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Lesbian couple from Cuba fights for life together in US

Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte remains in ICE custody, partner free on bond

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From left: Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte and her partner, Dayana Rodríguez González. (Photo courtesy of Dayana Rodríguez González)

Editor’s note: Yariel Valdés González is a journalist from Cuba who has been granted asylum in the U.S. He spent nearly a year in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody until his release from the River Correctional Center in Ferriday, La., on March 4.

Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte, 36, and Dayana Rodríguez González, 31, had never been apart in the nearly five years since they began dating. Their lives were one until Nov. 3, 2019, when they both applied for asylum in the U.S. at a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, and they were separated a short time later.

Moreno and Rodríguez were placed into different cells as their entry into the country was processed.

“They locked me up in a small, lonely place,” Moreno told the Los Angeles Blade on June 9 during a telephone call from the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, La., where she remains in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. “I was there for two days and my partner was transferred the day after we arrived.”

“We lost all ties,” Rodríguez told the Blade during a telephone interview from Phoenix on June 10 where she now lives. “I didn’t know where she was and she didn’t know where I was. On the fourth day, they moved me at night to the detention center and there I was, still unsure whether they would send her there.”

The next day, they saw each other for a few minutes in the El Paso Service Processing Center’s dining room, since they were not in the same dorm. Rodríguez and Moreno did whatever they could to see each other.

“They scolded us twice because I was the last one in line in order to wait for her to come and eat together,” recalled Rodríguez.

Both devised a strategy to see each other in the library and even during Catholic Masses held in the El Paso facility.

“Yanelkys made the requests for visits a couple of times and they allowed us to be together only once,” said Rodríguez. “All of the couples were together in the same room, one next to the other. We couldn’t touch each other, just a kiss at the entrance and a kiss at the exit and with an officer watching over us the entire time.”

Perhaps this story would not have been so bitter if the two women had been married because ICE, in theory, allows a married asylum seeker to sponsor their spouse once it grants them “derivative” status. This process allows them to stay together as long as they present a marriage or civil union certificate.

But Moreno and Rodríguez are citizens of Cuba, an island where same-sex marriage is not yet legal. The government’s policies and social attitudes also emphasize discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

Their immigration cases are the same, but Moreno in December was once again separated from Rodríguez. She was sent more than 900 miles east of El Paso to the South Louisiana ICE Correctional Center, where she currently remains in ICE custody. Rodríguez was detained in El Paso until Feb. 4 when she was released on parole and a $7,500 bond.

The two women saw each other for the last time through a door’s glass window, sending their love to each other with signs after a conversation that would define both of their lives forever. Moreno was gone the next morning and the frustration of not being able to say goodbye to her partner is painful to this day.

Downtown El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, from the Scenic Drive Overlook in El Paso, Texas, on July 15, 2019. Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte and her partner, Dayana Rodríguez González, asked for asylum in the U.S. at a port of entry in El Paso. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Couple suffered homophobia, police harassment in Cuba

Moreno and Rodríguez’s families never accepted that two women could fall in love and live together. The prejudices that still persist in Cuba and especially in Zulueta, a small town in the center of the country where they lived, were constant hurdles to their social lives and their life together as a couple.

“My parents divorced because of my sexual orientation,” said Moreno. “My father is the typical Cuban man, who said that his children could not be homosexual. My sister was the only one who always supported me.”

Rodríguez was kicked out of her home when her family found out she was in a romantic relationship with another girl.

“They took all of my things from me and that was terrible,” she said. “It was raining and also in the middle of a blackout. I had to collect my things and go to her home. It was something we did not expect.”

Rodríguez’s family’s decision to disown her was compounded by her neighbor’s accusatory looks, so she and her partner did not even dare to hold hands in the street. Moreno told the Blade that such intolerance suffocated her “because there (in Cuba) homosexuals are not well regarded, neither by family, nor by the authorities, we are quite discriminated against. I felt bad because in the end we are also good people. We have rights and the government constantly violates them. We cannot have our own family.”

Because of the impossibility of getting married, gay and lesbian Cubans cannot adopt children.

The current labor law does not protect transgender people, and they can only change their gender and photo on identity documents if they undergo sex-reassignment surgery. Members of Cuba’s National Revolutionary Police have also been accused of targeting LGBTQ Cubans.

Rodríguez in her asylum claim says a police officer constantly followed her and Moreno

“There was an officer named Sosa, who appeared wherever she was,” writes Rodríguez. “He was very rude to us. He insulted us on two occasions by saying that we were not setting a good example for society or children.”

“On the other occasion, we were sitting in the park during some local celebrations, holding hands, without disrespecting anyone and he also came and took us to the police station because, according to him, we could not do that,” continues Rodríguez. “He did not agree that we were a couple or that we showed it in public. He fined us 500 pesos ($20) because he didn’t want to see us together on the street any more. It was like a warning and we were detained for 73 hours. The officer in the police station told everyone that we were lesbians and they also started making fun of us and calling us names. And the truth is that we felt very bad about all that. Life for us was very difficult there.”

Cuban police officers watch participants in an unsanctioned LGBTQ rights march that took place in Havana on May 11, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Pedro Luis García)

Tired of this familial and societal rejection that Cuban governmental institutions also perpetuate, this young couple exclusively told the Blade they fled the country in order to be able to walk the streets without fear. Now, after seven months in the U.S., they are terrified that Moreno will be deported back to Cuba.

Moreno has already been denied parole twice, which would have allowed her to pursue her asylum case outside of ICE custody.

“ICE’s two responses to my request for parole have told me that I am a flight risk,” said Moreno. “The first was on Jan. 5 and a group of lawyers prepared the second request … it turned out very well, with everything they ask for: A very complete request and they denied me again. They set a date for an interview that they never did.”

ICE’s own directives mandate an asylum seeker must be released while awaiting their asylum hearing if they pass their credible fear interview and background check, prove they are not a danger to society and show they are not a flight risk. The parole rate for ICE’s New Orleans Field Office, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, dropped from more than 75 percent in 2016 to zero percent in 2019, according to Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia’s ruling that granted a preliminary injunction in a class-action lawsuit that other asylum seekers filed.

“I meet all the requirements they ask for: I entered through a (port of entry), I have someone who will receive me and I have a credible positive fear,” said Moreno. “I met with my deportation officer when I was denied parole for the second time and they did not know how to give me a convincing explanation. They just told me that when they were evaluating my case they determined that I was not going to show up to court hearings.”

Liza Doubossarskaia is a legal assistant for Immigration Equality who prepared Moreno’s second parole application under the supervision of Bridget Crawford, a lawyer who is the group’s legal director. Doubossarskaia in an interview with the Blade said ICE’s denial of Moreno’s parole applications is discriminatory based on the fact that another LGBTQ person who is not a blood relative will receive her upon her release.

“There is no provision in any document that the person receiving the immigrant must be his or her close relative,” said Doubossarskaia. “In the parole request, we affirm that her family does not support her because she is gay, but she does have ties to this country because she has a friend who is willing to take her in and the support of various organizations, including Immigration Equality, which will ensure that she attends immigration appointments. She is also not a danger, because we presented her criminal record and it is clean. ICE never explains why she is a flight risk.”

ICE declined to comment to the Blade on Moreno’s case.

“When we had the second negative response on parole, it was as if they were throwing a bucket of cold water at both of us,” said Rodríguez. “It shows in the tone of her voice, in her physique when I can see her on a video call that all that confinement and this time apart is affecting her. It is affecting both of us.”

Moreno is still awaiting her second court hearing, which is scheduled to take place on July 28.

She said her greatest fear is her final appearance before an immigration judge “because it is a lot of stress, for all the time I have been here, for all we have lived through. That moment will be very difficult.”

Rodríguez is terrified her girlfriend will be deported to Cuba “and everything is over.” Her voice cracked on the phone when she discussed this possibility.

“Today I ended the call with her in the morning crying because this absence has affected me a lot,” Rodríguez told the Blade. “The calls are also short because we have to save the little money that you have to communicate. When she tells me that she feels bad and ends up crying, the truth is that it makes me very bad.”

Congressman urges ICE to release LGBTQ detainees

Illinois Congressman Mike Quigley in a letter he sent to Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf last week requested ICE release Moreno and all other LGBTQ detainees.

Quigley described the detention of these detainees in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as “dangerous and irrational.” More than two dozen other members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed his letter.

Quigley last week told the Blade during a telephone interview that he considers this issue a matter of “basic human decency” and says ICE is “ignoring” social distancing and other guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and not “providing protective equipment or hygiene products to detainees.” The Illinois Democrat also said LGBTQ detainees in ICE detention centers “are treated worse under these conditions than the general population, and no one is treated well.”

Moreno told the Blade the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center can house around 1,000 people.

She said around 190 female detainees remain at the facility. Moreno told the Blade that more than 50 of the 72 beds in the dorm where she lives are occupied.

“We are many for such a small room,” said Moreno. “The food is not good, one day a week it improves a little, but it is generally bad.”

“Cleanliness is not very good either,” she added. Now, since there are so few of us, the cleaning supplies have improved, but when I was in the center it was very difficult to get a roll of toilet paper or a shampoo. They don’t give soap here. We have to shower with shampoo and the commissary is very expensive. “

From left: Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte speaks with her partner, Dayana Rodríguez González, from the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center in Basile, La. (Photo courtesy of Dayana Rodríguez González)

Doubossarskaia confirms the detention center in which Moreno lives now has room to promote social distancing, but staff have chosen not to enforce it.

Moreno told the Blade a group of female detainees from different housing units were transferred to her dorm in early May. Moreno said an officer at the detention center said it was to make “better use of space” when someone asked about it.

There were 871 ICE detainees with confirmed coronavirus cases as of deadline. ICE’s website says 7,364 of the 24,713 people who were still in their custody have been tested for the virus.

ICE says it has evaluated its detained population based on the CDC’s guidance for people who may be at increased risk for serious illness as a result of the coronavirus. ICE has released more than 900 people from their custody after evaluating their immigration history, criminal record, potential threat to public safety, flight risk and national security concerns.

Despite the fact there are no confirmed coronavirus cases in her detention center, Moreno says she does not feel safe because the transfer of detainees into the facility has not stopped during the pandemic.

“Not all officers wear masks or gloves,” she said. “They say they do take precautions when they enter the center, but I am not sure. They are the ones that go in and out and do not protect us. We are required to be six feet away from each other and when we go to recreation or to the dining room there are only the detainees from one dorm. We do not mix with the others.”

Moreno also says she has experienced several instances of discrimination at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center which the GEO Group, a Utah-based company operates, both at the hands of her fellow detainees and staff.

“I went to go to the bathroom twice and they told me that I couldn’t go in because they were sorry to bathe with me,” Moreno told the Blade. “I decided to bathe alone from that moment in order to avoid a problem. It has happened to me with the officers when I ask them, for example, for a paper and they don’t give it to me, but they give it to someone else who is behind me. I feel discriminated against because of things like that.”

Doubossarskaia said she believes ICE does not do enough to protect LGBTQ people at its facilities.

“We have heard many stories of detainees who suffer homophobia after their detention,” she said.

Moreno told the Blade that some of the officers at the South Louisiana ICE Processing Center “insult us, humiliate us.” Moreno also said she never thought she would have been “detained for so long.”

“In fact, my partner and I thought that it would be a maximum of two months and that we could go out, get married, make a life together, but none of this has happened,” she lamented. “We can only talk on the phone, but the separation is hard and very sad. I get depressed and cry a lot. “

The Blade asked what Moreno misses the most and without hesitation she said her freedom, and above all, her partner.

“I want to see her, embrace her …”, she says, followed by a long pause.

“I don’t feel like Yanelkys is well,” Rodríguez told the Blade. “In fact, we are seeking psychological help. She has already had two appointments with a professional because she is very stressed and I find her very downcast (…) and they (ICE) are not interested in her life.”

Michael K. Lavers contributed to this article.

From left: Yanelkys Moreno Agramonte and her partner, Dayana Rodríguez González. (Photo courtesy of Dayana Rodríguez González)

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Anti-LGBTQ religious extremist celebrates death at Wilton Manors Pride

Mehta points out this type of rhetoric is quite likely to inspire violence against the LGBTQ community by one of Shelley’s followers

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Screenshot vis Twitter

HURST, Tx. – The pastor of a fundamentalist Baptist Church in this suburban Fort Worth, Texas city took to his pulpit to celebrate the death of an attendee at the Wilton Manors, Florida Pride parade this past weekend.

Pastor Jonathan Shelley, whose church is affiliated with infamous “death to gays” Pastor Steven Anderson in Phoenix, Arizona is quoted by Patheos writer and progressive blogger Hemant Mehta saying; […]”I hope they all die! I would love it if every fag would die right now.” […]

Mehta, who runs the heavily trafficked The Friendly Atheist, also noted that Shelley told his congregants; “And, you know, it’s great when trucks accidentally go through those, you know, parades. I think only one person died. So hopefully we can hope for more in the future.”

Mehta noted that the video of Shelley’s hate-filled remarks on this and other anti-LGBTQ vitriol is still accessible on Shelley’s YouTube Channel. He also points out this type of rhetoric is quite likely to inspire violence against the LGBTQ community by one of Shelley’s followers.

The Blade has reached out to YouTube Tuesday for comment but has yet to receive a response.

Editor’s note; The language used in the video in the embedded tweet below is uncensored hate speech:

In a related update from the Daily Beast, Fred Johnson Jr., who was named by Wilton Manors police as the driver of the vehicle that veered out of control killing one person and injuring two others at Saturday’s Stonewall Pride Parade has offered his “sincere regrets to all those who were impacted by this tragic event.”

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Vigil held after Wilton Manors Pride parade accident

Fort Lauderdale mayor expressed ‘regret’ over initial terrorism claim

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A vigil in the wake of the accident at the Stonewall Pride Parade took place at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 20, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — More than 100 people on Sunday attended a prayer vigil in the wake of an accident at a Wilton Manors Pride parade that left one person dead and another injured.

The vigil took place at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale.

Clergy joined activists and local officials at a vigil at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on June 20, 2021. (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdés González)

A 77-year-old man who was driving a pickup truck struck two men near the Stonewall Pride Parade’s staging area shortly before 7 p.m. on Saturday. One of the victims died a short time later at a Fort Lauderdale hospital.

The pickup truck narrowly missed U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who was in a convertible participating in the parade, and Florida Congressman Ted Deutch.

The driver of the pickup truck and the two men he hit are members of the Fort Lauderdale Gay Men’s Chorus. The Fort Lauderdale Police Department on Sunday described the incident as a “fatal traffic crash” and not a terrorism incident as Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially claimed.

“As we were about to begin the parade, this pickup truck, this jacked up white pickup truck, dashed across, breaking through the line, hitting people, all of us that were there could not believe our eyes,” said Trantalis as he spoke at the vigil.

Trantalis noted the pickup truck nearly hit Wasserman Schultz. He also referenced the arrest of a 20-year-old supporter of former President Trump earlier in the week after he allegedly vandalized a Pride flag mural that had been painted in an intersection in Delray Beach, which is roughly 30 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.

“I immediately knew that something terrible was happening,” said Trantalis, referring to the Stonewall Pride Parade accident. “My visceral reaction was that we were being attacked. Why not? Why not feel that way?”

“I guess I should watch to make sure there are no reporters standing by when I have those feelings, but that was my first reaction and I regret the fact that I said it was a terrorist attack because we found out that it was not, but I don’t regret my feelings,” he added. “But I don’t regret that I felt terrorized by someone who plowed through the crowd inches away from the congresswoman and the congressman, myself and others.”

Trantalis also told vigil attendees that “I guess we forgive” the pickup truck driver.

“But I regret that his consequences resulted in the death of an individual who was innocent and who was there to have a good time, like the rest of us, and I regret there is a man who is in serious condition … fighting for his life and there,” added Trantalis.

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Veterans Affairs to provide gender-confirmation surgery reversing 2013 ban

McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and expand access to care for transgender veterans

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The new Orlando VA Medical Center at Lake Nona (Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs )

ORLANDO – U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough announced his Department is moving to provide gender-confirmation surgery through its health care coverage reversing a 2013 ban on those surgical procedures.

Speaking at a Pride Month event at the Orlando VA Healthcare System Saturday, McDonough said that he pledged to overcome a “dark history” of discrimination and take steps to expand access to care for transgender veterans.

With this commitment McDonough said he seeks to allow “transgender vets to go through the full gender confirmation process with VA by their side,” McDonough said. “We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do, but because they can save lives,” he added.

The process to roll-back the restrictions may take upwards of two years. The federal rulemaking process, expected to begin this summer, will include a period for public comment, spokesman Terrence Hayes told The Washington Post on Saturday.

“This time will allow VA to develop capacity to meet the surgical needs that transgender veterans have called for and deserved for a long time,” McDonough said in his remarks. “and I am proud to begin the process of delivering it,” he added.

On February 8, 2013, the VA issued a directive that stated that the VA Healthcare System does not provide sex reassignment surgery. This directive sought to clarify a previous VA directive issued June 9, 2011, “Providing Healthcare for Transgender and Intersex Veterans,” which established the provision of hormone therapy, gender-related mental health counseling, and other transition-related services through the VA, as well as a mandate that the VA health system provides care “without discrimination and in a manner … consistent with the Veteran’s self-identified gender.”

“This directive, however, does not include coverage of surgical procedures although the VA does provide transgender veterans with pre- and postoperative care.”

The outcome was that the directive(s) effectively prevented transgender veterans from a surgery considered medically necessary by the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.

38 CFR § 17.38 Medical benefits package, is the specific federal code that makes provisions for veterans healthcare, which Section (b) clearly defines as; “Care referred to in the “medical benefits package” will be provided to individuals only if it is determined by appropriate health care professionals that the care is needed to promote, preserve, or restore the health of the individual and is in accord with generally accepted standards of medical practice.”

However, 38 CFR § 17.38 does limit care for transgender veteran’s stating: “(c) In addition to the care specifically excluded from the “medical benefits package” under paragraphs (a) and (b) of this section, the “medical benefits package” does not include the following: […] ‘(4) Gender alterations.'”

McDonough noted that changes “will require changing VA’s regulations and establishing policy that will ensure the equitable treatment and safety” of all transgender veterans.

“There are several steps to take, which will take time. But we are moving ahead, methodically, because we want this important change in policy to be implemented in a manner that has been thoroughly considered to ensure that the services made available to veterans meet VA’s rigorous standards for quality health care.”

In a study related to the 2011 and 2013 directives, the VA noted that research showed that the transgender population in general experiences severe physical and mental health disparities, compared to the cisgender population, including high rates of HIV, suicidality, depression, anxiety, and mental health-related hospitalization.

Studies have found that these disparities are even more glaring among transgender veterans. In a survey of transgender veterans and transgender active-duty service members, transgender veterans reported several mental health diagnoses, including depression (65%), anxiety (41%), PTSD (31%), and substance abuse (16%).  In a study examining VHA patient records from 2000 to 2011 (before the 2011 VHA directive), the rate of suicide-related events among veterans with a gender identity disorder (GID) diagnoses was found to be 20 times higher than that of the general VHA patient population.

McDonough acknowledged the VA research pointing out that in addition to psychological distress, trans veterans also may experience prejudice and stigma. About 80 percent of trans veterans have encountered a hurtful or rejecting experience in the military because of their gender identity.

“LGBTQ+ veterans experience mental illness and suicidal thoughts at far higher rates than those outside their community,” McDonough said. “But they are significantly less likely to seek routine care, largely because they fear discrimination.

“At VA, we’re doing everything in our power to show veterans of all sexual orientations and gender identities that they can talk openly, honestly and comfortably with their health care providers about any issues they may be experiencing,” he added.

All VA facilities have had a local LGBTQ Veteran Care Coordinator responsible for helping those veterans connect to available services since 2016.

“We’re making these changes not only because they are the right thing to do but because they can save lives,” McDonough said. He added that the VA would also change the name of the Veterans Health Administration’s LGBT health program to the LGBTQ+ Health Program to reflect greater inclusiveness.

Much of the push for better access to healthcare and for recognition of the trans community is a result of the polices of President Joe Biden, who reversed the ban on Trans military enacted under former President Trump, expanding protections for transgender students and revived anti-bias safeguards in health care for transgender Americans.

U. S. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-CA, who is openly gay, issued a statement applauding McDonough’s actions.

“Veterans in need of gender confirmation surgery should not have to seek healthcare outside of the VA health system or navigate complicated processes to get the care they need,” Takano said. “VA must be inclusive of all veterans who have served, regardless of their identity.”

The Chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Jon Tester, D-MT also approved of the expansion of health care offerings for trans veterans.

“Every service member and veteran deserves equal access to quality care from VA, and this includes our LGBTQ+ veterans,” Tester said in a statement. “We must reaffirm our commitment to making VA a more welcoming place for everyone who fought to protect our freedoms.”

Gina Duncan, director of transgender equality for the statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization Equality Florida, told the Orlando Sentinel that her agency was “thrilled to have allies at the highest level of government” and noted the contrast with recent moves by the Florida Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis to limit transgender youth participation in school sports.

“In a moment of fierce state and local backlash against the transgender community, this move by the Biden Administration is a reminder that elections matter,” Duncan said. “Support for transgender veterans and the lifesaving healthcare they need to live authentically is a critical component to fulfilling our nation’s promise of caring for those who’ve served.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington D.C. (Photo Credit: GSA U.S. Government)
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