When Panama announced it would implement a gender-based quarantine schedule in response to COVID-19, transgender activists were alarmed. And with reason: on April 1, police detained a transgender woman alleging that she was male and out on “the wrong day.”
The Ministry of Health’s quarantine measures allow women to do essential shopping on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, while men are only permitted on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. No one is allowed out on Sundays. The measures also restrict the time of day people can leave their home depending on the last digit of their national identification card or passport. The ministry describes this as “the simplest procedure” to reduce the number of people on Panama’s streets.
Not so simple for Bárbara Delgado. She left her house on Wednesday morning, a women’s day, outside of the allotted time for her identification number, to attend a medical center near her home, where she volunteers as a health outreach worker. She said the center had not yet issued her a letter of transit and she planned to explain that she was a volunteer and needed to get to work if stopped. Soon after leaving home, two police officers stopped Delgado, along with two men and a woman, all quarantine offenders. The police let the others go with a warning, but detained Delgado, apparently because the “male” gender marker on her ID did not match her appearance. At the police station, she said, a justice of the peace accused her of not being a woman and remarked it was good that she had been taken in. Delgado was made to pay a US$50 fine for violating quarantine measures and was released after three long, humiliating hours.
In a country where, in contravention of international human rights law, modifying legal gender on official documents requires sex reassignment surgery, gender-based quarantine measures will almost certainly result in discrimination against transgender persons like Delgado. Panamanian lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) organizations have called for a gender and diversity perspective to inform measures in response to the pandemic. The National Police should also adopt a protocol affirming that quarantine enforcement measures will be sensitive to transgender people’s realities so that other trans Panamanians are spared the harassment Delgado experienced. Ultimately, Panama needs to address the draconian gender recognition procedure that inadvertently led to this incident.