal: In elementary school the students would laugh at me, they would make fun of me, but there was no physical aggression. They wouldn’t hit me, but they made fun of me, they talked. I felt it in adolescence, too.

Paloma: I had to make an effort to be one of the guys, to go to school in the uniform –pants, shirt, shoes, short hair– to avoid problems. I felt discrimination and that’s why I isolated myself. I was always to one side, by myself. I wouldn’t hang out with anybody. The school would call my family to tell them I had psychological problems. I isolated myself out of fear, out of the fear that the boys would not let me become part of their group.

Tania: The school was only boys. Imagine that. In being different, in having different behaviors – as a little boy I had a lot of mannerisms. I had to try to be rigid when I walked. I had to think twice before moving a hand, so that I wouldn’t be discovered. Since we were all boys, I didn’t want to be the butt of jokes.

Dumont: As a boy, I had no idea. They would call me Vikiana and I would dance like her. Later, as an adolescent, the discrimination was more acute. I hid what I am and tried to imitate the boys and not be pointed out as different.

 Shakira: I was scared to go to school. The boys would threaten me along the way. I had to hide. I was scared of the professor who always punished me. He would call me mariconcito (little faggot), and hit my head. The boys didn’t respect me. The teacher, who was the authority, made fun of me and mistreated me.

Trans persons are marked by an upbringing characterized by gender suppression: opting to exercise a bodily control, measured bodily gestures, restraint, and constraints in order to attempt embodying colonial Catholic ideas about manhood and masculinity. Literally silencing themselves, and metaphorically binding the movements of their hands and hips, trans persons continuously fail at the act of normative gender performance, only to reveal their true nature at great cost. Judith Butler points out that “intelligible genders are those which in some sense institute and maintain relations of coherence and continuity among sex, gender, sexual practice, and desire” (23). In this sense, trans persons disrupt, from an early moment in their lives, the potential for the colonial Catholic continuity between biblical men, Catholic men, heterosexual Catholic men, and procreating biblical Catholic men.

The impossibility of being for gender non-conforming gays and trans persons at home and at school generates a series of choices in which survival is pitted against belonging. As Junior put it: “I love being within my family, to spend time with my family. But when I had to decide between my life or my family, I decided on my life. They were enslaving me to their desires and did not allow for mine. I had to deny myself many things.”

Faced with the impossibility of being or belonging, the gender suppression that trans persons experience is a secondary form of violence that builds on the imagination of murder and death as the only legitimate future for those who fail to perform masculinity. This impossibility of being is a mode of sexual terror that relates to ontology. Trans persons –in their courage and protest– “enter into being” trans rather than accept death. Up until this moment of acquiescence, trans persons often a) actively hide their bodily dispositions and/or practices from their families and peers until reaching an age of economic independence; b) leave their homes and school at an early age; c) sustain themselves through sex work; d) practice sex work until they develop relationships and enter spaces where they can assert their visible presence through bodily dispositions, practices, and associations; e) gain the strength necessary to do so in general society, often with varying social and economic consequences. When asked about how they came to accept themselves as trans persons despite how their families treated them, interviewees responded:

Shakira: I had to confront my family because I am transvesti, because I am gay, because I am trans. One has to confront their family, like society in general. At 14 years old, I decided not to go back to school, ever. I learned cosmetology, how to work in a kitchen – and because of limitations [not being able to get work because of my trans presentation] I was a sex worker between the ages of 17 and 28.

Tania: I always put on makeup at friends’ houses. It was a double life. At home, or on the street, I was a boy. But at the disco and at the gay bar, I was a woman. My friends were the only ones who knew me as a woman; at home they didn’t know me like that.

 Paloma: I am not going to give up on life. I find a way to maintain myself and to keep studying. That’s why I started doing sex work, where I have to expose myself to danger, to hate crimes, to police violence and violence from clients; a lot of things that one is aware of but because of fear, does not speak of.

Dumont: To reinsert myself into society, I had to stop dressing that way [with long hair, women’s clothes, make up and long nails]. I don’t dress hyper masculine, but I do have my hair short.

These narratives are examples of what trans individuals term “sobrevivencia.Sobrevivencia is a complex concept that encompasses various layers of meaning. To speak of it in English requires touching upon multiple references and translations. By moving out of binary gender scripts into a trans way of being, Dominican trans persons enter into the ontology of sobrevivencia. Directly defined, sobrevivencia is 1) to live after the death of another or to live after an event of great danger; 2) to overcome a test, or difficult situation.[8] Sobrevivencia as it is used by trans individuals also includes the concept of supervivencia, the ability to live with few means and in adverse conditions,[9] and pervivencia, to keep on living despite the difficulties.[10] Sobrevivencia is explicitly about living after, living above, over, and through difficult circumstances, death or events of great danger. It is the practice of survival, exposing oneself to danger, to the “things that one is aware of, but because of fear, does not speak of,” as stated by Paloma. It is about one’s ability to “keep on keeping on,” as it is better known in African-American Vernacular English, in which the “keeping on” is the praxis of living as oneself, without literal or metaphoric restraints – in this case, in relationship to the full expression of the gender non-conforming body. It is not about entering a gaytopia, or transtopia –as the case may be– but rather, being able to make active choices about maintaining oneself, confronting one’s family (truth-telling), or making strategic choices about self-presentation. To become a full member of society is not to be above it, but to be of it. Sobrevivencia produces the possibility of understanding trans persons’ renunciations of sexual terror, in this case, the life beyond and in rejection of inevitable violent death as an ongoing commitment to personal autonomy that gains its value and strength from being a respected member of one’s larger society. Within trans lives and struggles are the seeds of a bound collective memory in which trans lives are not only possible but celebrated because of a continued and un-suppressible presence.

Several of the activists stated that “if they were reborn,” they would want to be reborn as trans, and that while struggles with their families were difficult, they managed to transform these relationships to their best advantage. Despite the violence some trans activists grew up with, their families are still an important aspect of who they understand themselves to be. Thalia, who has a national LGBT following and is famous in the colmado (corner store) performance circuits, shared a family narrative that challenges a unidimensional reading of family and belonging:

In the beginning, my mother knew I was a little rarito (strange). And I began to perform. She didn’t want me to dress as a woman when I was around the house, but it was okay if I was at a friend’s house. I could come back home in the mornings, dressed up, because the neighbors weren’t awake. Until I went to a trans friend’s house and I was amazed because she dressed as a woman all of the time and her family lived right next to her. I wanted to be like that. I didn’t want to hide from my family. [One day] I waited until my mother was downstairs drinking a beer with some friends, and I put make-up on. I stood by the window thinking, do I go down or not? Until I went down. When she saw me, she was surprised. And I said to her, “Look beautiful, prepare yourself because I am going to dress like this.” I left and came back later and she didn’t say anything to me. So then I decided to put in hair extensions –the very next day– and I started using make-up from that day forward. I was finishing high school then. I would help my mother clean the house, and by six a.m. I was ready: with make-up and all. That performance with my mother was symbolic, because she never scolded me or anything. I lived with my mother, my two sisters and my grandmother and there were never any problems.

Thalia’s narrative locates family as a site for the small drama of confrontación, an embodied assertion, which in turn enables confrontación with larger society. If Thalia was the only one who had found acceptance from her family, I would perhaps claim that she is exceptional. However, all but two of the trans activists interviewed live with a family member. And several of them made references to other trans friends who live with family. Despite the initial ruptures and experiences of violence within their own families, the majority of the interviewees are deeply embedded within their families’ lives, and their families –usually women (sisters, mothers, aunts) or nephews and/or nieces– play a continuing role in their self-making and being once they have reached adulthood and self-acceptance. Despite the sexual terror many of them grew up with, the family becomes a site of self-actualization, of a small drama of confrontación, which then enables confrontación with larger society.

Emerging from the space of family and school, trans activists also described violence in their lives as discriminación, manifested as physical and verbal violence. When asked, all of the activists responded that they had experienced discriminación. For the majority, this included being yelled at, or having objects (eggs, oranges, trash) thrown at them while on the streets, both in the context of their daily lives and during sex work.

 Michelle: Yes, I have experienced violence. I have been discriminated against. One is not respected. I am yelled at. I have been physically and verbally assaulted. I have had objects thrown at me, and that is a form of psychic and mental assault. It could happen moving through the street. They look at you, they assault you, they yell at you.

Jeisha: A lot of discriminación. A lot of violence. In the street they shout at me, maricón. Sometimes when I am walking the street, or working.

Thalia: We are very discriminated against. Girls have told me how standing on the street corner, PAH! – someone has thrown a cup or a rock at them.

Junior: Sometimes, they bring out sticks with which to hit me, and they want to hit me and sometimes I ended up yelling and fighting back (verbally). People laugh. In this country, you fall in a hole and people laugh, so imagine when there is a man hitting a gay. That’s the day’s amusement.

All of those interviewed explained that they feared seeking medical services at hospitals because of the potential for discrimination in the form of denied services, ridicule, and objectification (being made an object of spectacle).[11] I also knew, from conversations with LGBT human rights lawyers, that one of the trans women who had died in 2011, died because she was left to bleed to death in the hospital emergency room.[12] The majority of those interviewed were unable to gain employment; either because they did not pass, or because their identity records did not match their gender presentation, or because of early educational experiences in which they were unable to complete their schooling. In a country with 35% of the population in the informal employment sector, trans persons are further limited by their inability to conform to gender norms. All but one of the activists interviewed is or has been a sex worker, regardless of education level or degrees of “passing” for one or either gender. As Freddy states, “I am not gay, I’m trans. It’s that. I get dressed up at night and go out into the street to do sex work. I survive, even though I don’t have formal employment. I take care of myself.”

For trans sex workers, the majority of the work occurs within the geography of the capital city itself: at the edges of the colonial zone, under the city’s by-ways, and at the edges of the poorest neighborhoods, along the highways out of town. Their work occurs along a similar geography to that occupied by the U.S. Marines, who instituted public health measures that corralled sex workers into particular areas of the city.[13] Their work and lives occur in the traces of Trujillo’s henchmen, who circled these neighborhoods seeking out dissidents. Their bodies exist in the shadows of the Catholic colonial violence, which pushed them onto these streets in the first place.[14]

These modes of sexual terror, of the belittling and physical punishment of sexual-gender difference in the home, at school, and on the streets, delineate how some bodies are deemed more expendable and accessible to violation than others. They also call attention to the values and attitudes in Dominican society that generate a misrecognition of a trans person as a human being and a legitimate member of society. Confrontación, the act of facing one’s own and others’ discomfort, is a necessary aspect of sobrevivencia in the context of this ongoing sexual terror.

Living along these traces, within these shadows, corralled by century-old health codes, their gender non-conforming bodies hyper-visible against the deserted nighttime landscapes, trans sex workers, activists, and entertainers remind us “that the earth is also skin and that a [trans person] can legitimately take possession of a street, or an entire city, albeit on different terms than we may be familiar with” (McKittrick, ix). The potential of death lingers in the night air, behind every car door. The policing of trans bodies is another chapter in the legacy of U.S. Marine abuses and Dominican secret state agent scare tactics. In order to explore how this comes together through the violence and experiences of trans persons, I turn to an anecdote shared by Dumont:

Being a trans person, walking through the street at night to take a carro público or a taxi, they would load you into their cars for nothing – to round you up. When that would happen to me, I knew that if you have your cédula [national identity card] they can’t arrest you because they could easily say they were taking you in for being undocumented. Instead I would fight and I would tell the police they had to let me go. But, if I was with a compañero, to intimidate him they would say to him, “You come with us, not you [meaning me].” I would get in the middle and say, “No. You aren’t taking either of us in. There are other people here. You have to take everyone on this street if you are taking us in.”

For Dumont, there was nothing exceptional about getting picked up by police. In fact, it was so commonplace that they knew how to defend their self. As a person with a cédula,[15] they also had the tools necessary to defend their citizen rights, despite the fact that the context of defense was already a violent, unjust circumstance. Their ability to use deflection tactics also came out of an understanding that if they drew attention to the police officers’ actions in a voice loud enough to draw attention to the scene, the likelihood of something happening was greatly lessened.

For the trans activists I spoke to, having “strong strength” is about a refusal to disappear in the face of on-going social, political and economic violence. It is also about an insistence on creating a defined individual and collective presence in the struggle for trans sobrevivencia and human dignity. This strength, culled and developed from childhood on, is exhibited through small and large acts including using makeup, or dressing up every day in ways unexpected for men; taking on women’s names; confronting family; confronting police; taking care of themselves through sex work and/or other forms of labor; documenting their experiences of violence; memorializing each other; picking up sticks; singing; making family; going on television; as well as collectively organizing through direct action protests and through organization-based advocacy work. Like Chantal’s metaphor of the cigüita and Shakira’s firm fist, Dominican trans activists’ strong-strength is both gentle and mighty.


[1] Throughout this article, “trans persons” and “LGBT movement” replace the local Dominican movement actors’ emic use of the terms “Trans” as a third gender identification, and the identification of the movement as the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans movement. This was done to maintain consistency in English language usage, and without intention to impose etic US-based understandings of identity or organization on local populations.

[2] The trans organization that I worked with, and that was most prominent at the time of this writing, was formed out of the national Men who have Sex with Men (MSM) HIV service base, and focused on the needs and rights of trans persons on the female spectrum.

[3] See Garza Carvajal (2010), Schwaller (2011), and Gruzinski (2011), for further discussion about the ways in which European clergy generated theological and colonial policies for the management of indios, in particular for their conversion, confession, and the re-shaping of their gender and sexual practices. See Garza Carvajal (70) for a full discussion of this citation.

[4] All trans activists interviewed expressed their wish to have their public names used. All names are used with consent.

[5] Deborah Thomas (2011) articulates how the particular modes of violence that structure Jamaican society and our discursive understandings of Jamaica are deeply linked to historical colonial structures. In this way, Thomas’s theorization of violence – exceptional, spectacular, and the everyday – is useful for thinking through the ways in which Dominican trans activists become the objects of everyday violence, how their deaths are deemed both expected and spectacular, and how their negotiation of Catholic coloniality re-sets registers of exceptionality.

[6] See Horn (2014, 9-49) for a detailed analysis of the ways in which the Trujillato mobilized particular modes of ethno-national hyperbolic masculinity.

[7] See the works of Balaguer (1983) and Jiménez Polanco (2004) for explanation of how Dominican masculinist ideologies were intimately linked to Catholic hispanidad.

[8] Diccionario de la Real Academia Española, 2014. Accessed June 20, 2015. http://www.rae.es/obras-academicas/diccionarios/diccionario-de-la-lengua-espanola.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] As I was completing this manuscript, a well-known trans activist died due to medical negligence. See TRANSSA, 8 January 2014.

[12] Personal conversation with lawyers from IURA, June 2011.

[13] See Madera (2012) for an in-depth discussion about designated sex work zones during the US occupation.

[14] See de Moya.

[15] Since September 2013, when the Dominican Tribunal Courts approved the denationalization of persons with “irregular” migration statuses, TRANSSA has taken a public stance in solidarity with Dominicans of Haitian descent along the lines of a right to identity. Dominican trans persons of Haitian descent are at a particular disadvantage, as they are not only discriminated against for lacking documents, but also for “irregular” gender identities. See the video presentation “Foro: La Situación de las personas LGBTI Afro-descendientes en América Latina y El Caribe.” https://youtu.be/UFag0SnXvmk.


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TRANSSA. “La Comunidad Trans Dominicana está de Luto tras el Fallecimiento de la Activista Paloma Sody.” TRANSSA Blog, 8 January 2014. Web. 9 January 2014.

Ana-Maurine Lara is a national award-winning author of fiction and poetry. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Oregon. Currently she is hard at work on the book Bodies and Souls: Sexual Terror in God’s New World.