Trans woman’s struggle at JIP, SEC illustrates discrimination against LGBTQIAP+ community
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
Johanna Cifredo, a trans woman, shared her struggles to obtain her voter’s card on Friday at both the Permanent Registration Board (JIP by its Spanish acronym) office in Bayamón and the State Elections Commission (SEC) headquarters in Hato Rey after officials at both entities denied her passport as a valid document for registration.
Cifredo told The Star that the process to enroll in the electoral registry was humiliating and violent, and that no one from the LGBTQIAP+ community should ever go through an experience like hers. The community organizer also said officials from both offices she visited misidentified her gender, even when she corrected them by saying the pronouns that apply to her are “she” and “her.”
“I am a citizen, they are public servants, they work because of me. Do I pay for their salaries so that they end up referring to me as he/him? Trans youth should not be fighting this for five or 10 more years,” Cifredo said. “It is important that people are aware that the SEC is not there to challenge our right to vote. Their job is not to be a gatekeeper to democracy; it’s the other way around: the SEC is supposed to facilitate the process for democracy. This was not an easy process; it was humiliating.”
Cifredo went with her husband, Michael Fellman, to the JIP office in Bayamón as both wanted to register to vote for the first time in Puerto Rico. Although Fellman got his voter’s card swiftly, Cifredo had to wait as a JIP official looked for her birth certificate; even though she brought her passport, which includes her legal name and gender identity, the employee would not accept it because the JIP had to verify she has not registered before, and allegedly this could only be done using the Demographic Registry’s database.
“In order to vote, you must satisfy four requirements: that you’re 18 years or older, your identification, your American citizenship, and proof that you live here. That’s all you need,” Cifredo said. “My passport is a federal document that the State is obliged to accept.”
While seeing that the JIP official was not able to find Cifredo’s actual name on any birth certificate, she told her that she was not going to find it because she has not changed her name as she is a trans woman and the Registry did not let her change it, although the agency has had to adopt, since 2018, a criteria from the Department of Transportation and Public Works to help trans and non-binary citizens change their names and gender on their birth certificates, according to the Arroyo v. Rosselló case.
“I changed my name [on legal documents] years ago back in the United States; however, in Puerto Rico, they did not accept the court order and told me to hire a lawyer,” Cifredo said. “By the time I needed to get my voter’s card, I did not have time, but I read on the SEC’s webpage that they accepted passports and birth certificates from anyone who was not born in Puerto Rico.”
Cifredo’s discomfort grew as she noticed that JIP employees would misgender her when they were addressing her issue and even told her to come back later, so she and her husband decided to drive to the SEC headquarters in Hato Rey to solve the problem. There she found herself with more confrontations as SEC employees were unclear on what to do, misgendered her again and even pronounced her dead (former) name out loud.
“I told one of the employees that there was an incongruence between the Bayamón and Hato Rey offices, as the employers were bickering with their supervisor about how they were supposed to handle my situation,” she said. “This lady asked me what my birth name was so she could find it in the Demographic Registry, even though she had it written on a small note, and instead of being discreet, she went on saying my dead name out loud. They disrespected my privacy with my husband next to me.”
Trans community unites for their human rights Wale Semidey, a transmasculine activist and artist, found out what happened to Cifredo when she called his wife, Lala González, crying after what happened to her at both the JIP and the SEC. Once he heard her story, he felt the need to organize the trans community in order to demand reparations and respect from the government agencies.
“I felt indignation as a trans man. They messed with the wrong person. Johanna knows her rights; she lived and worked in Washington. She has been an activist for many years,” Semidey said. “They found a person who is aware of her rights, but the trans community does not have enough resources. She, like me, has a well paying job. [Because] I am paid well, I have transportation and can waste time and gas going from one place to another until I fix my problems. Most trans people in Puerto Rico do not have this privilege.”
Semidey, who owns a home with González that works as a safe space for providing gender-reaffirming classes for trans and non-binary people, said it was the right moment to form a coalition and fight for their human rights. Other trans activists such as Kery Jones Santiago and Ivana Fred have agreed to participate.
“This is a trans movement; although we want to separate this matter a bit from the LGBTQIAP+ initials, every ally is more than welcome to join our fight; whether you are cisgender, queer, non-binary, everyone is welcome,” he said. “With that said, we have to start the trans movement. More people have to occupy the streets, more trans people have to occupy political seats, we have no one who is fighting for us.”
A protest will be held on Thursday at 10 a.m. at the SEC entrance, where all trans people are invited to bring their documents as organizers will help them register to vote.
Bayolo: ‘This is unacceptable and unconstitutional’ Mayté Bayolo, a legislative and public policy issues attorney for the Puerto Rico National Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), deemed Cifredo’s situation “unacceptable and unconstitutional” as the situation should have never taken place and it was discriminating against her gender identity.
“Definitely, what happened there was discrimination,” Bayolo said. “What happened to her was embarrassing and it’s even more embarrassing that our public system still does not understand the rights that it must respect.”
The founder of Tu Voto No Se Deja, an ACLU campaign that invites citizens to learn and practice their right to vote, told The Star that she felt disappointed that government officials lack the training to attend to the general public, especially when a new Civil Code is coming into force soon. Likewise, the attorney said that when it comes to documentation, trans people feel uncomfortable because such processes expose them to discrimination and oppression.
“When governor Wanda Vázquez signed the new Civil Code, she told the press that every right should be respected and, furthermore, there were not going to be any restrictions against them [trans citizens],” she said. “These are the things that happen and, indeed, this should have never happened.”
At press time, attempts to reach the SEC for comments on the matter had not been successful.