Honduras: a glimmer of justice for the LGBTQI+ community
An unprecedented ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights holding the state of Honduras accountable for the murder of a trans woman gives fresh hope to Honduras’s embattled LGBTQI+ community. LGBTQI+ people are using the moment to call for an end to the widespread abuses they experience daily and the almost total impunity that has prevailed so far. With Honduras being no exception in a region that is particularly hostile towards LGBTQI+ people, this court ruling should set a valuable precedent for Central America.
It took a long time for justice to prevail in the case of Vicky Hernández. On 26 March 2021, 12 years after the 26-year-old transgender woman, activist and sex worker was killed by Honduran security forces, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) issued a ruling holding the state of Honduras accountable for the violation of her basic rights.
On the night of 28 June 2009, a military coup was under way and a curfew was imposed. Vicky Hernández and two other trans women were on the deserted streets of the city of San Pedro Sula when they saw a police car approach them. Familiar with security force harassment and abuse, they split up and ran. While her two friends arrived home safely, Vicky never did. Her body was found the next day with a single bullet wound to the head.
Vicky’s killing looked very much like an extrajudicial execution but was not investigated as such; in fact, it was never investigated at all. The two friends who, had proper procedures been followed, could have testified in court were murdered soon afterwards. Vicky was laid to rest at the headquarters of her organisation, Colectivo Unidad Color Rosa (Colour Pink Collective), and the fellow activist who prepared her body for the funeral noticed that no autopsy had been performed. She then fled into exile, also fearing for her life.
Vicky’s death would have been just one more, indistinguishable from countless others, if it hadn’t been for the determination of a Honduran LGBTQI+ organisation, Red Lésbica Cattrachas (Cattrachas Lesbian Network). In December 2012, Cattrachas submitted a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which was soon co-sponsored by the US-based Robert Kennedy Human Rights group.
Six years later, the IACHR issued a merits report that outlined the state’s responsibility and made several recommendations. As the state of Honduras failed to respond, in April 2019 the IACHR submitted the case to the Court, highlighting the need to obtain justice and reparation – which the Court duly delivered.
Turning the tide? The significance of the IACtHR ruling
Honduras holds the dubious title of being the country with the highest murder rate of trans people in the world. According to the Honduran national human rights institution, at least 325 LGBTQI+ people were killed in the country in the decade following Vicky’s murder. Unsurprisingly, over 90 per cent of those killings went unpunished. LGBTQI+ people have been regularly victimised in many other ways, through abuse of authority, bodily injuries, illegal detentions, robbery, harassment, rape, death threats, domestic violence and assault. The life expectancy of a trans woman is Honduras is around 30 to 35 years. Little wonder that many feel forced to migrate northwards to survive.
Vicky’s case was only the sixth-ever LGBTQI+ rights case heard by the IACtHR, and the first focused on violence against a trans person. The ruling, made public on 28 June 2021, concluded that the state of Honduras had violated Vicky’s rights to life, personal integrity, equality and non-discrimination, recognition of legal personality and name, personal liberty, privacy and freedom of expression. It also found that the state had not investigated Vicky’s death with due diligence, and had therefore failed to comply with due process, judicial protection and other obligations established in the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women. The invocation of this convention, also known as the Convention of Belém Do Pará, sent a strong message: trans women are women, and are therefore protected by all legal instruments pertaining to women’s rights.
The ruling ordered the state of Honduras to investigate Vicky’s death and pay reparations to her family. Measures ordered to ensure non-repetition included the establishment of an educational scholarship for transgender persons bearing Vicky’s name, the implementation of an education, awareness-raising and training plan for the Honduran security forces, the adoption of protocols for the diagnosis, data collection, monitoring and investigation of cases of violence against LGBTQI+ people, and the establishment of a simple, expeditious, non-onerous and non-pathologising procedure to recognise gender identity in identity papers and public records.
Since trans people encounter hostility not only in Honduras but throughout the region, the IACtHR’s ruling could set an important precedent for Central America.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Indyra Mendoza, founder and general coordinator of Cattrachas Lesbian Network, spoke to us about the significance of the ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case of Vicky Hernández:
The resolution of Vicky’s case was exceptional because of the multiple intersectionalities of violence present in Vicky’s life. Vicky was a young Honduran transgender woman and human rights defender, a sex worker living with HIV, with limited economic resources, and at some point in her life, precarious employment had forced her to emigrate. Vicky’s is the first case of lethal violence against an LGBTQI+ person that occurred at the intersection of two relevant contexts: the 2009 coup d’état and the context of structural violence that LGBTQI+ people, and particularly transgender women, face in Honduras.
The case allowed the Court to reiterate standards on the right to gender identity, equality and non-discrimination, and to insist that, in contexts of historical violence, subordination and discrimination, in this case against transgender people, international commitments impose a reinforced responsibility on the state. Furthermore, through an evolutionary interpretation, the Court established that transgender women are women, and are therefore protected by the Convention of Belém Do Pará.
The ruling in Vicky’s case marks a before and after, as it establishes guarantees of non-repetition that must be turned into public policy in favour of LGBTQI+ people.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Indyra Mendoza. Read the full interview here.
The IACtHR ruling is an unprecedented step forward, but it is still just one step, which needs to be followed by many more. After all, the social structures that devalue LGBTQI+ lives, and trans people’s lives in particular, remain in place, enabling violence against them, guaranteeing impunity and perpetuating a cycle of abuse.
Some of those structures may begin to give way if the reparation and non-repetition measures ordered by the IACtHR are fully implemented, and Honduran civil society will undoubtedly strive for this. But for deep, lasting change to happen, civil society – in Honduras and elsewhere – will need to continue raising awareness of LGBTQI+ issues among all sections of society, from the security forces to the media, and from lawmakers to the general population.
Civil society will need to continue working to normalise the presence of LGBTQI+ people, and trans people in particular, in every area of social life. One source of inspiration, and idea for possible replication, is the initiative in Argentina, approved in June, to set a quota for trans people in public employment. This was a demand successfully promoted by Argentinean LGBTQI+ rights organisations.
Acceptance of the mistreatment of excluded groups usually follows from successful efforts to dehumanise those perceived as different. To counter this narrative, civil society will need to deepen its efforts to build understanding and empathy towards LGBTQI+ people, particularly trans people, thereby creating a world in which LGBTQI+ lives matter.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The state of Honduras must comply with the IACtHR ruling and implement all measures of reparation and non-repetition without delay.
All states in the region must model their policies towards LGTBQI+ people, and trans women in particular, after the IACtHR ruling.
All states that are parties to the Convention of Belém Do Pará must ensure that trans women have the same rights as women in general.