Access to education and dignified work: the State’s debt with LGBTIQ+ people
The lack of public policy to counteract discrimination marginalises LGBTIQ+ people and pushes them into leaving education early and precarious employment.
After Sami Sierra accepted at 16 years old that she was a trans woman, she went through a terrible ordeal in the secondary school were she was studying her last year before graduating. She was studying on the morning shift, but due to being bullied by classmates she switched to the afternoon sessions. When the discrimination of her teachers became unbearable she changed again to night classes. Unfortunately conditions got even worse instead of better, and three months before finishing high school she was forced to abandon her studies.
“I had a mountain of conflicts with my teachers and classmates. At that time I had left home, so I faced economic problems with buying notebooks, with transport to get to school and they were asking me for money for all the graduation costs. I said to myself if I had no money why even graduate?” Sami is now 42 and dedicates her time to domestic work LGBTIQ+ activism.
She says she always knew her gender identity was different from her biological sex, but because she was born into an evangelical family she had tried to repress it. When she finally stopped pretending she was the man her family imposed on her as an identity, she faced a different set of problems and decided to leave home and live alone, in spite of still studying at secondary school.
However, the situation was no better at school. In class no one would include her in groups. In physical education classes she was made to change clothes in the male changing rooms and be in the men’s activities. Her male classmates attacked her physically and verbally. She had no support from the teaching staff, on the contrary, her teachers constantly told her to “behave like a man” and they forced her to cut her hair if she wanted to continue attending class, otherwise she would be denied entry to school buildings.
As she was nearing graduation, Sami didn’t have the economic resources to get her certificate or participate in the graduation ceremony, so she decided to drop out, leaving her studies incomplete.
On leaving school she met other trans women with whom she was able to find work as a dishwasher in a bar, cleaning toilets and serving tables, later running errands for people in the markets, where she later got involved in sex work.
“There came a time when I had no way to survive. With my other younger companions I saw that sex work could give me an income. If you were young you’d get the attention of older people and that way you could find money to survive”, Sami says.
Once evening came she would go to Metrocentro (shopping mall area) and to Tiscapa (by a volcanic lake of the same name) with other trans women to look for clients all of whom were men. Since they were on the street in open areas, people passing by in cars the bags of urine at them, and the people coming from the Oriental Market in trucks would throw green banana skins and other food waste at them.
“They’d throw everything they had at hand”, she remembers.
Sami didn’t earn much doing sex work. She says “you’d go alone with the client and figure out how to get the most money out of them as you could”. Everything depended on what she was willing to do. If she refused to do certain things, she’d earn at best five hundred to one thousand Cordobas (approximately $14-28 US dollars) for one night. But if she agreed to everything asked of her by the clients she could earn two to three thousand (US $56- 84) that day.
With her usual earning she barely covered one or two meals a day, as she began to consume alcohol and drugs with her companions. Most of the money went on this, and whatever remained was for food. “I first tried alcohol when I started night classes in secondary school. At that time the electricity would go off quite frequently in Managua and everyone around me were into drinking, so we’d get out of class and go out boozing. After leaving school I kept going with my trans and transvestite friends in Metrocentro and Tiscapa,” she says.
One of the times she was in the Tiscapa area waiting for clients, a group of men from the Jorge Dimitrov neighbourhood grabbed her, beat her up, stripped her, tied her up and threw her into a cauce (deep concrete ditch for run-off water). Without knowing how she managed to do it, she went back to the same place the very next day and continued taking drugs with other trans women who were there.
After that incident, Sami says she began to question herself about what she was doing with her life. According to her it’s a miracle she’s still alive after having fallen three meters into that ditch. At the very least she could have been in a wheelchair, and today she’s still suffering from problems with her spine.
“With the problem of alcoholism I would end at dawn peeing, shitting myself and throwing up at the entrance to my house. My Mum saw me. I would show up really drunk and create huge disturbances until I said to myself “this is enough”, to stop making my Mum suffer. I’ll have achieved 9 years of being sober this July (2022). She wasn’t around to see my change as she died of cancer, but I completely changed everything” Sami says.
In 2013 Sami began to attend Alcoholic Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous sessions, and then had psychotherapy before finally returning to study in an adult education programme to finish her high school. She graduated two years ago.
At present she is a domestic worker, although they’re not permanent jobs and she takes advantage of any opportunity that comes her way. She also works with a social cafeteria project run by the Nicaraguan Association of Transgender Women (Asociación Nicaragüense de Transgéneras – ANIT) where she has a fixed income. She points out however, that the project finishes in two months and afterwards she’ll have to return to her routine in working in private houses.
When asked if she stopped doing sex work she responds “in reality I never completely leave it” because if the opportunity arises and a man says to her “I’ll give you this much money”, she won’t refuse.
According to Franklin Hooker, specialist in gender and member of the collective La Corriente Somos Todas, LGBTIQ+ people continue to face major gaps in access to education, which means that a large number of people end up outside the education system and later are forced to work in conditions of exploitation. Those who do manage to study encounter situations of violence, ridicule and humiliation from both classmates and teachers.
The National LGBTIQ+ Round Table (Mesa Nacional LGBTIQ+) in its Situational Study on the Rights of LGBTIQ+ people in Nicaragua 2020 (Estudio Situacional de los Derechos de las personas LGBTIQ+ en Nicaragua) reveals that in Nicaragua there is a major lack of statistic data about the educational situation of people in the LGBTIQ+ community, which represents an obstacle for inclusive education.
According to this study, the percentage of LGBTIQ+ people who finished their university studies or technical careers is low: 39.6% and 13.1% respectively. 22.9% have only completed their secondary school education and 3.9% only primary school. The dropout rate for primary school is 2.6%.
Hooker explains, “In a country like Nicaragua, the vast majority of LGBTIQ+ people live in poverty or extreme poverty, and face rejection or abandonment from their families. This affects them staying in the educational system, because living outside the family home means that they have to work in precarious conditions, which prevents them from continuing their studies”.
When people remaining in education are confronted by the prejudices of the people around them, there is no institutional entity to which they can make a complaint about the violence they experience, since the majority of the staff in schools and universities are not trained to attend to these cases.
If they somehow manage to make a complaint either to an academic entity of through a public denunciation on social media, LGBTIQ+ people are no listened to and their experience is downplayed.
Hooker explains: “A lot of the time when they manage to complain, either via social media or some other space, they’re not listened to, and the situation they face is minimised. With this wave of attacks in the educational system, what they do is drop out and then the options to develop themselves, graduate from high school, have a technical career or a profession are limited”.
This situation is worsened when teachers have no training or pedagogical criteria to address sexuality and sex-gender identities. People with non-heteronormative sexual orientations are forbidden to show affection to their partners; people with non-cisnormative gender identities are forced to dress and use hairstyles according to the perception of their biological sex even when they are not comfortable with it.
In addition to violence and discrimination, one of the main reasons for dropping out of education is economic. Many people don’t study because they need to work and the money they earn is not enough to subsist and cover basic educational costs.
This is just what occurred with Sami, who was faced to become independent early due to discrimination at home, but without having basic decent living conditions, which led her to discontinue her secondary school studies.
There is a marked absence of public policies that counter discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people in the workplace. This means that people face extreme difficulties in accessing the formal labour and having stable long term. When they enter to world of work many LGBTIQ+ people find themselves faced with two scenarios: either they hide their sexual orientation or gender identity to be able to achieve a post and not undergo discrimination, or face rejection and a long period looking for work where they will be accepted.
Hooker explains: “This has an impact on the lives of LGBT people because they have to make a lot of effort to hide their orientation and/or appear to have another gender identity. In the case of gay men who present as feminine, they are required to hide “the feather” [“la pluma”], so people can’t notice they’re gay, and take on the behaviour dictated by hegemonic masculinity. In the case of lesbians whose partners pick them up after work or come to have lunch with them, they are forced to talk about their partners as a “friend” or “cousin”.
The study carried out by the National LGBTIQ+ round Table also reveals that the LGBTIQ+ population is submerged in informal labour and sex work. This is because, on the one hand, of barriers due to their educational background and on the other because of their rejection and or discrimination by companies and institutions.
The study’s results show that only 2 of every 10 LGBTIQ+ people surveyed are in formal employment; 26.9 percent are self-employed and 21.9 percent work in the informal sector; 1.6 percent are in the group of employers; and only 0.2 percent are members of a production cooperative. 24.7 percent of the surveyed population was unemployed.
Ludwika Vega, president of ANIT, emphasises that the lack of a gender identity law makes access to formal work difficult for trans people, since all their documentation including their CVs, degrees, certificate and the national id card identify the person before they made their transition and employers don’t accept someone whose image and name are different to what is officially registered.
“We don’t have a law that recognises us as we are. There’s no law saying that Ludwika exists, instead only Guillermo is recognised, and because of this my CV, my university degree all say Guillermo. When I apply for a job the person on paper is Guillermo, and they say to me “you are not the person in these documents, you are a trans, transvestite or gay” however you want to call it. They tell me that they’ll call me and then leave me waiting,” she says.
Looking for work is also mediated by stigma and prejudices, given that employers often minimise the capacities and abilities of LGBTIQ+ people, and relate them to work linked to stereotypes of lesbians, gay men, trans or bisexuals.
“We are still put into boxes around certain tendencies, for example, trans women are only seen as good for beauty salons and they can’t imagine that a trans woman could be in the world of science, or technology and we’ve already seen that this is possible”, Hooker says.
Because of the lack of employment, people from the LGBTIQ+ community often begin small businesses on their own, as the State doesn’t promote public policy to encourage enterprises among LGBTIQ+ people, or offer financing and support services.
People are also often pushed into accessing jobs under precarious conditions without social security contributions or contractual guarantees, and under which people’s labour rights – such as holidays, severance pay, just working hours among others- are respected.
There is also a significant group who turn to sex work as an alternative. According to the National LGBT Round Table study some 14.6 percent of people surveyed indicated that at a given time that had done sex work and 4.2 percent said they were involved with sex work at the time of the study.
Vega states that even while sex work has somewhat declined, the LGBTIQ+ population still is involved, especially trans women. However this is high risk work, as many times people are attacked by their clients, who may also demand they don’t use condoms, may leave without paying or subject them to sexual violence.
The lack of any official data about Nicaraguan employment disaggregated by gender identity and sexual orientation makes it difficult to visualise the dimensions of the reality experienced by the LGBTIQ+ population, the levels of poverty in which they find themselves and the factors that affect their quality of life.
Hooker affirms that precarious working conditions have repercussions in people’s physical and mental-emotional health. For example, there are LGBTIQ+ people who find work in free trade zone factories, in the markets or as sellers, who are not allowed to take adequate rest time. When they don’t have social security their options to deal with physical health issues are minimal and the options for mental-emotional health are almost null. Moreover, this population has a greater possibility of aging in conditions of poverty if they are unable to pay an optional insurance policy.
The search for dignified work is a struggle that doesn’t let up for Sami Sierra. One day she has work, the next she doesn’t. Even though having graduated from secondary school at 40 years old doesn’t guarantee work for her, she says that she did it out of a desire for self-development. For this reason, she will never hold back from achieving a life in which she can satisfy all her needs.
The Nicaraguan State owes her something: public policies that guarantee her right to an education and stable formalised work. No more false promises and pretty speeches about inclusion, as has been sold to the public since 2007 with the arrival of the Ortega-Murillo regime to governmental power. In the meantime, Sami will continue with her activism and doing her domestic work, just like hundreds of people from the LGBTIQ+ community trying to survive from positions of precariousness.