"Trans people aren’t just sex workers": LGBT activist Ivana Fred on Puerto Rico’s diverse trans community
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"Trans people aren’t just sex workers": LGBT activist Ivana Fred on Puerto Rico’s diverse trans community

When the documentary “Mala Mala” opens at New York City’s IFC Center on July 1, moviegoer Ivana Fred will see a familiar face on the screen: her own.

Fred is one of nine key protagonists in “Mala Mala,” which explores the diversity and dilemmas of Puerto Rico’s transsexual and transgender communities. She is also the island’s leading trans activist, having spent the past decade working both within the trans community, doing public health and education work, and in the halls of Puerto Rico’s Congress, where she has fought to ensure that Boricua trans individuals receive the same rights and protections of the law that are extended to any other member of society.

We spoke with Fred by phone about the documentary, as well as her work and the history and current state of trans rights in Puerto Rico.

Latin Correspondent:
In “Mala Mala,” you’re described as Puerto Rico’s leading trans activist. How did you get involved in activism and how has your leadership role evolved since then?

Ivana Fred:
I began working in community health 10 years ago, offering HIV education to the LGBT community here in Puerto Rico. Education has been an important part of my work, and it still is. I enjoy activism in all of its forms, including talking to politicians and advocating for policy change.

Latin Correspondent:
How has the government’s attitude toward the trans community evolved over the past decade?

Ivana Fred:
Well, we have to be honest: it has not always been positive. That being said, the government has evolved significantly. One of our most visible and vocal supporters has been the mayor of San Juan [In the documentary, the mayor, Carmen Yulín, is shown speaking at a LGBT rally on the steps of the Puerto Rican Capitol building]. For the most part, even politicians who aren’t pro-LGBT don’t actively discriminate. The current governor had a choice: join in [in supporting people who identify as LGBT] or not say anything negative. This was not the case in years past, so things have evolved.

Latin Correspondent:
The same can’t be said for the church, though, right?

Ivana Fred:
Right. The [Catholic Church] has not followed suit. They use the word of God in a way that is very sad.

Latin Correspondent:
How about families? In Puerto Rico, as in most of Latin America, family ties tend to be quite strong, but we don’t see family members in “Mala Mala.” Is family acceptance a significant issue for Puerto Ricans who are trans?

Ivana Fred:
That’s the thing about making a film: you shoot and shoot and shoot and then cut and cut and cut. Many of the people who were featured in the film have the support of their families. My mother, for instance, was interviewed for the film. It’s just that they [filmmakers Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles] decided to focus on other things. In general, though, I think that the rejection of trans people by their family members has decreased. There are still people who reject their LGBT family members, of course, but it’s less. And I see more and more mothers, for example, come to march in the LGBT parade and support their sons and daughters. But it is true that trans people remain the most stigmatized here.

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A promotional poster for “Mala Mala,” featuring Ivana Fred. Photo: Mala Mala Facebook page

Latin Correspondent:
One of the moving moments of the documentary is when you and several other activists appear before Congress to insist that trans rights are basic human rights, and that all trans people have a right to dignified employment. Do you think that your advocacy in this area has been successful?

Ivana Fred:
Well, it’s still the case that many trans people remain involved in sex work, but I do think that there are more opportunities [for other types of work]. The economic crisis and high unemployment rate do, however, have a disproportionate effect on our community.

Latin Correspondent:
What is the state of public health and healthcare for trans people in Puerto Rico right now? One of the heartbreaking stories in the film is that of Paxx, a biological female who expresses deep frustration about the inability to access testosterone and surgical interventions for women who want to transition. Can reassignment surgeries be performed on the island? Is anyone performing these surgeries?

Ivana Fred:
Right now, if you live in Puerto Rico and you want sex reassignment surgery, you have to go abroad; there are no legal sex change surgeries here [Fred herself went to Ecuador for surgery, as she explains in the documentary]. Let’s just say that health officials here are influenced by “special interests.”

Latin Correspondent:
What are the biggest challenges for the trans community in Puerto Rico right now?

Ivana Fred:
Health care is the biggest challenge. For the trans community, receiving dignified health care is a huge issue. The Butterflies Trans Foundation [of which Fred is a member] advocates for dignified health services and insists that health care isn’t a whim, but a necessity.

Latin Correspondent:
Here on the U.S. mainland, the conversation about trans rights is increasingly opening up to include trans children and teens. Are you seeing that in Puerto Rico as well?

Ivana Fred:
Yes, we’re seeing more trans children. The LGBTT Community Center of Puerto Rico [Centro Comunitario LGBTT de Puerto Rico, in Spanish] offers services to these children and their parents.

Latin Correspondent:
Coming back to the film, did “Mala Mala” show in Puerto Rico?

Ivana Fred:
It did; it showed at Cinemetro and was received very well. For me, I feel tremendous pride about this film. I never thought it would go around the world, but here it is, showing in other countries. What I feel really proud about is how diverse it is; it shows different lives of people who identify as trans: people who are older, those who are younger; those who are sex workers and those who own their own businesses. I believe the film has had an educational function in Puerto Rico. It shows that trans people aren’t just sex workers. It shows how much diversity there is within the trans community.

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