Consuelo Torrino has faced discrimination all her life just because she is gay. She was 16-years-old when she “outed” herself to her family, unashamed of her sexuality and not wanting to live a lie.
Torrino paid a price for her bravery, however: she was thrown out of the family home and left to fend for herself.
Her parents could not accept her being gay, nor could they accept society judging them for raising a lesbian.
“Fifty years ago Bolivia was a very different place,” Torrino told teleSUR English. “There was no place for me or people like me to go and be ourselves. Things might not be much better today but at least the younger gay people have places they can meet and dance.”
Torrino was kicked out of school when she was studying to be a doctor, though eventually managed to finish her studies. Now aged 66, she is still battling against prejudice, discrimination and heartbreak.
Three years ago Torrino lost her partner of 25 years to cancer. Just three weeks ago she faced fresh loss when one of her close gay friends killed herself because she could no longer walk. Her friend had “become tired as she had faced a lifetime of discrimination,” she said.
When Torrino was asked to star in a government video aiming to change attitudes toward Bolivia’s LGBT community, she jumped at the chance.
“There is a lot of discrimination,” she noted. “First, because I'm a lesbian ... Second, for being a woman ... Third, for being elderly. So it’s triple discrimination in my case.”
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Bolivia’s elderly lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual community are amongst the most discriminated against in all of society.
They struggle to find work, with 9 out of 10 transgender women forced into sex work because they can’t legally change their identity and get the proper papers required to find other work.
Laura used to live a conventional life as a married man until she turned 30. But she was never comfortable with that life. She eventually decided to come out as transgender and to start living publicly as a woman.
Laura was rejected by her family when she told them she wanted to become a woman. | Photo: teleSUR
Her family couldn’t accept her new life as Laura and she was abandoned. “I don’t really have a relationship with them today,” she told teleSUR.
She now spends her nights as a sex worker to earn a living but she refuses to be beaten.
Laura has become an activist for the marginalized elderly gay community and transgender people and she’s open about her work life.
“I could only find menial jobs at first,” she said. “They used to say, ‘You want to be a woman, then wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash the curtains.’ That’s the only work they would give me.”
As a sex worker Laura has more control over her life, but it is fraught with danger.
''Sex work here in Bolivia is not recognized as such. There are no social benefits, no pension, and no social services. It has a lot of risks too,” Laura told teleSUR.
The Bolivian government admits the rights of older LGBT citizens are often not respected, but it hopes the experiences of people like Terrino and Laura will help change public attitudes.
“What we want is solidarity, with more clinics and geriatric services where we can go to with confidence,” said openly gay doctor Mildred Escobar Marquez, “and not feel badly treated by the government or the health staff.”
Same-sex marriages are still not recognized in this fiercely conservative country. Even less so are the rights of transgender men and women.
The government hopes in time opinions will change.
Terrino, who’s waited her whole life to be “accepted,” is not holding her breath.
“I still feel alone and abandoned as do many of my gay friends,” she said. And time is not something people like her have much to waste.