Patricio Simonetto on the trans history of Argentina

Q&A with A Body of One’s Own author Patricio Simonetto

Next week is International Transgender Day of Visibility, an opportunity to raise awareness about trans identities, and to celebrate the lives and contributions of trans people while also drawing attention to the poverty, discrimination, and violence the community faces.

As a trans history of Argentina, a country that banned medically assisted gender affirmation practices and punished trans lives, Patricio Simonetto’s new book A Body of One’s Own places the histories of trans bodies at the core of modern Argentinian history. Patricio Simonetto documents the lives of people who crossed the boundaries of gender from the early twentieth century to the present. Based on extensive archival research in public and community-based archives, this book explores the mainstream medical and media portrayals of trans or travesti people, the state policing of gender embodiment, the experiences of those transgressing the boundaries of gender, and the development of homemade technologies from prosthetics to the self-injection of silicone. A Body of One’s Own explores how trans activists’ challenges to the exclusionary effects of Argentina’s legal, cultural, social, and political cisgender order led to the passage of the Gender Identity Law in 2012. Analyzing the decisive yet overlooked impact of gender transformation in the formation of the nation-state, gender-belonging, and citizenship, this book ultimately shows that supposedly abstract struggles to define the shifting notions of “sex,” citizenship, and nationhood are embodied material experiences.

In this Q&A, Patricio Simonetto offers a window into his research process, and shares how trans bodies were understood, policed, and shaped in a country that banned medically assisted gender affirmation practices and punished trans lives. A Body of One’s Own is available now wherever you buy books! Check out more titles in Latin American and gender and sexuality studies.

The state’s policing of gender embodiment is a significant aspect of your book. How did the state’s actions impact the lives of trans individuals, and how did they navigate and resist such policing?

Patricio Simonetto: Rather than exploring the nature of the state policing of gender, I am concerned about what state policing does. A Body of One’s Own engages with how the state endeavors to modulate the transgression of gender by creating distinctions between those bodies that have been portrayed as “artificials” (e.g. trans bodies) and those bodies socially identified as “natural.” My book shows how, moving beyond a medical debate into broader social issues, the politicization of the possibility of moving from one gender to another condensed the elites’ anxieties about their understanding about the need to populate Argentina and an obsession with sexual morality as a metaphor for social order.

In this monograph, I propose to think about gender policing as a form of the governance of sex in Argentina—by this I mean the multiple ways in which the state and other agents of society affirmed public sovereignty over citizens’ bodies, producing precarious conditions of living for those challenging gender rules. Concretely, my book explores how this conflict for body sovereignty affected everyone, not only trans people, by defining the dispossession of body autonomy. Readers of my book will be able to learn how the Argentine justice system got to define citizens’ genitalia as a state-owned good that was beyond individual desire—because law enforcement agents believed this could have an impact on human reproduction (and, for that reason, on national development). This obsession with placing the state’s strategic population project on citizens’ bodies will affect all types of rights regarding body autonomy and sovereignty over one’s body.

In particular, when I think of how the Argentine state governed trans bodies, I’m thinking of two policies. One related to the policing of gender expression that we can trace to the 1930s. This policy was concerned with people presenting themselves in public spaces with clothes “from the opposite sex” (as defined in that context), a state policing of public space in which gender variance and sexual transgression converged.  A second that emerged in the midcentury, around the 1960s, banning any medical intervention affecting what they defined as “reproductive organs.” The idea behind this notion is that the state needed to protect populations for reproduction because there was a need to populate Argentina, which has been historically represented as an empty country that must be populated.

Other scholars have already explained that by populating, we are not thinking of any type of citizens; the elites will develop complex racialized, gendered, sexual, ethnic and social class imaginaries of citizens. What these policies do are two different things: on the one hand, they empower police and other social institutions to exclude trans people from public spaces—from education, households, healthcare, and workplaces; on the other hand, it has stablished an authoritarian state power over citizens’ more intimate rights to themselves.  These policies will drastically affect trans people’s lives.

Among other things, this monograph is a history of the embodied experience of marginalization, of how the experience of arbitrary detentions and state violence is archived on people’s bodies and affects trans life experiences. Trans movements in Argentina have made the case on how the violence of these years will have long-term social effects on the trans population’s conditions of living When we think for example on the policies that criminalized what we today called gender affirmation practices, this intervention of the state forced people to seek experimental treatments abroad, to practice homemade treatments and to seek assistance in under markets which had a long-life effect on this community. I don’t believe that the Argentinean state abandoned trans people, all the opposite, our state actively produced precarious conditions undermining their lifes. Even if Argentina is a pioneer country in trans rights, legislation doesn’t translate to transformations of the material conditions of being. As trans activists and movements have shown, much social and state violence is still ongoing. The survivors of the worst years of persecution are advocating for some type of reparation for the long period of policies against them. Meanwhile, trans movements have also been advocating against ongoing discrimination in public spaces and for more inclusion in the workplace and integral healthcare services.

But as you say in your question, this book is not only focused on what the state interventions did but also how people have navigated the frontiers of gender and challenged these restrictions and social exclusion. This monograph is about how people transgressing gender norms got to make themselves legible on their own terms, ranging a wide repertoire of social practices such as photography, forging documents, migration, friendship, and their everyday gender performance. This is a history of the many ways in which people get to make sense of themselves negotiating with others, but it is also about collective resistance practices, including collecting food and money for those who were turned in to police, organizing demonstrations, and creating new organizations to challenge discrimination.

At the end of the book, I try to think historically how the social resistance to gender policing led travestis, transexuals, and transgender movements to force the passing of groundbreaking legislation that drastically transformed the state: the gender identity law, which set the administrative decision of gender recognition on citizens. These movements has also recently pass new legislation fostering public employment quotas, that are now threatened by the new far-right libertarian administration. These pioneer legislations are result of the grassroot discussion about how gender discrimination materially impacts this marginalized population’s life conditions. The interesting thing about these new policies crafted by social movements is that they transform the ways in which the state defines a citizen’s gender and the ways it restores citizens’ sovereignty to decide how they want to be defined by the state and others on their own terms.

Throughout your research, did you encounter any gaps or limitations in the available historical records when it came to trans experiences? Which archives did you find most useful during your research? Did you find anything that surprised you?

As many others have shown, doing queer and trans history is always challenging because these lives are not always easily found in the historical record. While we usually assume that certain lives are silenced in the archives, it is more accurate to say that those lives are usually portrayed in a negative way by agents of the state or science. It is more complex—I would say that there are multiple histories in the archives that express more medical and public concern about people transgressing rules of gender or sexuality. My book engages with incredible life stories collected in public and community archives. It was really challenging to understand how notions of gender and sexuality shifted over time. First, I conducted research in more traditional archives, such as the Archivo General de la Nación or the Biblioteca Nacional Mariano Moreno (National Library). Traditional archives express usually offer more information of the harm that state institutions and health sciences have done to trans and queer communities, but I think there is still there some traces to build restorative narratives. Luckily, the new archival activism expressed in amazing projects such as the Archivo de la Memoria Trans of Argentina or the Archivos Desviados is expanding archival imagination to new areas of queer and trans past, such as magazines, clothing, photographs of moments of intimacy, and vital experiences of self-fashioning.

There is some accumulated knowledge in the LGTBIQ+ community that is vital for archival research. When you find a concept that has been socially defined to stigmatize a community, you have to invert its negative meaning to trace those experiences through the archive. It is that same harmful concept that can help you to find marginalized lives among large collections of documents. That is the necessary first step to crafting a more positive and charming historical narrative that inverts the negative narrative over LGBTQ lives and brings back other imagined pasts to the present. I tried to go into the archive and to read and see artifacts in those terms. The lives that I follow in this archive are fragmented and are usually defined by others rather than the person themselves. This monograph is a bid to imagine new narratives, with all their complexities, tenderness, and cruelty, without moralizing any of these lives, to understand them on their own terms.

I would say that this work wouldn’t be possible without the queer and trans activist community archives that emerged in the last decade in Argentina and Latin America, especially the Archivo de la Memoria Trans (Trans Memory Archive) and the Archivos Desviados led by Juan Pablo Queiroz. Those are very special and very generous projects that shared with me and many others scholars a lot of documentary sources. These projects are notable because they are producing an epistemological revolution in the ways in which we understand what is preserved of the LGTBIQ communities, and they raise questions about how archival knowledge has defined the ways in which we imagine the past, understand the present, and envision the future. These archives collect a new range of amazing objects that can help us learn from experiences usually lost; such objects speak to us about parties, friendship, art, domestic life, and fashion, among many other experiences. These archives preserve objects like heels, dresses, clips of newspapers, and publications that have meaning for their communities. I think they are calling attention to how the ways in which we have defined the past are not just administrative decisions but also something we need to reflect on as a force that has defined historical imagination. So, I think that having these two types of archives—one that is more traditional and reflects the logic of the state, and one that is more community based—enabled me to reflect in the book about what type of narrative we can build with these two types of archival information.

My book invites reflection on powerful ideas of visibility. I tried to look at trans history with more of a critical perspective. Visibility has been a central claim of both trans and LGTBIQ+ communities, and I would say it is a vital need for survival. The idea that this visibility can create new identifications and make new trans futures possible is very powerful—and in fact, this book works in that direction. Taking some distance to think about the implications of being legible for the historical record, one could say that the social identification of some bodies as artificial fabrication has also impacted the standards that make some lives and some facts of the past credible. Sometimes, when I presented drafts of this book, I faced some challenges from more traditional historians who told me, “Well, you don’t have enough evidence.” This idea is that you need to present more and more and more to show that life is a reality. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a fake story. I started to reflect: What was this idea of “evidence”? Why were they asking for more evidence for certain lives? If I were narrating union strikes, one or two newspaper clips would be enough for them to show that, in fact, workers went on strike—because it is assumed that striking is something natural and organic that emerges from labor-capital relationships. They believe that because these lives were not legible in historical terms, they are not realistic. They can’t imagine these lives as possible. Also, the book reflects a lot on invisibility—on what these gaps in the archives could tell us. We usually think about this silence, the lack of archival material, as a failure of the archive. But we could also imagine that not being registered in the police records, not being in the medical records, not being in the traditional archives, was a success for many people who got to escape state control. They got to escape the horrible scenarios in which these documents were produced, like being booked in a police station or being registered by a doctor. So, I try to turn the silence into a more positive perspective.

I hope that this was also the success of many other lives based on the fact that in many of the cases I study, they lived successful and very joyful lives for years before getting into the archive. It was the moment of getting into the archive that made a life collapse under the scrutiny of medicine and the public eye.

This book is concerned with avoiding producing universal narratives that can flatten specific experiences. This means paying attention to the terms that people use to make sense of their lives or at least identify the terms available in a specific time . This book engages with multiple paths and ways of experiencing the transgression of gender frontiers in a specific cultural and social landscape: Argentina. Such paths include tracing the specificity of terms such as travesti or invertido sexual that can’t be easily fold under the contemporary category of transgender. This is a book that sometimes goes through overlapping histories in which ideas of (what today we would define as) gay, trans, or lesbian lives intersect. What I try to do with this book is to test what would happen if we built a narrative focusing on gender to read the languages with which people publicly portray themselves not as cryptic codes hiding movements, but rather as vocabularies and languages with which they make sense of their lives in their time and space.

How did the mainstream medical and media portrayals influence public perception and the treatment of trans individuals in Argentina?

My book focuses on two driving forces of this sexual governance in Argentina: medical and media narratives. One could say that, in general, these two forces worked to reinforce the public association between gender and body genitalia, to build a social classification of certain bodies as natural to the detriment of the alleged artificial nature of those people transgressing gender frontiers. I don’t want to be repetitive, but scientific portrayal and the media’s mockery worked together, producing social exclusion and violence. I would say that the book reflects methodologically on Argentineans’ long history as consumers of these discourses and as active reproducers of these violent narratives. In the introduction, I metaphorically talk about the cultural archive of shame, all those moments of complicity with a public narrative that attacked trans lives with mockery as moments of cisgender self-affirmation.

This is related to a more complicated history in that the book engages with how the exclusion of trans people was related to the national elites’ broader concern with human reproduction. It is easy to think of a phrase by Alberdi, who was one of the authors of the first Argentine Constitution: “To govern is to populate.” The Argentinian elites portray the nation as some kind of desert that needs to be populated for strategic reasons.

These debates about how to populate it will produce or create a big emphasis on and obsession with “what are the threats that are attacking the possibilities, the potential of national reproduction?” In this sense, transness will be portrayed as an exotic threat to this idea of reproduction, and this has certain legal implications that the book uncovers. Many judges, for example, upheld the legal basisthat people’s genitalia were a product of the state that needed to be protected in order to defend the national right to reproduction over individual rights over their own bodies.

What’s interesting here is how doctors, journalists, politicians and judges have tried to create a a distinction between what they see as artificial and natural lives. I focus, in particular, on the interconnected obsessions with human reproduction and body autonomy to challenge those contemporary discourses that insist on a very artificial divorce between feminism, trans and the queer movement. I challenge this separation not only because I can’t imagine any potential separation between these theories and movements but also because, in practice, the state intervention built upon this fear of reproduction was part of a broader attack on all citizens’ right to body autonomy. Literally, what I examine in my book is how judges, politicians and doctors make statements in the media to establish public ownership over peoples’ bodies. What we see is state agents saying—with slightly more complex words—“Well, I’m the owner of your genitalia. I’m the owner of your reproductive capability. I literally have sovereignty over your body.” I would add that the media has an important role in undermining trans people’s lives through jokes or mockery about trans lives, about tragic situations that are portrayed as just national entertainment.

As I was saying before, I usually believe that we overfocus on the state, sometimes erasing the longer social and community violence against gender and sexual dissidence. Here is when a history of media mockery becomes useful. In the book, I focus, for example, on a series of murders in the 1980s that happened to trans women sex workers in the highways in the north of Buenos Aires. These hate crimes were portrayed as a national joke. The media published very disturbing photographs of trans women killed by cars. As I said, I come back to these moments to reflect not only on the media as actors but also about the audiences that consumed this content. I grew up reading these newspapers and watching these TV shows. What has been our role as an audience? What has been the historical impact of us as an audience in undermining trans lives?

However, this book goes beyond media violence. I think the country’s fascination with trans lives had other effects. I know this by reading certain records and thinking about how the circulation of stories like these in the newspapers opened up the possibility for many people to identify with them, and these stories provided them the language and the possibility of being that they never imagined before. In the archive, I found several stories of people saying  “Oh, I want to undergo this hormonal treatment, I read that someone else did the same to become a women or a man” And even if journalistswere trying to portray that person in a very negative way, people were taking these media clips as something positive, as a possibility that they could pursue a way of life that affirms their identity. What I mean is that beyond the negative impacts of these news, they were an open script for many people to find themselves with others. The book also focuses on popular shows that traveled to Argentina in the 1960s, such as Les Girls, which starred beautiful Brazilian trans women. A total success in a moment of moral conservatism, the show was a turning point in the lives of many trans women as it expressed the possibility of being publicly celebrated for their beauty and talent.

The book explores some transformations and challenges to the medical legacies of transness in Argentina. I trace how, as a result of trans people’s and some health professionals’ activism, there are some small but significant transformations of gender affirmation and trans healthcare in general.

A Body of One’s Own discusses the development of homemade technologies from prosthetics to the self-injection of silicone by trans individuals. How did these DIY practices emerge, and what role did they play in the lives of trans people in Argentina?

This book moves away from a classical medical history. This is not only a cultural history of medical ideas about sex or the circulation of medical concepts in the public imagination. This book expands the question of who the subjects of knowledge production are, where knowledge and practice about embodiment are produced, and how it circulates. Without any type of moralistic perspective, this book explores how, in the context of social exclusion, state banning of gender affirmation practices, and medical discrimination, some trans people will explore different ways of engaging with gender affirmation practices.

This book explores the social and medical repertoire of gender embodiment with which some people tried to avoid state banning, from the use of foam or medical treatments provided abroad in countries such as the US or Chile to the self-administration of hormones or the self-injection of industrial silicone that became very popular in the 1980s and 1990s. These explorations obviously will come with certain costs that are still affecting this community, especially the older generation, when we talk about the injection of silicone for trans women. The book reflects on how the activist grassroot work to claim integral healthcare beyond gender affirmation practices and the activism of multiple health professionals is transforming the landscape of trans care in Argentina.

What these types of technologies help us to remember is that social exclusion is embodied. There is no exclusion in an abstract way. Those who are marginalized archive it in their bodies themselves. The book traces the history of these technologies and explores how they emerged, how they change and transform the ways in which a community identifies themselves.

Your book explores the connection between gender transformation and the formation of the nation-state, gender-belonging, and citizenship. Could you discuss the significance of gender transformation in shaping Argentina’s national identity and citizenship norms?

I want to come back to this idea of exclusion as an embodied experience, not only as an expulsion from public institutions. As I argue in this book, this idea is grounded in the theories developed by Latin American travesty activists and thinkers such as Lohana Berkins. My book thinks about the fear of going out, the danger of being imprisoned, and the violence that police could produce against trans bodies—but also the social violence that has been archived in trans bodies. My book traces fear and violence as material, embodied experiences, as concrete ways of experiencing citizenship. They help us to understand how the abstract goal of being full citizens meets the cruelty of everyday life, what it means for us in more conceptual terms, more political epistemological terms.

When we think about Argentine history, there is a popular mainstream binary conception that contrasts democracy versus dictatorships. What I noticed in the study of trans history is that these categories usually don’t match the experience of trans and queer people more generally. Since at least the 1930s, there was a long period of anti-trans policies that gave the police the power to do more horrible things. The book has a very long description of this, but what I want to interrogate is this question, “How can we think of democracy not only as an idea, but also as an embodied experience? What are the embodied implications of the broader social exclusion of certain people from the public space to our understanding of what public life is?”

Is a democracy a democracy when there is a part of the population that can’t enjoy a democratic life? The fact that someone is excluded from democratic life tells us what type of democracy we have, or how we should understand that democracy. I don’t think the exclusion of trans people from public life should be seen as a marginal history of how we understand Argentinian democracy. We should bring that history to the core, pay attention, and reconceptualize this idea of a system of democracy that is not a universal experience.

I want to think about exclusion in terms of what it means to be a citizen and who gets to be a citizen. So, on the one hand, we have more formal designations, like citizenship, which is a status that we get. If we are born in Argentina, we get this citizenship. On the other hand, we have what it means to belong, what it means to a certain community and their everyday experiences. I’m paying attention to how a community, in this case, Argentina, made its people feel as if they didn’t belong to this country, but I’m also exploring the positive outcomes in the multiple ways in which the trans community and many trans individuals in the book created ways to make themselves legible on their own terms, to find community even in the worst scenarios and the most horrible situations. They found ways of being recognized by others on their own terms.

Trans lives help us rethink citizenship in other ways by focusing beyond the state in terms of belonging and focusing on belonging as a feeling that you are part of something. We should account for the last several decades when the trans community formed different alliances with LGBTQ and feminist movements that have crafted amazing ways to resist and transform the country. Pieces of legislation like the gender identity law give citizens the power to adapt the ways they want to be identified. For example, trans quotas have been established for public employment for those who have been historically excluded.

But there are more recent discussions about the need to provide historical and economic reparations for the harm that the state has committed to the trans community. These are refreshing updates to discussions about citizenship and democracy in Argentina. We’re now in a very difficult and challenging context with a very radical shift of direction in terms of the new administration in Argentina.

This is an administration that is not friendly to the trans community and not friendly to human rights in general. But we will also see new ways of resisting and maybe of producing more joyful lives, lives that deserve to be lived. My book is about the creative ways that trans people and the trans community, even in challenging scenarios, created lives that were worth living.

Patricio Simonetto is a lecturer in gender and social policy at the University of Leeds. He is the author of Entre la injuria y la revolución: El Frente de Liberación Homosexual en la Argentinaand El dinero no es todo: Compra y venta de sexo en la Argentina del siglo XX. In 2021 he was awarded the Carlos Monsivais Award by the Latin American Studies Association.