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Transgender woman from Cuba builds new life in Fla.

Dayana Mena López spent eight months in ICE custody

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Dayana Mena López (Washington Blade photo by Yariel Valdéz Gonzaléz)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A transgender woman who spent nearly eight months in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody won asylum in the U.S. last August because of the persecution she suffered in her native Cuba.

Dayana Mena López on July 25 noted to the Los Angeles Blade during an interview at a restaurant in Jacksonville, Fla., where she now lives that she suffered persecution in her homeland because of her gender identity and her opposition to the Cuban government.

Mena, who is of African descent, is from the town of Placetas in Cuba’s Villa Clara province.

She told the Blade she came out as trans when she lived in Cienfuegos, a city in Central Cuba. Mena said her family supported her.

“I would have been able to consider myself lucky and happy in this regard because my entire family accepted me: My parents, my grandparents,” she said. “My entire family always accepted me and I never had any problem in my neighborhood with my neighbors in this sense. In this sense I lived well, with respect to this part of my life.”

A federal lawsuit the Southern Poverty Law Center filed behalf of Mena and other ICE detainees who had been denied parole that would have allowed her to pursue her case out of detention notes she “refused to complete compulsory military service” in the Communist country, but “authorities misidentified her as a gay man and attempted to force her to serve in the military.”

Mena told the Blade the men in the unit to which she was brought insulted her because she is trans. Mena said she could not wear a female uniform and was unable to do her make up or hair.

“The environment was very tense,” she said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit further details her life in Cuba.

“Due to her political beliefs and identity, Cuban authorities have beaten her, taunted her with homophobic slurs, locked her in a frigid chamber for hours, and held her under arrest,” it reads.

Mena said she received death threats. She also told the Blade that police officers harass trans women who gather along Havana’s oceanfront promenade known as the Malecón because they think they are sex workers.

Mariela Castro, the daughter of former Cuban President Raúl Castro who directs the country’s National Center for Sexual Education, spearheads LGBTQ-specific issues on the island.

Her supporters note Cuba provides free sex-reassignment surgery under its health care system. They also point out that Mariela Castro, who is a member of the Cuban National Assembly, in 2013 voted against a proposal to ban anti-gay discrimination in the workplace because it did not include gender identity.

“She is something very, very fake,” said Mena in response to the Blade’s question about Mariela Castro. “She is something created, (they are creating something) fake to sell an image.”

A woman and girl sit on Havana’s oceanfront promenade known as the Malecón on Feb. 28, 2019. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

‘I left Cuba to flee persecution’

Mena left Cuba on Dec. 22, 2018.

“I left Cuba to flee persecution and physical and psychological abuse I also suffered because I am a trans woman,” she said.

Mena said a friend helped her pay for the flight from Havana to Panama. The Panamanian government granted Mena a visa that allowed her to travel to the country, but she told the Blade she could not return to Cuba. 

“I had to stay there in Panama because they would have detained me if I returned to Cuba,” she said.

Mena and a gay man from Cuba asked for asylum in the U.S. at a port of entry in El Paso, Texas, in January 2019. Mena presented herself as a gay man, as opposed to a trans woman, because her friend did not want to be separated from her.

“He was very afraid to be alone,” said Mena. “That’s why I asked for asylum like this.”

Mena was separated from her friend when ICE transferred to the Cibola County Correctional Center, a privately-run detention center in Milan, N.M., that once had a unit for trans ICE detainees. The friend with whom she entered the U.S. was eventually deported back to Cuba.

ICE transferred Mena to the Tallahatchie County Correctional Center, another privately-run prison in Tutwiler, Miss.

The Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit notes Mena “again identified as trans” and she was held in solitary confinement for a month while she waited for her credible fear interview.

Mena told the Blade she was isolated “supposedly for my protection, to not suffer violations, etc.” Mena said she was able to speak with fellow detainees through the glass window of her cell’s door. She also said a guard of Puerto Rican descent allowed her to leave her cell and did not close the door when he was on duty.

ICE initially placed Mena in general population when it transferred her to the Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, another privately-run detention center in Pine Prairie, La. The Southern Poverty Law Center lawsuit notes ICE placed her back into solitary confinement for “several days” after she old a psychologist she is trans.

“The prison warden had me placed in the hole for four days when, after a medical and psychological evaluation, I said that I identified as a transgender person,” Mena told the Blade. “I was detained together with another companion.”

Mena said Southern Poverty Law Center lawyers raised the issue with the warden and challenged the decision.

“They then freed us from the hole and they made us sign a paper that said it was our responsibility if something happened,” Mena told the Blade. “They also gave me another paper to present to officials saying that they couldn’t check me or even touch me.”

“I never had problems with anyone,” she said. “I was not a victim of homophobia, to the contrary. The Cubans were always defending me.”

Mena’s attorneys in May 2019 asked ICE to transfer her to the Cibola County Correctional Center’s unit for trans women, but the request was not granted.

The Cibola County Correctional Center in Milan, N.M. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

New life in Jacksonville ‘has been awesome’

Mena’s final hearing in her asylum case took place on Aug. 1, 2019, which took place against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s hardline immigration policy that, among other things, seeks to drastically limit the number of asylum seekers allowed into the U.S. Mena told the Blade her hearing lasted upwards of six hours.

“I had a super bad time with the (government) prosecutor, who treated me badly,” said Mena. “He called me a liar, even as an expert the day before my court hearing examined my body to verify the injuries and scars that I had on my body were real.”

The judge granted her asylum, but ICE did not release her until Aug. 5, 2019.

“The day that I saw my name on the list to leave I cried more than anyone in this world,” Mena told the Blade. “I cried more than when I left Cuba. I cried because I had a happiness that many other people crave.”

“I couldn’t eat that day and I saw people next to me crying,” she added. “The entire pod, 140 people, clapped for me when I left through the door. It is something gratifying, but at the same time it hurt a lot.”

A friend of Mena’s father picked her up and drove her to Jacksonville.

Nearly a year later, she is working two jobs. Mena told the Blade her life in Jacksonville “has been awesome for me,” even though none of her relatives live in the city.

“Thank you to people and the city who have welcomed me without discrimination, who have given me support and helped me get ahead in a country as difficult as this,” she said.

Mena further described the U.S. as “free.”

“I am hopeful that the new laws that allow people like me to live free don’t change,” she added.

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Iowa

Iowa State Appeal Board settles lawsuits by anti-LGBTQ religious groups

The Christian groups claimed the university had violated their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion

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The University of Iowa during Homecoming (Photo Credit: The University of Iowa)

DES MOINES – The Iowa State Appeal Board, made up of Iowa state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, Auditor Rob Sand and Department of Management Director Kraig Paulsen, approved disbursing nearly $2 million in state funds to settle two Federal lawsuits brought against the University of Iowa in 2017 after a religious group denied an openly gay student a leadership role. 

According to the Associated Press in a U.S. News article Monday, lawyers for the student group Business Leaders in Christ were awarded $1.37 million in fees and costs for litigating their case. A second student group, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, won their federal court case and will be paid $20,000 in damages and about $513,000 in attorney fees.

The groups claimed the university had violated their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.

The monetary amounts were negotiated between the university and the plaintiffs in both cases and approved by a federal judge. Monday’s approval by the State Appeal Board authorizes the state to make the payments the AP reported.

In March of this past Spring, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Business Leaders in Christ after the University of Iowa had ordered group was dismantled in 2017 after claiming the student group violated its Human Rights Policy.

As reported by The Daily Iowan, Marcus Miller, a UI sophomore at the time, filed a discrimination complaint against the Business Leaders in Christ after the group  revoked a leadership position from Miller upon finding out his sexual orientation.

A new law that requires state universities and community colleges to adopt policies that prohibit them from denying benefits to a student organization based on the viewpoint of the group was implemented in 2019.

“In addition, a public institution of higher education shall not deny any benefit or privilege to a student organization based on the student organization’s requirement that the leaders of the student organization agree to and support the student organization’s beliefs, as those beliefs are interpreted and applied by the organization, and to further the student organization’s mission,” the law reads.

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New York

New state charges against man who threatened LGBTQ+ New Yorkers

Fehring is being charged with criminal mischief and grand larceny as a hate crime in the Sayville, Long Island case

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Los Angeles Blade file photo by @strekoza.nyc

RIVERHEAD, Ny. – The man arrested by FBI agents on Monday charged in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York for mailing letters threatening to assault, shoot, and bomb LGBTQ+ affiliated individuals, organizations, and businesses, was arrested Tuesday on state charges.

Tri-state news outlet News 12 New York reported that Robert Fehring, 74, a resident of Bayport, New York on Long Island, surrendered to Suffolk County police detectives accused of stealing almost two dozen pride flags back in July from Long Railroad Avenue in Sayville.

Eileen Tyznar has organized the LGBTQ parade for the past three years in Sayville. She saysshe lived in fear and would constantly get threatening letters. She is now relieved Fehring was arrested she told News12.

The stolen pride flags inside his home were discovered while executing the Federal search warrant, Suffolk police said.

On November 18, 2021, members of the FBI’s Civil Rights Squad and the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force executed a search warrant at Fehring’s home in Bayport, New York, and recovered photographs from a June 2021 Pride event in East Meadow, New York, two loaded shotguns, hundreds of rounds of ammunition, two stun guns, and a stamped envelope addressed to an LGBTQ+ affiliated attorney containing the remains of a dead bird. 

Fehring is being charged with criminal mischief and grand larceny as a hate crime in the Sayville case.

Robert Fehring, (right) with his attorney Glenn Obedin Tuesday
(Screenshot via News 12 New York)

In the Federal criminal complaint Fehring is accused of sending, according to the complaint, include one this year threatening to shoot a high-powered rifle at a Long Island Pride event in June; another warning a local Chamber of Commerce member that ambulances would be needed if the group allowed an L.G.B.T.Q. event to proceed; and a third describing a Brooklyn barbershop as a “perfect target for a bombing.”

Since at least 2013, Fehring had been sending individuals associated with the LGBTQ+ community letters in which he threatened violence, including threatening the use of firearms and explosives. 

In the criminal complaint and affidavit for arrest, federal prosecutors allege that one letter threatened that there would “be radio-cont[r]olled devices placed at numerous strategic places” at the 2021 New York City Pride March with “firepower” that would “make the 2016 Orlando Pulse Nightclub shooting look like a cakewalk,” referencing the 2016 attack in which 49 persons were killed and dozens wounded at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

If convicted, Fehring, whom media outlets in New York identified as a retired high school teacher, band director and track coach, faces up to five years in prison.

Court records show that he sued the Suffolk County police unsuccessfully after being taken into custody in 2010 after an off-duty officer saw him hide a shotgun under a raincoat and bring it into a Long Island office building, the New York Times reported.

Gay City News editor  Matt Tracy reported that Fehring appeared in court on December 6 before Magistrate Judge Steven I. Locke and was released on $100,000 bond. He is restricted to home detention with location monitoring, according to prosecutors. He is not allowed to have any firearms or “destructive devices,” is barred from contacting any of his alleged victims, and cannot go to the places he is said to have targeted.

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District of Columbia

D.C. Trans woman’s killers could be free in 3 years in a plea deal

“A plea bargain from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter is a miscarriage of justice”

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Deeniquia ‘Dee Dee’ Dodds was killed on July 4, 2016. (Photo via Facebook)

WASHINGTON – A D.C. LGBTQ anti-violence group will be submitting a community impact statement for a D.C. Superior Court judge scheduled to sentence two men on Dec. 10 for the July 4, 2016, shooting death of transgender woman Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds in a case D.C. police listed as a hate crime.

Stephania Mahdi, chair of the D.C. Center for the LGBT Community’s Anti-Violence Project, told the Washington Blade the project has been in contact with the Office of the U.S. Attorney for D.C., which is prosecuting the case against the two defendants set to be sentenced this week, to arrange for the submission of a statement on the impact the murder of Dodds has had on the community.

The impact statement would also apply to the sentencing of two other men charged in the Dodds murder case who are scheduled to be sentenced on Dec. 20.

The Dec. 10 sentencing for Jolonta Little, 30, and Monte T. Johnson, 25, was set to take place a little over two months after Little and Johnson pleaded guilty on Sept. 30 to a single count of voluntary manslaughter as part of a plea bargain deal offered by prosecutors.

In exchange for the guilty plea for voluntary manslaughter, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to drop the charge of first-degree murder while armed originally brought against the two men. The plea agreement also called for dropping additional charges against them in connection with the Dodds murder, including robbery while armed, possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, and unlawful possession of a firearm.

In addition, the plea agreement includes a promise by prosecutors to ask D.C. Superior Court Judge Milton C. Lee, who is presiding over the case, to issue a sentence of eight years in prison for both men. Under the D.C. criminal code, a conviction on a voluntary manslaughter charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Johnson has been held without bond for five years and three months since his arrest in the Dodds case in September 2016. Little has been held without bond since his arrest for the Dodds murder in February 2017. Courthouse observers say that judges almost always give defendants credit for time served prior to their sentencing, a development that would likely result in the two men being released in about three years.

The plea deal for the two men came two and a half years after a D.C. Superior Court jury became deadlocked and could not reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charges against Johnson and Little following a month-long trial, prompting Judge Lee to declare a mistrial on March 6, 2019.

The two other men charged in Dodds’ murder, Shareem Hall, 27, and his brother, Cyheme Hall, 25, accepted a separate plea bargain offer by prosecutors shortly before the start of the 2019 trial in which they pled guilty to second-degree murder. Both testified at Johnson and Little’s the trial as government witnesses.

In dramatic testimony, Cyheme Hall told the jury that it was Johnson who fatally shot Dodds in the neck at point blank range after he said she grabbed the barrel of Johnson’s handgun as Johnson and Hall attempted to rob her on Division Ave., N.E., near where she lived. Hall testified that the plan among the four men to rob Dodds did not include the intent to kill her.

In his testimony, Hall said that on the day of Dodd’s murder, he and the other three men made plans to commit armed robberies for cash in areas of D.C. where trans women, some of whom were sex workers, congregated. He testified that the four men got into a car driven by Little and searched the streets for victims they didn’t expect to offer resistance.

D.C. police and the U.S. Attorney’s office initially designated the murder charge against Little and Johnson as an anti-trans hate crime offense based on findings by homicide detectives that the men were targeting trans women for armed robberies. But during Johnson and Little’s trial, Judge Lee dismissed the hate crime designation at the request of defense attorneys on grounds that there was insufficient evidence to support a hate crime designation.

At the request of prosecutors, Judge Lee scheduled a second trial for Johnson and Little on the murder charge for Feb. 25, 2020. But court records show the trial date was postponed to June 22, 2020, and postponed several more times – to Jan 11, 2021, and later to Feb. 17, 2022, due to COVID-related restrictions before the plea bargain offer was agreed to in September of this year.  The public court records do not show why the trial was postponed the first few times prior to the start of COVID restrictions on court proceedings.

Legal observers have said long delays in trials, especially murder trials, often make it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain a conviction because memories of key witnesses sometimes become faulty several years after a crime was committed.

“The D.C. Anti-Violence Project is disappointed to hear about the unfortunate proceedings in the case to bring justice for Dee Dee Dodds,” Mahdi, the Anti-Violence Project’s chair, told the Blade in a statement.

“A plea bargain from first-degree murder to voluntary manslaughter as well as a reduction of years in sentencing from 30 to 8 communicates not only a miscarriage of justice, but a message of penalization for victims who attempt to protect themselves during a violent assault,” Mahdi said. “The continual impact of reducing the culpability of perpetrators who target members of specifically identified communities sends a malicious message to criminals that certain groups of people are easier targets with lenient consequences,” she said.

“As a result of this pattern, the D.C. community has failed to defend the life and civil rights of Dee Dee Dodds and leaves criminally targeted LGBTQ+ community and other cultural identity communities critically undervalued by stewards of justice in the nation’s capital,” Mahdi concluded.  

William Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, has declined to disclose the reason why prosecutors decided to offer Johnson and Little the plea bargain deal rather than petition the court for a second trial for the two men on the first-degree murder charge.

Attorneys familiar with cases like this, where a jury becomes deadlocked, have said prosecutors sometimes decide to offer a plea deal rather than go to trial again out of concern that another jury could find a defendant not guilty on all charges.

During the trial, defense attorneys told the jury that the Hall brothers were habitual liars and there were inconsistencies in their testimony. They argued that the Halls’ motives were aimed strictly at saying what prosecutors wanted them to say so they could get off with a lighter sentence.

The two prosecutors participating in the trial disputed those claims, arguing that government witnesses provided strong evidence that Johnson and Little should be found guilty of first-degree murder and other related charges.

Before the jury announced it was irreconcilably deadlocked on the murder charges, the jury announced it found Little not guilty of seven separate counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence and found Johnson not guilty of five counts of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence.

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