CARACAS— It’s Wednesday morning, and journalists are flocking to Tamara Adrian’s office. I'm just 10 minutes into my interview with the reddish-haired 61-year-old, when another reporter rings the intercom.
“That’s the next one,” Adrián says politely, interrupting our chat on gay rights and what’s next for Venezuela's congress. “Tell them to give me five minutes,” she hollers in Spanish at a young assistant.
There’s a reason why reporters are suddenly tripping over each other for an interview with Adrián: On Sunday, she became the first transgender lawmaker to get elected to Venezuela's National Assembly, and only the second transgender lawmaker in Latin America.
Adrián will serve as a substitute lawmaker [diputada suplente] for Voluntad Popular, a centrist opposition party, whose slogan is “all rights for all people.” Her election, part of the opposition coalition's supermajority victory in congress, should boost the LGBT community’s chances of gaining equal rights in Venezuela, where there’s been very little progress on LGBT issues during 17 years of socialist rule.
"This government has made LGBT issues invisible," Adrian said.
Though Venezuela's left-leaning neighbors Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil have all implemented marriage equality laws, and Colombia’s conservative government recently approved adoption by same sex couples, Hugo Chávez's socialist revolution has done almost nothing to defend the rights of the LGBT community. It's one of the last remaining countries in the region that doesn’t recognize civil unions between same sex couples.
“I haven’t even managed to change my [legal] name,” says Adrián, whose national ID card still identifies her as Tomás.
Adrián has been fighting to change her name for more than a decade; she first filed a lawsuit with Venezuela’s Supreme Court in 2004 demanding the right to legally change her name and gender designation. “I never received a reply,” Adrián tells me in her cluttered office, surrounded by books. “In fact, no transgender person in Venezuela has been able to change their [legal] identity in the past 17 years.”
According to Adrián, Chavismo’s militaristic nature— many ruling party congressmen and cabinet members are former military officers—and its “disregard” for personal freedoms translated into a general disinterest in LGBT rights.
“When I worked with NGOs we always used to run up against politicians who opposed us,” she says. “Eventually [Voluntad Popular leader] Leopoldo López convinced me that I should become a politician in order to change things from the inside.”
Now that the opposition has gained a two-thirds congressional majority, Adrián plans to push for a legislative agenda that would expand LGBT rights. But she says her first priority will be to help her colleagues draft legislation that tackles broader issues, starting with Venezuela’s floundering economy.
As an expert in commercial law and a former advisor to Venezuela’s Central Bank, the freshman lawmaker is in a good position to help.
“Venezuela voted for the opposition because we are offering a path out of the profound social and economic crisis the country’s facing,” Adrián said. “This is no time to improvise. We must stay united.”
Adrián says her strategy will be to offer a “differential approach” to legislation, by incorporating the LGBT agenda into laws intended to tackle poverty, violence and education.
“If we’re going to talk about education, I want to talk about bullying against LGBT people,” Adrián said. “If we want to talk about the economy, let’s talk about fostering LGBT-friendly tourism and how it can contribute to the GDP.”
Adrián will have a long list of issues to contemplate. And she hopes that with the Chavistas' loss in Congress, the opposition will back a new social revolution in Venezuela.
(Correction: an earlier version of this story said that Tamara Adrián was the first transgender lawmaker in Latin America. In fact she's the second after Michelle Suárez was elected to Uruguay's parliament last year. We regret the error.)
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.