For four years, up until December 2023, Feda Baeza (Buenos Aires, 1978) was the director of Palais de Glace, Argentina’s Palace of the Arts — a government-run exhibition space and arts institute housed in a former ice rink that awards prizes and provides funding to artists across the country. Baeza was the first transgender person to hold the position, and her tenure oversaw a major increase in funding and support for artists and activists from minority communities and in the country’s provinces.

She resigned from the role with the arrival of far-right populist, Javier Milei, to the presidency, fearing that she would be ‘neutralized’, ideologically opposed to the government, and faced with the threat of cuts to funding for the country’s cultural institutions.

Instead, Baeza stepped aside and into the ranks of her fellow citizens opposing and protesting against what she calls the new government’s “aggressive” policies against minorities such as LGBQT+ and non-binary individuals, as well as Indigenous peoples. A curator, visual artist, and author, Baeza sees art and its promotion as activism, and considers her work to be vital to providing an inclusive space, a refuge for artists, fomenting freedom of expression and inclusion within the Argentine arts scene.

Civic space in Argentina is considered to be narrowed according to the CIVICUS Monitor. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and restrictions on protest are among the issues affecting civic space in the country. In 2023 a constitutional reform proposal to restrict protests was approved in Jujuy Province which prohibits “road and highway blockades, as well as all other disruptions to the right to free circulation of inhabitants of the province and their legal consequences.”

Further attempts to limit civic space have led to protests such as the nationwide demonstrations that took place in January 2024 against the government’s “wave of privatizations, ferocious spending cuts, a major expansion of presidential powers, and a scaling back of workers’ rights and the right to protest,” according to the Guardian. At the time, Baeza was quoted as saying of the protests: “We’re fighting against the way in which the far right is basically trying to eliminate our rights of existence on all levels, from healthcare to work."

The shrinking of public spending and civic space in Argentina is one of the core issues for Baeza who says protest and resistance is part of Argentinian culture. Here she tells her story to Global Citizen.

Art has saved my life, it has afforded me my own space. Four years ago I transitioned, and, as a transgender person, art was always an important space, a refuge. Becoming part of a minority made me become aware of the importance of social recognition, creating a place where one can imagine oneself fitting in where it was more difficult to before.

I was born and brought up in Buenos Aires, in a working class neighborhood. I studied art history at the Philosophy and Letters Faculty at the Universidad de Buenos Aires, and worked in communications for a few years. The dictatorship ended when I was five years old, and I saw the leaders put on trial, and the struggle of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. Then I lived through Argentina’s 2001 economic crisis and the deep cuts to public education funding.

I had been abroad to work and study, but I always wanted to come back. It seemed to me more useful to be here. I’m a very settled person. I’ve worked as a curator and have been a professor at the Universidad Nacional de las Artes for the past 20 years, where I founded the art curation course as a way of trying to put an end to the elitism in curatorship. And so I also studied painting, sculpture, and then I began writing essays. State education in Argentina has always generated a different kind of awareness, there is more diversity of people, students who have a different idea of culture and which is a fundamental field of study.

My mother was a school mistress, in a public primary school, and my father was a militant opposing the dictatorship in the late 1970s, so I have a tradition of activism in my family.

For four years Feda Baeza was the director of Palais de Glace, Argentina’s Palace of the Arts — a government-run exhibition space and arts institute housed in a former ice rink that awards prizes and provides funding to artists across the country.
Image: Violeta Capasso for Global Citizen

Democracy came very late to the transgender community. I feel that, when I was able to accept myself as trans, my universe would not have been complete without the recognition of the people within that sphere. I have realized the importance of working as a community, creating a world that is different from that which surrounds us, and that gives one’s life meaning. It’s more fun, more valuable. There is a phrase in the novel Bad Girls by [Argentine transgender author] Camila Sosa Villada: “Being a transvestite is a party” — and I feel the same. I look at it from the perspective of enjoyment. Being a transvestite is a fight against injustice, but it is also understanding that emancipation can also be enjoyable.

But, being transgender and holding a public position of responsibility, as I did, means that people are always questioning whether you have the capability and whether you are in a condition to occupy that position. Although nobody says so, in everyday life you realize there is a certain mistrust. Overcoming that implies working very hard, doing a very good job. You need to prove yourself with achievements. One has to prove that one does not have different capabilities.

I was able to overcome that barrier and assume the role. Surpassing that awakened a different level of awareness and reasoning. Without seeking it you become a person who people regard with affection, but it also creates expectations, and that becomes a huge responsibility. The positive side is being able to live up to those expectations and feel that affection, although there is also a lot of prejudice. My life is different to that of others, I’m something of an outsider. You have to make an effort with people who, sometimes, are a little fearful. I have to make an effort so that people don’t see me as strange.

I think that life for me as a transgender activist is possible thanks to the large movement that exists in Argentina, in the media, on TV, and in many spaces. There have been great advances in Argentina. There are small nuclei of mistrust, but in recent times, and before Milei won the election, there began to be a movement of resistance, and the figure of Milei in some ways is a response to that resistance, and that has always been so encouraging for me. Sometimes there is intolerance. I have a circle of friends in which I am understood, within a friendly atmosphere, and the presence of transgender people within the arts scene, here in Buenos Aires and in other parts of the country, has grown. There has been a movement to bring us together and open more spaces for us. I feel like we are seeing a cultural change that will not abate. The change is unstoppable.

I think that Argentina’s cultural output over the next four years will be very interesting, as we saw in Brazil during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro. I think we are going to come up with interesting responses [to the new government’s policies]. I have faith in that happening. With my writing, I see myself working in an independent space, and as a teacher [in the Universidad Nacional de las Artes] I form part of a family; there is work to be done in university classrooms, which are quieter spaces but are also where one always hears the rumors of what is going to happen.

One is only a good professor if one listens, and I like the challenge that being in the classroom brings. I hear things that I had not thought about, and it makes me look at things differently. The students help me a lot, it’s a place to exchange opinions and debate, there are always voices to be heard. It’s beautiful to be able to say that one was wrong. That I was living in a certain way and that I realized that that was not the only way.

A curator, visual artist, and author, Baeza sees art and its promotion as activism, and considers her work to be vital to providing an inclusive space, a refuge for artists, fomenting freedom of expression and inclusion within the Argentine arts scene.
Image: Violeta Capasso for Global Citizen

In the [anti-government] protests I always felt defeated. I’m a very local person, and my big fear is that the place I call home will change, that you no longer recognize it and you no longer recognize yourself. And I felt a bit depressed. But over time I realized that we Argentines do things differently, and that is a catharsis. So I went out to protest again when I realized that doing so helps to lift me up.

Whenever I started to cry I realized that it was time to go out onto the streets again. And we began to organize, with a group of artists and people I know. Repression [by the government] makes you want to be among people. It creates solidarity, a community. Argentina has a long history of protesting. If we didn’t protest, this country would be very different. In Brazil they have their carnival and in Argentina we have marches. That ability to go out onto the street and protest is something that characterizes us.

With the arrival of Milei we’ve seen a return to protests after the pandemic, and with greater participation. The government authorized the use of rubber bullets against protesters and more than 300 people were injured in protests in February. There have been direct threats made to the protesters by the government. Transgender people have always participated in the protests since the reestablishment of democracy [in 1983]. There has been no fear of facing off against the police. If transgender people didn’t participate before it was because they felt they didn’t have the same rights as other people. But now we participate more, we have our own agenda, calling for the same benefits as everybody else, and now I think there is a greater number of people participating than before.

Milei’s strategy is not such a novelty, the right wing has put its foot firmly into other countries, such as the U.S. and Brazil. It’s like a franchise that moves from country to country, and here we’ve also been trapped by it. But in Argentina we mobilize, it’s almost a permanent action. And Argentina’s cultural scene has remained alive, the working classes have a kind of sovereign cultural scene. Argentina’s cultural development, in recent years, has also been largely thanks to the government’s support for it. The protests [in February] helped to stop the passage of Milei’s proposed reforms, which failed to achieve approval in parliament. I was invited to Congress to speak about how his proposals would affect the cultural scene. Milei has very little representation in Congress, despite the fact that he won the presidency with a landslide.

Governmental support for culture is very centralized, and channeled through the country’s large cultural institutions. Part of Milei’s proposal has been to close those institutions, which are run by major figures in the local cultural scene. The idea is to erase those institutions — through the argument that nobody goes to the theater or the cinema — in order to appropriate the funds previously channeled to those institutions, in what Milei says is the need to fight a battle against spending on culture, given the high cost of living and the fall in real wages. The government also wants to eliminate inclusive language from all official communications and return to a universal, masculine form. But the use of a neutral language is important. What they are trying to do is create a smokescreen to cover up the bad news about the economy, and focus on growing their hardcore support.

"Art has saved my life, it has afforded me my own space. Four years ago I transitioned, and, as a transgender person, art was always an important space, a refuge," says Baeza.
Image: Violeta Capasso for Global Citizen

I resigned from the museum, a national institution with little autonomy, because I saw that I would be able to do more outside of it. I felt if I stayed there I would be neutralized. We tried to give a voice to a more diverse cross-section of the population and forge a link with dissidents, and Argentina has a strong tradition of dissidence. Of the 45 awards the government hands out each year to artists, less than 5% went to the transgender community.

During the four years that I was director of the museum we chalked up a lot of achievements, we achieved a budget increase and we increased the amount of money awarded as prizes or scholarships, and we established eight prizes that award a lifetime pension for artists over the age of sixty. Women in art are always valued less, and now we have made it so that 50% of the awards must go to women and the other 50% to men. We also launched a series of debates with artists from across the country, with social organizations, so that there would be a space for artists from the provinces, so that 50% of the funds allocated went to artists from outside Buenos Aires. We saw a record number of people signing up to study at the Palais de Glace and we democratized the space. And we also awarded grants to transgender artists for the first time.

Now I’ve started writing fiction and I have published a short extract of a novel in progress, La Flor del Sexo. It is autofiction, written in the first person, the protagonist is a transvestite, and there are fragments of stories, vignettes about adolescence and about the present, and about sex and relationships.

Writing it has been like learning about myself. It speaks a lot about enjoyment, about love, falling out of love, about sadness and loneliness. It’s also very visual, and about nightlife, about how people think, and what people think of us. The transgender community is one in which many people have not had access to education, to healthcare, to employment opportunities, and we have to think about how to create a community and educate people.

As Told to Adam Critchley, the article has been lightly edited for clarity.

The 2023-2024 In My Own Words Series was made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

In My Own Words

Demand Equity

Art Saved My Life. Now I Stand Up to a Government That Doesn't Want Me to Exist

By Feda Baeza