Death of first non-binary judge in Mexico instils fear in LGBTQ+ community

Jesús Ociel Baena's suspected murder reveals dangers to transgender and non-binary people

Hundreds of people demonstrate in Mexico City after the death of Jesus Ociel Baena
Candlelit vigils and demonstrations have taken place in several Mexican cities following the death of the prominent activist
(Image credit: Luis Cortes/Getty Images)

A prominent activist and Mexico's first openly non-binary judge has been found dead in a suspected murder that has led to "an outpouring of grief" from the country's LGBTQ+ community.

Jesús Ociel Baena, 39, was found at home on Monday "slain with a razor blade", reported Reuters. A person identified by local media as Baena's partner Dorian Nieves Herrera was also found dead. Candlelit vigils and demonstrations have taken place in several cities, where "many shed tears and speakers lashed out at the insults and acts of violence that remain a common occurrence for many gay, transgender and non-binary Mexicans".

The authorities said that Herrera, 37, appeared to have killed Baena before taking his own life. But LGBTQ+ leaders in the country are "questioning whether such a swift assessment fits what they say is a pattern by authorities of effectively dismissing grisly killings involving LGBTQ people as crimes of passion", said The New York Times (NYT).

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Baena's death has provoked calls to "determine if the magistrate had been targeted for promoting the rights of nonbinary people".

Who was Jesús Ociel Baena?

Baena, a "pioneering nonbinary figure", made history in 2022 when they became the first openly non-binary member of the Mexican judiciary, said the NYT. Their appointment "was viewed as a breakthrough moment for LGBTQ individuals" in the country, said Al Jazeera.

This year, Baena became one of the first Mexicans to receive a non-binary passport, and the first in their home state of Coahuila to be described as non-binary on their birth certificate. "Deal with it!" they posted on Twitter in May. 

Just weeks before their death, they succeeded in being officially referred to as the gender-neutral "le magistrade" for magistrate, rather than "el magistrado" or "la magistrada".

Baena would "regularly publish photos and videos of themselves in skirts, heels and toting a rainbow fan in court offices", said The Guardian. They said they had regularly received death threats.

What happened?

The bodies of Baena and their partner were found by their cleaner, according to the Aguascalientes state prosecutor, Jesus Figueroa. Baena had suffered 20 cuts from a shaving razor, including one to the neck that was likely to have been fatal. Later, the prosecutor's office said Herrera had "tested positive for methamphetamines", according to The Associated Press.

But many of Baena's friends and family have rejected the state's hypothesis, according to Reuters. "It's not true," said their father, Juan Baena, at the funeral, next to the pair of coffins draped with rainbow flags.

Baena's death could intimidate or even incite violence against other LGBTQ+ people, said Alejandro Brito, director of the LGBTQ+ rights group Letra S. "If this was a crime motivated by prejudice, these kinds of crimes always have the intention of sending a message," Brito said. "The message is an intimidation, it's to say: 'This is what could happen to you if you make your identities public.'"

What is Mexico like for LGBTQ+ people?

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador "has long had a trying relationship with Mexico's LGBT community", wrote Genaro Lozano, professor in political science at Mexico City's Iberoamerican University, in the Americas Quarterly journal in 2020. But his time in office since 2018 "has coincided with unprecedented progress for LGBT rights" in Mexico, despite his attempts to "keep those rights at arms' length".

All of Mexico's 32 states recognise same-sex marriage, as of October 2022, and people can legally change gender and name in 18 states – making Mexico something of an outlier in Central America. Access to antiretroviral drugs to treat HIV has also drastically improved. However, violence connected to the crackdown on the drug trade affects the LGBTQ+ community "in unique and often hidden ways", said Lozano.

In 2019 alone, 117 LGBTQ+ people were killed in Mexico, up almost a third on 2018 and the highest number since 2015, according to Letra S. More than half the victims were transgender women. In 2021, Mexico recorded the highest number of murders of transgender people in the world behind Brazil, according to data collated by Transgender Europe.

Any attack on LGBTQ+ figures "shakes people and instils fear", non-binary activist Alex Orué told the NYT, but Baena's death was "even more painful". 

"If someone with that level of visibility, with that public position being a magistrate, and also with the protection of the state because they were living under threat, has this happen to them, what can the rest of us expect?"

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