Opinion: Oscar-winning film A Fantastic Woman became an instrument of change in securing transgender rights in Chile

By Alejandra Crosta, University of Oxford and Mirna VohnsenMaynooth University

In the long history of the Academy Awards, only four Latin American films have secured the coveted Oscar statuette for Best Foreign Language Film. The Official Story won in 1986, The Secret in Their Eyes took the award in 2010, A Fantastic Woman was honoured in 2018 and Roma was this year's winner.

While all these films have certainly profited from winning the top prize for a foreign language film, A Fantastic Woman has gone one step further. Hollywood's recognition of this Chilean film gave a decisive push to the Gender Identity Law in Chile, which had been under discussion for five years. 

A draft bill on gender identity was introduced in the Chilean senate on May 7th 2013. Proposed by several LGBT+ rights associations, the text was drafted by a lawyer specialising in human rights and sponsored by a group of senators. However, the process for it to become law was lengthy and beset by legal challenges.

BBC News report on a Chilean school, believed to be the first in the world, predominantly for transgender children and their siblings

The first deadline to submit legislative amendments was extended due to successive postponements. When the senate's Human Rights Commission sent the bill to be voted on in a plenary session, a senator for the right-wing conservative Independent Democratic Union (UDI) organised a consultation process with the Supreme Court, challenging the aspect of the legislation which prohibits the pathologisation of changes of gender and name. 

This delaying tactic opened a lengthy process of to-ing and fro-ing between different commissions and the senate until June 20th 2017, when the Chamber of Deputies’ Commission on Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples sent the draft legislation to the Chamber of Deputies for the second leg of the constitutional process. After going through several constitutional stages, the law was promulgated on November 28th 2018, and published in the Official Journal on December 10, 2018. Finally, six and a half years on from the first draft bill, Chileans will finally see the Gender Identity Law come into force this month.

The Chilean transgender bill gives a person the right to self-identify, irrespective of the gender or name assigned to them at birth. Transgender rights groups maintain that changing one’s assigned gender is a humiliating process in Chile which involves getting reports from psychologists and psychiatrists, and having explicit photos taken. 

Trailer for A Fantasic Woman

During the years of wrangling, the Chilean LGBT+ community worked tirelessly to achieve the victory of the bill. The international success and recognition of A Fantastic Woman first at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Best Feature Film Award, and later at the 2018 Academy Awards strengthened the argument of the campaigners.

Directed by Sebastián Lelio, A Fantastic Woman features transgender actress Daniela Vega as Marina, a transwoman who challenges bigotry and heteronormativity in contemporary Chilean society. The film does not keep to the well-trodden path of featuring cisgender actors to play transgender characters as in the case of Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl (2015) or Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club (2013). The casting of a transgender person in the lead lends an air of authenticity to the story. In fact, the character of Marina draws on Vega's first-hand knowledge of the Chilean transgender community, as she and Lelio worked together to craft this nuanced character. 

A Fantastic Woman tells the story of Marina, a young waitress and singer, who is faced with the sudden death of her older boyfriend, but is not allowed to mourn her loss. She is treated with suspicion and discrimination by both her partner’s family, who reject her principally because she is a transgender woman, and the social institutions. Police, health practitioners and other representatives of society’s power structures challenge Marina because her identity card as a male person does not correspond with her chosen gender identity. As such, the film articulates the tensions that exist in society – a person’s self-identified gender, where it differs from their identity card, generates conflicts in institutional settings. 

Interview with Daniela Vega about A Fantastic Woman

The film demonstrates that an identity card, for a transgender person, has practical consequences. It can mean being denied access to education, healthcare and employment if the information on the card does not reflect the person’s true gender. And only progressive gender recognition legislation can attain this. 

Like Vega, who since her international success has not missed a chance to report the unfavourable situation of transgender people in Chile, Marina fights for her rights and stays resilient in the face of adversity and societal prejudices. By questioning the negative attitude towards transgender persons and giving them voice, the film has become an instrument of change. Not only has it helped secure transgender rights in Chile, but it has also prepared the way for Vega to become the first transgender person to be a presenter at the Academy Awards ceremony in 2018.

Alejandra Crosta is a lector in Spanish in the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages and a lecturer in Spanish at St. Catherine's College, University of OxfordMirna Vohnsen is an assistant lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies at Maynooth University

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ