Kamilia Lahrichi

BUENOS AIRES — Next to a photography exhibition of transsexuals, Ruben Forace touches up his black eyeliner with one hand as he holds a balloon with the rainbow flag in the other.

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“My identity is ambiguous. I’m not trans because I didn’t get a gender-reassignment surgery and I don’t consider myself as a normal gay guy. My partners are heterosexuals and I don’t like going out with gay men,” he says.

Forace, who works as a tourist guide and has identified as a female cross-dresser for the past 10 years, says his identity is fluid. “During the day, I’m a man and I wear clothes for men. At night, when I go out dancing, I am a girl.” Forace goes by Tati at night.

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Forace is one of hundreds of people participating in Buenos Aires' LGBTIQ festival, a week-long series of events to celebrate sexual diversity. Organized by Argentina's Tourism Ministry, the festival features drag queens shows, queer tango classes, sports activities, photography exhibitions, and business networking opportunities. For a week, the city’s pedestrian road signs changed to two men and two women.

Argentina is already a leader in LGBTQ rights, and this week's festival is part of an intentional push to make the Pope’s homeland an international hub for LGBTIQ activity.

“Today, society is opening up so much that there are always new definitions [on gender identity] and the abbreviation LGBT has turned into LGBTIQ to be more inclusive,” says Facundo Suarez, the co-organizer of Argentina’s first festival of transformist arts (FENAT is its acronym in Spanish), which is part of the LGBITQ festival and lasts until August 18.

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An international haven

Catholic Argentina is believed to be the most transgender-friendly nation in the world, according to the World Health Organization. Argentina's 2012 Gender Identity Law allows any Argentine to change their gender designation on official documents without undergoing a psychiatric diagnosis.

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But even as the Argentine government takes great strides in achieving gender equality, there is still LGBTQ discrimination in society.

“There are doctors who consider sexual diversity as a flaw and prefer not to attend to the LGBT community because they believe they don’t deserve it,” says 19-year old Camila Vergara, who works for the Huesped Foundation in Lanus, in the south of Buenos Aires. It raises awareness of HIV.

Argentina, however, is determined to turn Buenos Aires into a rendezvous for the LGBTIQ community worldwide.

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During this week's pride festival, representatives of large corporations such as Unilever, Delta and IBM met in the chic Alvear Palace Hotel in the bourgeois neighborhood of Recoleta to discuss ways to foster gender inclusion at work and boost LGBTIQ tourism.

“Gay tourism is an established market but is constantly growing due to the progression of legislations all over the world that have granted LGBT's equal right, as well as the general acceptance of society,” says Kristin Hansen, who owns a lesbian tourism agency in Majorca. The German woman is married to an Argentine woman.

A 2012 World Tourism Organization report found that gay tourism is a consolidated business and one of the wealthiest markets.

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Shintaro Koizumi, the founder of Out Asia Travel, an LGBT-friendly travel agency based in Tokyo, says Argentina can be an alternative market for the estimated 6% to 7% of Japanese LGBT who cannot come out of the closet.

“Japan is not LGBT-friendly yet. Even though I’m gay, no one beats me nor kills me. People just ignore me and talk behind my back,” he says.

He said ‘yes’

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Argentina has also become a hotspot for LGBT destination weddings. The South American nation was the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriages in 2010 and for three consecutive years has ranked as one of the world's top two destinations – along with Thailand – for high-end gay tourism, according to data compiled by Boutique Agency in the United Kingdom and Gnetwork 360, an LGBT consultancy in Buenos Aires.

Gay-friendly tourism agencies offer packages including wedding clothes, rings and a honeymoon with queer tango shows.

“Gay couples spend on average $1,000 in Argentina besides the cost of the travel package to get married,” which costs $3,190 per couple, says Armando Kon, the owner of BA Gay Travel.

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Wedding packages include the administrative paperwork to get married, accommodation, a dinner with a tango show, excursions at the outskirts of the capital and local transportation – not airfare.

Armando says gay couples have come from the United States, Thailand, Spain, Italy, Germany, Mexico and Peru to get married.

The business aspect of LGBTIQ tourism has led some to wonder if the point of this week's festival is really about promoting equality, or motivated by profit.

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“I don’t think that the government is promoting diversity or that it is in favor of it. It is organizing this festival to be seen positively,” says 25-year old Mariana Portillo from the Argentine city of La Plata.

If the government really wanted to support gender diversity, “there would be teaching about sexual diversity in schools because this really opens your mind,” she says.

Kamilia Lahrichi

Shintaro Koizumi, the founder of Out Asia Travel, an LGBT-friendly travel agency based in Tokyo, says Argentina can be an alternative market for the estimated 6% to 7% of Japanese LGBT who cannot come out of the closet. He traveled to Argentina to participate in the LGBTIQ festival.

Kamilia Lahrichi

A group of transsexual actresses stand in the Usina del Arte venue at the opening of the third edition of Buenos Aires’ LGBTIQ festival on August 1, 2016. If the Argentine government is making great strides in achieving gender equality, there is still discrimination on the ground. “There are doctors who consider sexual diversity as a flaw and prefer not to attend to the LGBT community because they believe they don’t deserve it,” says 19-year old Camila Vergara, who works for the Huesped Foundation in Lanus, in the south of Buenos Aires.

Kamilia Lahrichi

Catholic Argentina is believed to be the most transgender-friendly nation in the world, according to the World Health Organization. In 2015, it passed what is believed to be the world's first law of its kind: the Buenos Aires province government is required to set aside at least 1% of its jobs for transgender. In addition, Argentina's 2012 Gender Identity Law allows any Argentine to change freely gender on official documents without undergoing a psychiatric diagnosis.

Kamilia Lahrichi

Ruben Forace, an Argentine tourist guide, identifies as a female cross-dresser. “During the day, I’m a man and I wear clothes for men. At night, when I go out dancing, I am a girl,” he says. He shows a picture of himself dressed up as a woman on his cellphone.

Kamilia Lahrichi

“Each event in this festival seeks to enhance Buenos Aires’ ability to host LGBTIQ members and, this way, keep building a society we are all proud of,” says Andy Freire, the Argentine Minister of Modernization, Innovation and Technology, during the government-sponsored LGBTIQ festival in Buenos Aires.

Kamilia Lahrichi

The seven-day LGBTIQ festival, organized by Argentina’s Tourism Ministry, has brought together Argentine government officials, LGBTIQ-friendly organizations, chambers of commerce and an international crowd to celebrate sexual diversity. It has featured drag queens shows, tango queer classes, sport activities, photography exhibitions and business talks on inclusion.

Kamilia Lahrichi

“We want people to get closer to the LGBTIQ community and realize that we are all equal and we should be able to express it the way we want because we are a free country and Buenos Aires is an extremely pluralistic city,” says the festival’s organizer, Felipe Crevatini.

Kamilia Lahrichi

The festival also seeks to shed light on identity labels. “Today, society is opening up so much that there are always new definitions [on gender identity] and the abbreviation LGBT has turned into LGBTIQ to be more inclusive,” says Facundo Suarez, the co-organizer of Argentina’s first festival of transformist arts (FENAT is its acronym in Spanish), which is part of the LGBITQ festival but until August 18.

Kamilia Lahrichi

My name is Lucas. I like Patti Smith, Sailor Moon, reading and going to the cinema. When they put labels (HIV positive, gay, tattooed, etc.) without knowing me, I get lost and I disappear. They objectify me. I am not a virus, I am Lucas. I tell you, I tell myself,” reads the Spanish poem by Lucas Fauno Gutierrez during an art exhibition on transsexuals at the Buenos Aires’ LGBITQ festival.

Kamilia Lahrichi

Argentina has become an LGBT destination for foreigners to tie the knots. The South American nation was the first country in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriages in 2010.

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Besides, Argentina was ranked for the third consecutive year amongst the two destinations – with Thailand – for high-end gay tourism, according to data compiled by Boutique Agency in the United Kingdom and Gnetwork 360, an LGBT-focused consultancy in Buenos Aires.

The Argentine Festival of Transformist Arts (FENAT) and Sitges Buenos Aires
The Argentine Festival of Transformist Arts (FENAT) and Sitges Buenos Aires
The Argentine Festival of Transformist Arts (FENAT) and Sitges Buenos Aires
The Argentine Festival of Transformist Arts (FENAT) and Sitges Buenos Aires

“When you say ‘tranformist’, there could be a confusion between the transvestite identity, who are persons who chose to be transvestites in their daily lives, transsexuality, which has to do with gender, and transformism, which is changing gender for artistic purposes,” explains Facundo Suarez, the co-organizer of Argentina’s first festival of transformist arts (FENAT is its acronym in Spanish), which is part of the LGBITQ festival but until August 18.

Fabio Sirello, Cooperativa Artv Trans

Nicole, an Argentine transsexual working as an actress in Buenos Aires, poses in front of the camera. She has been acting and singing since she is 13. She is part of a transsexual art cooperative in the Argentine capital.

Kamilia Lahrichi

Queer tango dancers Liliana Chenlo y Yuko Artak perform in a bar in Buenos Aires' historic neighborhood of San Telmo as part of the LGBTIQ festival on August 5. Queer tango refers to same-sex tango or open-role tango.

Kamilia Lahrichi

"Queer tango has not been well-received by the traditional tango milieu because tango is quite structured, conventional and traditional so there is a narrow-minded aspect in tango that requires a man-woman pair. Luckily, queer tango is gaining traction," says Yuko Artak during a queer tango class on August 5.

Kamilia Lahrichi

“My identity is ambiguous. I’m not trans because I didn’t get a gender-reassignment surgery and I don’t consider myself as a normal gay guy. My partners are heterosexuals and I don’t like going out with gay men,” says Ruben Forace, as he shows up as "Tati", his female crossdresser's name, during the festival's queer tango class.

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