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Venezuela: A transgender candidate’s run for Supreme Court challenges culture of intolerance

By Jennifer Barreto-Leyva


CARACAS — Venezuela is making history with the very first transgender candidate who has applied to be a member of the Supreme Court.

Her name is Tamara Adrian, and she exemplifies what it means to be a human being, for several reasons.

I wanted to let Tamara tell her story in her own words, and let the world know what it’s like to be in her shoes with her expectations, dreams and perspectives when it comes to intolerance found in Venezuela and the prospect of being a part of this country’s history.

So Tamara, for all those who don´t know your story, can you please introduce yourself and tell us about yourself?


Well, I am a lawyer and a graduate of one of the most prestigious universities in Venezuela, Andres Bello Catholic University. I also graduated with high honors and received my doctorate in law from University Paris 2 in France.

I am a law professor and have been teaching undergraduate, postgraduate and doctorate studies at the same Catholic University since 1982, and at the University of Central Venezuela since 1986.

I also practice law and have worked both in the public and private sectors. I am a human rights activist fighting intolerance and discrimination in many fields, especially towards women, refugees, persons living with HIV and the LGBT community.

I identify myself as a transsexual woman, as a lesbian woman and as a feminist woman, as well as, a base activist. All these descriptions are strong political categories.

I have had a gender conflict since I was a child, but social and family pressures prevented me from assuming my true identity. At one time, I was married to a woman and had two children. Unfortunately, I barely get to see my children because they are pursuing their college education.

I eventually divorced and transitioned into who I am today. I am happily remarried to a woman, and am very proud being a part of the only legally married lesbian couple in Venezuela.

Tamara, what is the best way to deal with intolerance?

Intolerance must be addressed with tolerance, though it is, in many ways, difficult to be tolerant of intolerants and fundamentalists.

I feel, however, that once you make public your identity and your sexual orientation, you become more and more admired. Many people, who never before realized that discrimination actually exists for the reasons of sexual orientation and gender identity, begin to feel empathy.

This is especially true when they realize that they can also be subjected to discrimination themselves. Anyone and everyone is member of a certain minority and can feel discrimination based on these grounds, more or less.

Discrimination exists. Thus, alliances and information are the best allies to our causes.

How has it been for you to live in such an intolerant country as Venezuela?

Venezuela is an intolerant country in many respects. But at this moment, political intolerance is much more heightened here than in any other country.

When the moment comes, you will see how this very politically divided society illustrates their intolerance of those who do not conform to their sexual orientation and gender identity.

For example, it is often a fact that when a member of one of the two political factions wants to insult the other, he uses pejorative words relating to gender identity or expression and sexual orientation.


In fact, the people of one faction consider being lesbian, gay, transsexual, transgender or intersex, to be a condition exclusively derived from the other faction’s political ideas. This could be very funny if this is how it worked, if it were not for insulting personal integrity and putting the lives of LGBT people in danger.

How long have you been practicing law? How come you came up with the idea of proposing yourself to be a judge for the Venezuelan Supreme Court?

I’ve been continuously practicing law and teaching for more than 28 years, after my return from France in 1982. Being a very well-known lawyer, law professor, and having the qualifications far above the requirements established in the Constitution and by law to become a judge of the Venezuelan Supreme Court, I decided I met the criteria and conditions to propose myself for this position.

But, at the same time, my candidature has a different meaning. It pretty much has the same symbolic connotation that the first African-American judge elected to the Supreme Court in the USA had.

As an activist, I know that individual actions may have a collective impact. And this is one of those cases. The subject of LGBT rights, and in particularly, the intolerance by the current National Assembly (totally dominated by pro-Chavez partisans) that have blocked each and every initiative for equal rights; as well as, the intolerance of the same Supreme Court to which I am proposing myself, which has neglected to even admit my action for constitutional recognition and protection of my psycho-physical-social identity for more than six years and a half, are all factors in my submitting my candidacy.

Thus, my candidature has two meanings: I have all the qualifications to be a judge, and at the same time, it serves as a barometer for measuring the intolerance and lack of recognition of human rights of the current government, National Assembly and judicial power.

This is particularly important because in most of the countries of Latin America there have been improvements and important legal advancements in this field, in such countries as in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama, Nicaragua, among others.

Tell us about the process to apply to the Supreme Court. What went through your heart and mind that particular day?

I think that one of the more important reflection points was the moment of the personal interview. They called me by a male name, and I did not react. They called again, and I told them: ‘I think you are calling me, but by a name that is not mine, so, either you call me by my name or let me go and tell the public the kind of discrimination you are engaging in.

Since then, I just do not respond until they use my name.

What kind of feedback have you received from the people around you at the Supreme Court?

In general it is very positive, although some people working for the government are very afraid to give an opinion. These are the consequences of political persecution.

But I say, and this is my slogan for the campaign: ‘Tamara Adrian is not fourth or fifth, she is always first.’ The meaning of this slogan may be difficult to understand for people living in other countries, but it refers to the current government saying that they are representing the Fifth Republic, as opposed to the previous 40 years of democracy before 1998 when Chavez won the elections.

Thus, it means that I do not identify myself with Chavez nor with the previous presidents, and instead, I try to be the very best in everything I do.

When is the deadline for Supreme Court to deliberate if they accept you or not? What is the process like?

By the week ending November 20.

Let´s imagine both circumstances. Scenario number one: You´re rejected for this position, what will you do?

If the people elected are less qualified than me, this will be the actual proof of discrimination for gender identity. This is, in itself, a triumph for the LGBT cause.

Tamara Orden LM Olaso 9.jpg

Case scenario number two: They take you as a Judge on the Supreme Court, now what?

If this happens, I think that the Supreme Court will have an independent member, not someone who will submit to pressures from the government.

Did you do this just to be a rebel, to prove something or with the actual belief that you can make deep changes in the Venezuelan justice system?

No, as I told you, I have all the qualifications. And if this were a country in which qualifications prevailed and discrimination was non-existant, I would certainly be elected.

As a lawyer, in your opinion what is the biggest failure in the Venezuelan justice system?

It is a lack of stable appointments among the judges. Almost 90 percent of all the judges are “provisional,” selected and appointed without any public evaluation. They are removed at the discretion of higher authorities when their judgments don’t please certain people.

With all honesty Tamara, do you think Venezuela will change the intolerance culture in all matters some day?

Every country is able to do so. See what happened in the USA or in South Africa in a very short time after segregation was abolished? Or with women’s equality fight?

Yet this means that Venezuela would have to have a political commitment to achieve this, and have actual public policies to fight against discrimination. For the time being, it seems to be quite difficult.

Right now you still have your male name, why?

I have a male’s name in my papers, but as you know, one of the international standards for protection of human rights of trans and intersex people is to exercise the right to disregard this name. This is one of the international fights, and it has been achieved in many countries.

How come congressman and congresswomen haven´t made any outreach efforts towards the transgender community?

Most of them are not conscience at all that racism is very close to homophobia, lesbophobia and transphobia. They fill their mouths with big words for integration and equality and, at the same time, they act as the more recalcitrant religious fundamentalists.

It’s just one more of the many contradictions in this country.

Despite this Supreme Court move, is there any other goal you have in mind to achieve?

I have so many projects in mind, both internationally and nationally, that I always have to choose. For the time being, I will continue to pursue my goals, either professionally or in activism.

Do you see yourself someday as President of the Venezuelan Supreme Court?

Limitations exist in your mind. If you limit yourself and your dreams, these will be your frontiers.

I do not put any limits to my goals. Why not be President of the Venezuelan Supreme Court or President of Venezuela, or successor to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, or even higher?

Just dream and pursue your dreams — that’s my commitment to life. And I’ve proved it during my life with all my actions.

>Learn more about Jennifer:

Jennifer Barreto-Leyva lives in Caracas, Venezuela where when this 5″11 venezolana is not defending the rights of her clients as a lawyer or inspiring people as a motivational speaker, she is an outspoken defender on the rights of plus-size people.

Jennifer is Miss Plump Venezuela and the first Latina who participated and won the Miss Universe for Plus-size title. She is also the first venezolana plus-size model and, consequently, is credited for introducing the plus-size modeling division throughout Latin America.

Since 1999, Jennifer has penned a regular column, Tu Rincon con Jen, for the only online site dedicated to plus size people in Spanish,

Because of her sassy outspokenness and willingness to force the issue that beauty does not lie with a person’s weight, Jennifer has found her message much in demand from South and North America to Europe and Asia.

As a result, Jennifer has launched the first spanish-language magazine in history for plus-size people — Belleza XL.

In addition, Jennifer continues to provide constant inspiration for women of all sizes through her blog, Facebook page. She says that she always knew that when it came to defending who she was, no one was going to do it for her.

I saw myself different (as a child), not only when it comes to my size but my beauty as well. I’ve always had to deal with people’s cruelty because they think I’m ugly and have no hesitation letting me know that. I had to be strong and mature when no one around was. I’m beautiful because I’ve decided and feel that way, not because everyone else says it is so.


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