Letter of nomination for Grinnell Prize, Elizabeth Vásquez

Elizabeth Vásquez: 133º Regular Session of the IACHR: Discrimination based on gender, race, and sexual orientation in the Americas. Thematic hearing requested and organized by Corporación de Promoción de la Mujer/ Taller de Comunicación Mujer, feminist NGO based in Quito, Ecuador.
Nominator: Elisa Loza, transgender activist.

More than a lawyer, Elizabeth Vásquez is a transfeminist and legal activist. She founded and sustains the Trans House; out of which today’s strongest trans leaders have emerged, including the country’s first trans public servants. Vasquez works on gender rights from a conception that surpasses the man-masculine and woman-feminine binary and locates patriarchal relationships “in the feminine places of society”. Her team is community-based and heterogeneous in social composition. Her work is cross-cultural and interdisciplinary. 

Elizabeth’s ability to land theory in practice is outstanding. For example, after theorizing about “underlying symmetries” – fostering a strategy of joint interventions by social movements with historically unconnected political agenda - in 2007 she brought the rock and hip-hop youth movements and the trans movement together to successfully vindicate “the right to aesthetic freedom” on official identification documents. In 2008, she promoted a strategic alliance between the Human Mobility movement (migratory issues) and the GLBTI movement that managed to get an avant-garde legal definition of “family diversity” inscribed in Ecuador’s new Constitution as both immigrant and sexually diverse families were excluded from the traditional heterosexual, nuclear, nationally based household model. In 2009, she brought the disability movement and the trans movement together to lobby for “health in different bodies”. Currently, she is bringing Latin Kings and Street Sex Workers together under a “Street Law” project, aimed at implementing alternative conflict resolution procedures inspired on indigenous law but based on street territories instead of ancestral territories. 

Vasquez’s originally designed legal techniques or “alternative uses of the law” (AULs) take advantage of legal flaws and loopholes to “subvert from within”. In 2004, without the existence of legal recognition for same sex-couples, she managed to legalize a union between two men, through reworking the structure of a commercial partnership and adapting it to emulate the civil regime that protects heterosexual couples. She called the technique – “subversive redesign” and it was a strong precedent in Ecuador’s eventual recognition of same sex unions in the 2008 Constitution. 

AULs have earned Vasquez various distinctions as an innovative lawyer: to cite three; an opinion column given to her at El Telegrafo National Newspaper where she was a favourite throughout 2008, a position as one of the youngest legal advisors in the Constituent Assembly that same year, and a position as invited professor of Gender, Human Rights and Social Justice at FLACSO University (2010), teaching senior judges and prosecutors at barely 30. In the Constituent Assembly Vasquez drafted various articles of the new Ecuadorian Constitution, including the non-discrimination clause on the basis of gender identity. 

Vasquez is also the creator of the Legal Patrol. Founded in 2002, this has consisted of nine years of “itinerant legal counseling teams” that volunteer three days a week from 9 pm through 3 am, engaging in legal education and searching for high-impact litigation cases from within trans sex work communities. The Legal Patrol has generated existence of four empowered street sex work associations in Quito, legal name and sex changes possible in Ecuador after Vasquez won groundbreaking case Citizen Luis Enrique Salazar vs. the Ecuadorian Civil Registry, and a program that is unique in Latin America called “Police and Transgenders in Dialogue”, within which Vasquez managed to strategically write and get ministerial approval of a full chapter of the Ecuadorian National Police Human Rights Handbook that contains norms on gender-sensitive compulsory police language, police procedures to handle transgender bodies in searches and progressive use of force, among others. 

One could go AUL by AUL describing effective social and legal innovations this woman has designed and executed. Her work has the virtue of raising enormous social debate because of the way it combines legal discourse with cultural and social actions and even with artistic performance. Ecuador’s recent first “gay marriage that included a trans man” was designed and executed by Vasquez as an AUL, based on her technique called “creating a legal paradox” and it caused such an interesting debate on all levels of society that even President Correa had to publicly talk about it and, as a result, the pertinence of gay marriage, and the pertinence of binary civil sex altogether is being strongly discussed in Ecuador. 

I would agree with certain academic and political sectors that have defined Vasquez’s work as that of a “legal artist”. The level of creativity displayed in her AUL techniques is certainly artistic while at the same time, absolutely grounded in social reality and politically committed. More information about her work can be found at www.proyecto-transgenero.org

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