How can educators, companies, and communities collaborate with social entrepreneurs to welcome and integrate transgender people—and show a gender diverse future? For insights, Ashoka’s Ana Sáenz de Miera in Madrid spoke with social entrepreneur Francisco Quiñones Cuartas, creator of Mocha Celis, a pioneering high school in Buenos Aires.
Ana Sáenz de Miera: Francisco, why a secondary school for transgender students? Wouldn’t it be preferable to integrate them into the public school system?
Francisco Quiñones Cuartas: Mocha Celis is, in fact, open to all secondary students, regardless of gender. But to answer your question, in Argentina, we have private education, public education, and a third category into which Mocha Celis falls: education that is managed jointly with community organizations. We opened ten years ago to welcome students who had been expelled from their schools due to their gender expression. This group has encountered so much resistance in the traditional systems. Our mission is a healing one.
Sáenz de Miera: The ideal situation would be for this type of school not to be necessary, right?
Quiñones: Ideally, all students would be able to express their gender in all educational spaces. But in the traditional system, LGBTQ+ students are not acknowledged or taken into account. So another way of answering would be to say that our model should be the standard.
Sáenz de Miera: What does a regular day at Mocha Celis look like?
Quiñones: Students take the usual classes, like math and language. But, because we all think in different ways, each student also follows a customized path. We ask students, what specific training would you like to receive? So they have a specific set of hours where they can follow that particular interest. Some might attend theater workshops, others might learn how to make jewelry.
Sáenz de Miera: How are you preparing this community to enter the employment market?
Quiñones: At Mocha Celis, we started as a school, but today we’re a civil association that accompanies transgender people through higher education, employment, healthcare and more. In our employment program, we concentrate on the profile of the individual, give them tools for the job search and connect them with companies. We’re trying to do away with the stereotype of the transgender individual who only holds marginalized jobs, like hairdressing or sex work.
We also train companies hiring openly transgender employees for the first time, to improve the climate in the workplace. In turn, companies can collaborate to improve employment opportunities. American Express, for example, is participating in a digital education program for the inclusion of transgender people in the labor market.
Sáenz de Miera: What is it like to be transgender in Argentina?
Quiñones: This is a question that trans people who experience it in the first person should answer. But I could say that in this country, unlike many parts of the world, we can at least publicly discuss transgender issues. Unlike many parts of the world, we have terminology around the subject that has been articulated through public policy, like marriage equality. We also passed a Labor Quota Act during the pandemic, which requires public companies to reserve at least 1% of jobs for the transgender community. So this has been a great incentive for people to finish their studies, because they know they will be able to find work.
Sáenz de Miera: That’s so interesting. I think that when you export the model of Mocha Celis, you have to point out the whole legal framework, which is key to it.
Quiñones: Absolutely. When we started this project, the Gender Identity Act was not a reality. Transgender individuals were being arrested just for what they were wearing, and sometimes detained for up to thirty days. Our friend, Lorena Berkins, spent five years of her life in and out of jail for this reason. The constant arrests made it impossible for many trans people to keep their jobs. This was as recently as 2005. And throughout Latin America, the average life expectancy of the trans community is around 35 years.
Sáenz de Miera: Argentina has a majority Catholic population. Are you finding any allies in the Catholic Church?
Quiñones: Yes, for example our friend Sister Monica, who is building neighborhoods where the transgender community can access housing. She was moved when a trans person attended her church and mentioned that her only wish was to have a bed where she could die in peace. So Sister Monica started a discussion within the church, though this is sometimes a subject that finds a lot of resistance. Indeed, some parts of the country are still refusing to adopt the new laws.
Sáenz de Miera: Which societies are the most evolved when it comes to inclusion of the transgender people? And what cultural forces lie behind that inclusiveness?
Quiñones: When we think about how attitudes are changing in Argentina, we have to consider the dictatorship. As a society, we are collectively reviewing our history of policing sexual identity, and considering those brutal social practices in the light of the dictatorship. As I mentioned, those police actions actually continued after the dictatorship. And we are working as a society to process and acknowledge this. Maybe other countries haven’t been able to do this yet.
Sáenz de Miera: Here in Spain, the draft of the new gender self-determination law has stirred up controversy not only among right-wing groups, but also among feminist movements. I’d love to hear your perspective on this law, which allows 16-year-olds to determine their sex and does not require parental consent. What if girls want to change their gender due to the patriarchal society, which rules the world?
Quiñones: I think these fears are predicated on an unstated assumption: that being transgender is incorrect and that being cisgender is correct. Let’s pose the question another way: Is a 16-year-old old prepared to decide that they want to be cisgender? Nobody would ask that question, right? Nobody is questioning it. Nobody is questioning whether a woman should want to be a mother, or wear certain types of clothes. Those decisions are legitimized by the market, by society telling us what to be. We have to understand that gender is fluid and constantly being constructed. If we met a group of people, no two would define gender in exactly the same way. Each one of us is constantly confirming and building our identity, even cis individuals.
Sáenz de Miera: How do you confront legal challenges when families and society do not accept the transgender child?
Quiñones: Fortunately we have laws that are allowing us to move away from this adult-centered principle and to see that identity, even in childhood, is a fundamental right. The law says that if the parents are not in agreement with the child’s wishes, the child has the right to have a lawyer assist them. There’s a lot of documentation on this topic which shows that there’s an understanding, from the age of four or five, among certain children who do not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s time to start listening to these children’s needs.