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Honduras government institutions ‘are murdering us’

Lack of opportunities, violence prompt LGBTQ people to migrate

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La Ceiba, Honduras, on July 21, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Editor’s note: International News Editor Michael K. Lavers was on assignment for the Washington Blade in Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico from July 11-25.

LA CEIBA, Honduras — Leonela and Jerlín, her partner of 11 years, and their school-age daughter live in La Ceiba, a city on Honduras’ Caribbean coast.

Jerlín was a bus driver in San Pedro Sula, the country’s commercial capital, until gang members shot him three times in 2012 because he couldn’t pay the extortion money from which they demanded from him each month. Jerlín, Leonela and their daughter subsequently fled to La Ceiba, which is about three hours east of San Pedro Sula.

“We left,” Jerlín told the Washington Blade on July 20 during an interview at the offices of Organización Pro Unión Ceibeña (Oprouce), a La Ceiba-based advocacy group. “We fled from there.”

Jerlín migrated to Mexico in January 2019, but returned to Honduras less than a month later because Leonela was in the hospital. The couple and their daughter migrated to Mexico a year later. 

Leonela asked for a Mexican humanitarian visa for her and her daughter once they arrived in Ciudad Hidalgo, a Mexican border city that is across the Suchiate River from Tecún Umán, Guatemala.

Leonela told the Blade that she planned to ask for asylum in Mexico and wanted to go to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of Mexico’s Chiapas state, to find work. Leonela said she and Jerlín instead decided to return to Honduras because they did not want their daughter to further endure the “inhumane” conditions of the migrant detention center in Tapachula, a city that is roughly 20 miles northwest of Ciudad Hidalgo, in which they were living.

“We decided it was better to allow them to deport us,” said Jerlín.

A U.N. Refugee Agency mural in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, that faces the Suchiate River, which marks the border between Mexico and Guatemala, advises migrants of their rights once they enter Mexico. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Jerlín, Leonela and their daughter returned to Honduras in May 2020. Someone shot at their house on July 10, 2020.

“They couldn’t even do what people wanted them to do, perhaps even buring us alive,” said Leonela.

Leonela and Jerlín are among the many LGBTQ Hondurans who have decided to leave Honduras in order to escape violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Vice President Kamala Harris and other Biden administration officials have acknowledged anti-LGBTQ violence is one of the “root causes” of migration from Honduras and neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador.

Title 42, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the coronavirus pandemic, remains in place. The White House has repeatedly told migrants not to travel to the U.S.

Roxsana Hernández, a trans Honduran woman with HIV, died at a New Mexico hospital on May 25, 2018, while in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. 

Natasha, another trans Honduran woman, arrived in Matamoros, a Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, on Oct. 12, 2019. The previous administration forced her to pursue her U.S. asylum case in Mexico under its Migrant Protection Protocols. (The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the Biden administration to reinstate MPP.)

The Blade interviewed Natasha on Feb. 27 at a Matamoros shelter that Rainbow Bridge Asylum Seekers, a program for LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants that Resource Center Matamoros, a group that provides assistance to asylum seekers and migrants in the Mexican border city, helped create. The U.S. less than two weeks later allowed Natasha to enter the country.

Natasha, a transgender woman from Honduras who asked for asylum in the U.S., in Matamoros, Mexico, on Feb. 27, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Oprouce Executive Director Sasha Rodríguez, who is trans, has participated in the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program.

She said a lack of employment and housing associated with the pandemic has prompted more Hondurans to migrate to the U.S., Mexico and Costa Rica. Rodríguez also told the Blade the U.S. and “our countries sell an American dream that doesn’t exist.”

“Why don’t these American organizations say don’t go,” she said, specifically referring to trans people who have decided to leave Honduras. “Here they see it as beautiful. They are already in the United States, but they were raped while trying to get there. They were kidnapped.”

Organización Pro Unión Ceibeña Executive Director Sasha Rodríguez in her office in La Ceiba, Honduras, on July 20, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Alexa, a 27-year-old trans woman from La Ceiba, told the Blade she has friends who live in Mexico. Alexa said she would like to leave Honduras, but she doesn’t want to leave her mother alone.

“I don’t want to leave her alone and abandon her because I have always fought for her,” Alexa told the Blade during an interview at Oprouce. “She supports me as a woman.”

Alexa said she served a nearly 3-year prison sentence for attempted murder, even though she was defending herself against a woman who was hitting her in the face with a rock. Alexa began to sob when she started to tell the Blade about the Salvadoran man who raped her in prison. She said the warden then forced her to cut her hair and guards doused her with “ice cold water” in an isolation cell.

“I was a woman,” said Alexa. “They made me a man.”

Alexa told the Blade that other prisoners tried to kill her. She said she also tried to die by suicide several times until her release on Jan. 27.

Alexa said she has not been able to find a job since she left prison. She also told the Blade that gang members continue to threaten her.

“It is sometimes very difficult to lead the lifestyle that we lead as trans women in Honduras,” she said, referring to anti-trans discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities.

Venus, a 30-year-old trans woman who is also from La Ceiba, echoed Alexa.

“To be a trans person is synonymous with teasing, harassment, violence and even death,” Venus told the Blade at Oprouce.

Venus said Honduran soldiers regularly attack trans women. She told the Blade a lack of access to health care, machismo and patriarchal attitudes are among the myriad other issues that she and other trans Hondurans face.

“We don’t have access to education, to health (care), to a job,” said Venus. “Above all we are fighting for a gender-based law that recognizes us as women and men.”

Venus added she, like Alexa, would leave Honduras “if I was given the opportunity to do so.”

Landmark ruling finds Honduras responsible for trans woman’s murder

Red Lésbica Cattrachas, a lesbian feminist human rights group based in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, notes 373 LGBTQ Hondurans were reported killed in the country between 2009-2020.

Statistics indicate 119 of those murdered were trans. Red Lésbica Cattrachas also noted 18 of the LGBTQ Hondurans who were reported killed were in Atlántida department in which La Ceiba is located.

Vicky Hernández was a trans activist and sex worker with HIV who worked with Colectivo Unidad Color Rosa, a San Pedro Sula-based advocacy group.

Hernández’s body was found in a San Pedro Sula street on June 29, 2009, hours after the coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya from power. Hernández and two other trans women the night before ran away from police officers who tried to arrest them because they were violating a curfew.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in June issued a landmark ruling that found Honduras responsible for Hernández’s murder.

The ruling ordered Honduras to pay reparations to Hernández’s family and enact laws that protect LGBTQ people from violence and discrimination. The government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose brother, former Congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, is serving a life sentence in the U.S. after a federal jury convicted him of trafficking tons of cocaine into the country, has not publicly responded to the ruling.

Rodríguez noted to the Blade that Oprouce and other advocacy groups have been fighting for a trans rights law in Honduras for more than a decade.

“We have had failure for 11 years, but I think that with what happened with the Inter-American Court, the recommendations that have come from the Vicky Hernández case could achieve something important,” said Rodríguez. “There are very good human rights recommendations for Honduras and there are good recommendations that Honduras could automatically apply to trans women.”

Rodríguez as she discussed the ruling reiterated trans Hondurans continue to face violence, discrimination and a lack of employment opportunities. Rodríguez also reiterated her sharp criticism of her country’s government and its institutions.

“Societal exclusion forces us to do sex work,” she said. “We are being harmed by our trade: Murder, persecution, hate crimes, torture, beatings.”

“I always say that it is an institutional death because state institutions are murdering us,” added Rodríguez.

‘My fight is here’

In spite of these challenges, Rodríguez said there has been progress.

Oprouce — which works on a variety of issues that include the prevention of gender-based violence and fighting HIV/AIDS — offers workshops to the Public Ministry, the Honduran Armed Forces and judges. Asociación de Prevención y Educación en Salud, Sexualidad, Sida y Derechos Humanos (Aprest), another advocacy group in Tela, a city that is about 60 miles west of La Ceiba, conducts similar trainings with local and national authorities.

Aprest Executive Director Leonel Barahona Medina told the Blade during an interview at a beachfront restaurant in Tela on July 20 that city officials have given him an office from which he and his colleagues can work. Barahona said they also supported activists who raised the Pride flag on June 27 in front of Tela City Hall.

A similar ceremony took place in a park in the center of La Ceiba.

“We have good relations with them,” said Barahona, referring to Tela officials.

Aprest Executive Director Leonel Barahona Medina raises the Pride flag at Tela City Hall in Tela, Honduras, on June 27, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Leonel Barahona Medina)

Both Barahona and Rodríguez said their work will continue.

“My fight is here,” said Rodríguez. “My essence and my dreams are here.”

Abdiel Echevarría-Caban and Reportar sin Miedo contributed to this story.

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Petition urges White House to develop plan to protect LGBTQ Afghans

Taliban regained control of country on Aug. 15

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Two men in Kabul, Afghanistan, in July 2021 (Photo courtesy of Dr. Ahmad Qais Munzahim)

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition that urges the Biden administration to do more to help LGBTQ Afghans who remain in Afghanistan after the Taliban regained control of the country.

The Human Rights Campaign; the Council for Global Equality; Immigration Equality; Rainbow Railroad; the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and the International Refugee Assistance Project on Friday presented to the White House the petition that urges the administration to adopt “a 10-point action plan … to expedite and ease the refugee and asylum process for LGBTQI Afghans.”

The same six groups last month urged the Biden administration to adopt a plan that would “prioritize the evacuation and resettlement of vulnerable refugee populations, including LGBTQI people, and ensure that any transitory stay in a third country is indeed temporary by expediting refugee processing.” The groups, among other things, asked the White House to “speak out forcefully against human rights abuses by the new Taliban regime and any increased targeting of vulnerable communities, including LGBTQI people, and use existing mechanisms to sanction and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights abuse.”

The Taliban entered Kabul, the Afghan capital, on Aug. 15 and regained control of the country.

A Taliban judge in July said the group would once again execute people if it were to return to power in Afghanistan.

Rainbow Railroad and Immigration Equality are among the other groups that have continued their efforts to evacuate LGBTQ Afghans since American troops completed their withdrawal from the country on Aug. 30. Some of the 50 Afghan human rights activists who Taylor Hirschberg, a researcher at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health who is also a Hearst Foundation scholar, has been able to help leave the country are LGBTQ.

“We reiterate our call for President Biden to adopt the 10-point policy plan which will expedite and ease the refugee process for LGBTQI Afghans,” said Human Rights Campaign Senior Vice President for Policy and Political Affairs JoDee Winterhof in a press release. “The 10,000+ people who signed our petition have demonstrated that they want the United States, long a beacon of refuge for those fleeing persecution, to take action to protect LGBTQI Afghans—a vulnerable group who risk oppression, even death, simply for who they are or who they love. Now is the time for action.”

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Putin describes transgender rights as ‘crime against humanity’

Russian president made comment in Sochi speech

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (Photo public domain)

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday described transgender rights as “a crime against humanity.”

The Washington Post reported Putin made the comment in a speech he delivered in Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea where the 2014 Winter Olympics took place.

Putin specifically said the idea that children are “taught that a boy can become a girl and vice versa” is “on the verge of a crime against humanity.” Putin, according to the Post, also said trans activists are demanding an end to “basic things such as mother, father, family or gender differences.”

Activists in Russia and around the world have sharply criticized the Kremlin’s LGBTQ rights record, including a 2013 law that bans the promotion of so-called gay propaganda to minors. Putin also has close ties to Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, who is behind a brutal anti-LGBTQ crackdown in the semi-autonomous Russian republic.

The European Court of Human Rights in July ruled Russia violated the rights of a trans woman who authorities prevented from visiting her children because of her gender identity. The decision is the first time the court used Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights in an anti-trans discrimination case.

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Report details anti-LGBTQ discrimination, violence in Kenya refugee camp

March 15 attack left gay man dead

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Ugandan refugees, gay news, Washington Blade
The Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya (Photo by the E.U. Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations via Flickr)

A new report released on Wednesday indicates nearly all of the LGBTQ people who live in a Kenya refugee camp have experienced discrimination and violence because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

The Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration and Rainbow Railroad in May 2021 surveyed 58 LGBTQ asylum seekers who live at the Kakuma refugee camp and the Kalobeyei Integrated Settlement that opened in 2016 to help alleviate overcrowding at Kakuma. The groups also interviewed 18 “key informants.”

More than 90 percent of the LGBTQ asylum seekers who spoke with ORAM and Rainbow Railroad said they have been “verbally assaulted.”

Eighty-three percent of them indicated they suffered “physical violence,” with 26 percent of them reporting sexual assault. All of the transgender respondents “reported having experienced physical assault,” with 67 percent of them “reporting sexual assault.”

Eighty-eight percent of respondents said they had been “denied police assistance due to their sexual identity.” Nearly half of the respondents told ORAM and Rainbow Railroad they had to be “relocated from their allocated shelters to alternative accommodation due to the constant abuses directed at them by neighbors.”

Kakuma, which is located in northwest Kenya near the country’s border with Uganda and South Sudan, is one of two refugee camps the U.N. Refugee Agency operates in the East African nation. The other, Dadaab, is located near Kenya’s border with Somalia.

The report notes upwards of 160,000 refugees from South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Ethiopia and Uganda were living in Kakuma as of January.

Those who responded to the ORAM and Rainbow Railroad survey are from Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Yemen and Ethiopia and all of them have asked for asylum in Kenya. Ninety-four percent of them live in Kakuma, while the remaining six percent live in Kalobeyei.

The report also estimates there are 350 LGBTQ asylum seekers in Kakuma and Kalobeyei. UNHCR in 2020 created Block 13 in Kakuma that is specifically for LGBTQ refugees.

Gay man died after Block 13 attack

Two gay men suffered second-degree burns during an attack on Block 13 on March 15. One of the men died a few weeks later at a hospital in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.

Forty-one of the Block 13 residents who participated in the ORAM and Rainbow Railroad survey said that “relocation to a safer place as a priority.” The report also notes some respondents who live outside Block 13 “said that the activism in Block 13 was affecting the overall relationship between LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and service providers in the camp.”

“They expressed concern with some activities conducted as part of their activism,” reads the report. “For example, they alleged that some activists were conducting staged attacks on individuals and false claims of violence to attract media attention as part of their advocacy.”

The report notes “allegations of activity from activists in Block 13 have not been confirmed.” Some of the “key informants” who ORAM and Rainbow Railroad interviewed for their report, however, “observed that LGBTQI+ activists from different countries have been supporting the advocacy in Block 13 without considering the local context and potential negative or unintended consequences.”

“They allege that the advocacy has been antagonizing LGBTQI+ members with other refugees in the camp and service providers,” reads the report. “For example, some of the LGBTQI+ asylum seekers were reported to have deserted their allocated shelters, moved to Block 13 and were persistently demanding new shelters.”

An attack at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya on March 15, 2021, left two gay refugees with second-degree burns. One of these men later died. (Photo courtesy of Gilbert Kagarura)

UNHCR in a statement after the March 15 attack noted Kenya “remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” even though consensual same-sex sexual relations remain criminalized. The ORAM and Rainbow Railroad report acknowledges both points.

“Asylum seekers and refugees in Kenya are not immune to pervasive anti-LGBTQI+ attitudes in the community,” it reads. “As the number of LGBTQI+ asylum seekers and refugees increases rapidly, it is important to understand their unique protection needs and plan for safe and dignified service delivery to meet those needs.”

The report notes more than 70 percent of respondents have gone to Kakuma’s main hospital the International Rescue Committee operates in order to receive HIV/AIDS-related services. More than 85 percent of respondents said they “preferred to seek all other health services beyond HIV and AIDS services at the main hospital, since the facility was friendly and provided a stigma-free environment for the LGBTQI+ community in the camp.”

“Respondents reported traveling long distances in order to visit the main hospital,” reads the report.

The report notes limited access to cardiologists and other specialists at the eight health facilities in the camp that UNHCR partner organizations operates. Roughly a third of respondents also said they have “been stigmatized in some of the health clinics.”

“This included being referred to as shoga (a derogatory Kiswahili term used to refer to homosexuality) either by staff members or other refugees in the waiting room while waiting to see a provider, or some providers just directing them to the main hospital with snide remarks about how they do not entertain LGBTQI+ persons in their facility,” reads the report.

The African Human Rights Coalition, the Refugee Coalition of East Africa and Upper Rift Minorities are among the other groups that work with the camp’s LGBTQ residents.

The report notes only a third of respondents “were actively engaged in economic activity at the time of the study, a majority depended on the food rations distributed in the camp.” It also contains 10 recommendations, which are below, to improve conditions for LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma.

1) The Refugee Affairs Secretariat of Kenya must fast-track refugee status determination of LGBTQ asylum seekers with further support from UNHCR and civil society organizations.

2) The Refugee Affairs Secretariat of Kenya and UNHCR must create more responsive and sensitive protection services for LGBTQ refugees in Kenya.

3) Civil society organizations and their supporters should provide livelihood support and other support to meet the immediate needs of LGBTQ refugees in Kakuma.

4) Governments of resettlement countries must resume and fast track resettlement of LGBTQ refugees from Kenya.

5) UNHCR and civil society organizations must continue to build skills development programs for employability.

6) LGBTQ civil society organizations should work more closely with refugee-led organizations and collectives to build self-protection services.

7) Donor communities should participate in more long-term development programming for LGBTQI+ refugees in Kenya.

8) LGBTQ civil society organizations providing support to refugees in Kenya must coordinate more closely.

9) LGBTQ civil society organizations and refugee-led organizations should continue to advocate for more inclusive human rights in Kenya.

10) Civil society must continue the push for LGBTQ human rights globally, including decriminalization of same sex intimacy.

“This much-needed report underscores the challenges, dangers and complexities of life that LGBTQI+ refugees and asylum seekers face in Kakuma refugee camp,” said ORAM Executive Director Steve Roth in a press release that announced the report’s release. “The refugees themselves have spoken and they want to be heard. UNHCR, governments and civil society organizations must work together to ensure the immediate safety and well-being of this community while also addressing the longer term, durable solutions we recommend in the report.”

Rainbow Railroad Executive Director Kimahli Powell added refugee camps cannot “become permanent solutions to crises of forced displacement.”

“The findings of this report confirm a key goal of Rainbow Railroad—to fast track resettlement of LGBTQI+ refugees,” he said. “Rainbow Railroad and civil society partners are ready to provide support to LGBTQI+ persons at risk and assist in further resettlement. Ultimately, we need the UNHCR, the government of Kenya and governments of countries that are destinations for refugees to step up an ensure that LGBTQI+ asylum seekers in the camp are resettled in safer countries.”

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