On the night of the elections for the Venezuelan parliament this month, the opposition Democratic Unity coalition took bets among themselves about the result.
The polls said they would take power from the Socialist government for the first time in 17 years, but the boldest of their predictions was that they would get 99 seats.
When the final results were in they got 112 out of 167, a landslide.
This also gave them the two-thirds majority they needed to try and unseat President Nicolás Maduro before his term is up in 2019.
But that wasn’t the only surprise.
Among those elected was Tamara Adrián, a lawyer and human-rights campaigner, who will become an Alternate Deputy for Caracas, the country’s capital, when she is sworn in on Jan. 5.
She is the first transgender member of the Parliament in Venezuela and only the second trans member of a legislature in the whole of Latin America, the first being Michelle Suárez Bértora in Uruguay last year.
That Adrián won the seat at all is an achievement—but that it happened in Venezuela is extraordinary.
Despite having the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela has been run into the ground by the so-called “Socialist revolution” started in 1998 by former President Hugo Chavez and continued by Maduro, his handpicked successor.
Venezuela now has chronic food shortages, an official unemployment rate of 18 percent, and inflation of 159 percent, the highest in the world.
The Bolivar, the nation’s currency, is so worthless people have begun using it as napkins.
Lesbian, gay, and transgender people have endured hardships beyond the general population and, under Chavez and Maduro, the rights they had won under previous administrations were erased.
According to a report (PDF) prepared for the United Nations in May by the LGBTI Network of Venezuela, as a group they are now in a “total state of helplessness, abandonment and absolutely unprotected by the Venezuelan State.”
LGBT people have no rights to live as couples, no rights to get married, and no protection at all from discrimination.
The report says: “These situations are motivated by inaction and failure of public institutions in the administration of justice against the cases related to sexual diversity.”
Speaking by Skype from her office in Caracas, Adrián said that her demands for equality and a better economy for Venezuela are closely bound together.
In the short term, Adrián will also force the Venezuelan Parliament to be more civilized.
She said: “My sole presence in the Parliament, it brings fresh air to an environment that was full of homophobia and transphobia.
“In the past, in this Assembly, people have been calling each other ‘mariconson,’ which is ‘faggot,’ basically. It’s unacceptable to say that in a Parliament. My presence will require tolerance and I will very strongly request that respect.
“On the other hand, as I have in my agenda the fight for equality, as soon as possible I will be pushing forward for getting a discussion on a gender identity law, anti-discrimination law, and equal marriage law. These three laws are indispensable.”
Adrián is realistic about what she can achieve while in power, and accepts that in the first year the economy is the priority.
She said: “People are hungry here. I mean people are hungry. Poverty rose from 37 percent in 1998 to now 73 percent, according to the ‘Proyecto Pobreza’ (Poverty Project), an independent study. The figure for 2015 is that 73 percent of all the population is poor. We only have about 22 percent of middle class. We used to have 60 or 70 percent middle class.
“Now we are the poorest country in Latin America. We have to be very serious about that. We were elected because people are hungry. We have to be very, very conscious of this and we have to give them answers very soon.’
Adrián was asked to join the opposition in 2009 by Leopoldo López, the leader of her Voluntad Popular party, which is part of the Democratic Unity coalition.
Lopez is now in jail, serving a 14-year sentence for inciting violence during anti-government protests—his supporters say the charges were trumped up—and got word to Adrián from his cell that he wanted her to run for a seat in Caracas.
Adrián describes him as “absolutely visionary” in terms of the impact her candidacy would have in Venezuela for the promotion of human rights.
She says that Voluntad Popular was the first party in the country to include the fight for equal rights in their goals.
Their slogan is: Todos los derechos para todas las personas, which means: “All the rights for all the people.”
When she was out campaigning, Adrián said that she used personal examples and anecdotes to illustrate how unequal and unjust Venezuela has become.
She tells me that when she got the official paperwork confirming her candidacy for Parliament, the documents were all under her former name, Tomás Mariano Adrián Hernández.
Adrián, a lesbian, has been with her wife for 20 years but she could not get married under her name; instead it had to be under her former name.
Everything official she does has to be registered under her former name; her properties, her car, her driving license, her bank account, and her passport.
If she wants to buy food at one of the government stores, not only does she have to queue up for five hours with everyone else, she has to show an identity card that does not square with what the shopkeeper sees in front of them.
Adrián is aware that some people in that situation have been refused service by homophobic or transphobic store owners.
Adrián read me out some of the insults she receives on social media every day from evangelicals and extreme Catholic groups like Opus Dei, wryly noting: “Oh, not so many today, that’s surprising.”
She translated one from Twitter that reads: “Do whatever you want, God didn’t agree with this. Those who promote it must go to hell.”
Another said: “Sodom And Gomorrah were destroyed because of the perversions you are promoting, my friend.”
Adrián said that fighting back against such intolerance is not bravery, it is a matter of survival.
She said: “People look at you like a hero or heroine. The fact is that you do it or you kill yourself, or you are infinitely unhappy. I was not willing to kill myself so I had to do it.
“It’s not like I’m brave or very courageous. It’s like being yourself. It’s the only way to be happy.”
Adrián was born in Caracas to Roman Catholic parents, and said that from the age of 4 she became aware of her gender identity.
She said: “It’s the same time when everybody else realizes his or her gender identity. The sole problem is that you have to resolve the fact that this gender identity doesn’t match with your gender, or what’s between your legs.
“From that time I remember the sense of discomfort, of being a boy and the fact I couldn’t express who I was because I was so afraid of betraying the confidence of my parents. It was a difficult time.”
Adrián “tried with all my heart to hide who I was but by the time I turned about 13, trying to avoid bullying, I tried to pretend I was very male. By that time I started to experience bullying. The way I found to avoid bullying was to pretend I was very male.” She laughed.
“By 15 I tried to experience, or by 17 I started to experiment, with hormones. What is changing fortunately is the fact that some parents and some doctors are now aware of the situation and may help their children just to experience who they are and not to punish them or expel them from their houses.”
Adrián graduated from the private Andrés Bello Catholic University in Caracas in 1976. She then moved to France and got a doctorate in law from the Panthéon-Assas University in Paris, the top law school in the country.
When she returned to Caracas she married a woman and had two children, a son, 29, and a daughter, 26, with whom she is still close. After the marriage ended Adrián continued her transition to being a woman.
In 2002 she went to Thailand for surgery, something she is happy to talk about, while wanting to emphasize that it was her choice that was appropriate to her circumstances.
Adrián said: “In this moment of the trans community, operations, surgical operations, depend on the person, it’s not an obligation for the change of the identity. I’ve changed a lot in the past 10 years and now in Latin America, in Mexico, Colombia, Uruguay, and Argentina you can get your identity recognized in spite of what your genitalia is. The standard has changed.”
Adrián went to Thailand in 2002. “This is not something you do from one day to the next. It was after many, many years of transition. When you feel that you are ready. If you feel discomfort with your genitalia you have the right to do it. If you do not feel discomfort you may not do it. It depends on the person.”
During her career Adrián has established herself as one of the leading LGBT voices in not just Venezuela, but the whole of Latin America.
She has served a string of high-profile roles such as a special adviser on human rights for the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization. Her awards include the Luis María Olaso prize for human rights.
Adrián has been asked to lecture in countries like Colombia, Peru, Switzerland, France, and Italy—countries which have published many of her books and papers.
In May 2004 she brought her own case before the Supreme Court and requested that her identity be recognized. Eleven years on no judge has heard the case, even though Adrián tries to raise it every six months.
Adrián has also submitted a draft of her gender identity law, a civil partnership law, a non-discrimination law, and a civil registry law to the government.
They have also been ignored.
“The other day I met a trans boy,” Adrián said. “He’s now 17 and he started his transition at 10 with the support of his parents. Now he’s 17 and he’s a very happy young man.”
He has a beautiful girlfriend, Adrián said, and doesn’t live in Venezuela because he has double nationality: he’s Spanish and living in Spain.
“That case is very difficult because in Spain he has the passport and the identity card as a male, with a male’s name. In Venezuela he has a female name and female passport. When he comes to Venezuela he has to get in as a Venezuelan with a (woman’s) passport and with a (woman’s) name.
“The worst thing is that he is a person who has two different names and two different passports. That’s unacceptable.”
Adrián is chair of the International Day of Action Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, a role that brings her further exposure on the international stage.
She said that she speaks out because she wants others to learn from her example to be unashamed of who you are.
Adrián said: “The younger you start this journey, this wonderful journey, the younger you start it, the easier it will be.”