Chile on Sunday rejected a new constitution containing explicit rights for LGBT people. The referendum was a historic opportunity for trans activists Shane and Leonel, who wage a lifelong struggle with society and politics. ‘Soon the right will return to power and we will lose everything again.’

    Joost de VriesSeptember 5, 202218:38

    On television, Chile’s regions turn blue one by one: against, against, against. ‘I think I get it,’ whispers non-binary Shane Cienfuegos (29) defeated, ‘This is a country with many elderly people.’ Friend and trans man Leonel Catoni (30) says nothing and just looks. From north to south, wedged 4,270 kilometers between the ocean and the Andes, the map fills with the blue of rejection: Chile voted against the new constitution. Against a constitution in which Shane and Leonel, and all sexual minorities, would be explicitly included for the first time.

    On Sunday evening, the Chilean trans couple received the blow of the loss at home in their house in the south of the capital Santiago. The decor: small living room, red couch, messy desk, dog food in one corner, cat food in the other. Shane on a chair, red lipstick, dark beard, flowery dress, crossed hairy legs, mobile arms. Leonel on a chair, frown over serious eyes, beard, checkered shirt over large torso, black jeans, legs spread, hands on thighs. The butterfly has come to silence next to the rock. They have both been knocked out.

    Shane Cienfuegos in Plaza Baquedano, a well-known point in Santiago, which has been renamed the Square of Dignity.Image Nicole Kramm for the Volkskrant

    Progressive Change

    The results show the Chile the trans couple really lives in, much less progressive than the ubiquitous lavish graffiti slogans in the capital suggested. More than 60 percent of Chileans rejected a text full of social rights. “You know,” Shane says. “We had nothing to lose, only to gain.”

    The South American country voted in a referendum on a new future on Sunday. For a year, an elected constitutional committee had been working on a proposal that would do away with the current neo-libeal constitution dating from 1980, from the dictatorship of General Pinochet (1973-1990), since often amended but never replaced. The new progressive text was to become the exclamation point behind a loud call for change, from major street protests in 2019, through the elections of the young left-wing president Gabriel Boric (36) last fall, to the constitutional referendum on September 4.

    Millions of mostly young Chileans, born after the dictatorship, propelled the country towards progressive change in recent years. It started in 2019 with that outburst on the streets: months of fierce protests against a system where almost everything is for sale and the best schools, jobs, pensions and care are reserved for a wealthy minority. Then-President Piñera eventually managed to channel the dissatisfaction into a democratic process, the search for a new magna carta. Former student leader Boric, who took office in March this year with a “feminist government,” led support for the new constitution.

    On Sunday evening, the young president had to humbly retrace his steps. ‘The message is clear. The Chilean people were not satisfied with this proposal.’ The overwhelming vote against ‘demands that we work with more commitment, more respect and more dialogue’. He promised to continue the search for a constitution “that represents and unites us all.” This time, he argued, parliament should be given a leading role. The experiment with an elected independent committee had failed miserably and all his opponents tumbled over each other to blame him. He didn’t want to be alone in the wind next time.

    The president’s words pass Leonel and Shane, who have moved to the small patio behind their house with a cannabis pipe. With their coats on against the last winter cold, they huddle together. “What do you think?” Shane asks. “Pffrrrrfft,” Leonel muttered. As trans activists, they are used to setbacks, but this one still hit hard. Leonel takes a drag on the pipe. Their future remains as uncertain as the present. “All changes must take place during this term of office,” he concludes, “because in the next election the right will return.”


    Back in time, Friday morning, two days before the referendum. In the small house there is still a cheerful competition tension. It will be tight, but a majority will vote in favor of the new constitution. The 388 new articles are a hard break with the past: more government, less free market and numerous rights for minorities and nature. For the LGBTI community, the proposal is revolutionary, there is plenty of room for ‘sexual and gender diversity’.

    See, for example, Article 6, which promises equal participation in politics and society for men, women and sexual and gender minorities. And perhaps more importantly, Article 27: the right to a life without violence for LGBT people. Every year, several gay and trans people are murdered in Chile, dozens are victims of violence. “This is a legal basis that we can really do something with,” says the non-binary Shane, who defines herself in gender-neutral Spanish as elleamong el and ella in, ‘them’ in Dutch.

    Shane and Leonel have been lovers for five years and, reluctantly, are full-time trans activists. They both work for the Chilean trans-interest club OTD. As a social worker on the street, Shane takes care of homeless trans elderly people, Leonel, a modest file-eater, has a constant institutional battle with the government about better trans care. ‘Five years ago trans was still known as a disease. The entire care is still geared towards men and women.’

      Leonel Catoni (left) and Shane Cienfuegos Image Nicole Kramm for de Volkskrant

    Leonel Catoni (left) and Shane CienfuegosImage Nicole Kramm for the Volkskrant

    From cubicle to cubicle

    A gender transition is possible in Chile, but only from one cubicle to another. ‘You know that Pink Floyd music video? That line of kids all going into the machine and coming out the other side on a conveyor belt? Such is trans care.’ The non-binary Shane ran into Chilean walls and fled to Argentina for breast implants. Leonel was forced to give up his uterus seven years ago. “The whole system is crooked,” Shane shouts, laughing, waving two clenched fists in the air. Leonel nods.

    That is why the new constitution gives ‘a little bit of hope’. ‘This is an important step,’ says Leonel. But the question is whether the rest of Chile is ready. Last night, it seemed, as hundreds of thousands of young people filled the Alameda, the stately two-lane road through the heart of the capital, for a large and diverse celebration to conclude the pre-campaign. Several hundred people came to the closing event of the counter-campaign. But is that picture representative of the entire country, which has proved so polarized over the constitutional proposal in recent months?

    Because against the change-minded youth who enforced the constitution process, were millions of Chileans who doubted or abhorred the proposed text. Older, more conservative generations have already had to put up with how the young left their mark on the composition of the elected Constitutional Commission, which has a lot of room for the left and a large indigenous delegation. The same young people also raised the leftist Boric on the presidential shield last year. The other presidential candidate, the far-right Jose Antonio Kast, also received 44 percent of the vote.

    Voting was not compulsory in those elections and half of the electorate stayed at home. But in the constitutional referendum, all 15 million adult Chileans (out of 19 million inhabitants) had to make a choice or pay a fine. The potential stay-at-homes who didn’t know it all yet with all these progressive changes were also forced to speak out. Neoliberalism had not only harmed Chile, the country is one of the richest in Latin America. Do raw materials really need to be nationalized, they wondered. And why should Chile become ‘plurinational’? Not to mention uncomfortable woke themes such as LGBTI rights.

    sown distrust

    “There was a lot of disinformation among those who voted against,” said political scientist Pamela Figueroa over the phone, who works at the University of Santiago. ‘For example, the conservative elite claimed that plurinational means that different laws will apply to indigenous peoples, but that is not stated in the text at all.’ A greater role for the government also deterred. The opposing camp warned that a lefter Chile would mean a poorer Chile. “They managed to sow mistrust.”

    It’s a battle against the established order, Shane shouts from the kitchen where the coffee is simmering. “They have everything, the media, the money, the corporations, the power. And we?’ Hen looks around the little house, movable eyebrows above big eyes. “We have coffee.” Trans activists know this establishment all too well, Leonel says, and every step towards more rights can lead to a fierce backlash.

    When the ultra-conservative cabinet suddenly surfaced on the right last year, he delved into asylum policy in Europe. ‘I looked at the Netherlands.’ Even now that Chile seems to be becoming more progressive, he remains alert. “Maybe after Boric there will be a far-right government, you know? And then we lose everything again. Look at abortion in the US.’ It is precisely this fear that made many of their trans friends eager for the referendum.

    On Friday afternoon, Shane visits 30-year-old clothing designer Kuro (“I define myself as them and him”) who lives in a house with ten other trans people. There are no posters for the constitution on the wall in this commune. “The country is so polarized. It scares me,” Kuro says. “The fascists have already had power in Chile once.” He has a soft smile on his piercing and tattooed face. A dusty window in his attic studio gives a view of snow-capped Andean peaks on the horizon, the low winter sun colors them pink. “If the vote in favour wins, there will be consequences,” he says. “A lot of people will be very angry.”

    act of resistance

    Sunday, the day of the referendum, mid-afternoon. Shane is back at the school where they were abused as a teenager. Today the college serves as a polling station. As an adult trans person, they step into the schoolyard in an exuberant dress. “I hope my vote changes everything.” The ballot is in the box. An act of resistance, perhaps the beginning of a new Chile. Shane is convinced: ‘At least 60 percent will vote in favour.’ But things would turn out differently.