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Central America

Honduran government’s 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 Los Angeles 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 Los Angeles 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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Central America

Murdered Honduran Trans activist buried

Thalía Rodríguez shot outside her home on Monday

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The funeral of Thalía Rodríguez in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Jan. 11, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Reportar sin Miedo)

The Los Angeles Blade on Thursday published a Spanish-language version of this story from Reportar sin Miedo, the Blade’s media partner in Honduras.

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A prominent Transgender activist in Honduras who was murdered on Monday has been buried.

Reportar sin Miedo reported activists are among those who attended Thalía Rodríguez’s funeral that took place in Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital, on Tuesday.

Rodríguez led Asociación Cozumel Trans, a Honduran trans rights group.

The U.S. Embassy in Honduras, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras and the U.N. Refugee Agency have all condemned Rodríguez’s murder. U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power in a tweet said she was “horrified” by the murders of Rodríguez and Pablo Hernández, a leader in Honduras’ indigenous Lenca community who was killed on Sunday near San Marcos de Caiquín, a municipality in the country’s Lempira department, while he was on his way to church.

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Central America

Prominent trans activist murdered in Honduras

Thalía Rodríguez killed outside her Tegucigalpa home on Monday

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Thalía Rodríguez at her home. (Photo courtesy of Reportar sin Miedo)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A prominent transgender activist in Honduras was killed on Monday.

Reportar sin Miedo, the Washington Blade’s media partner in Honduras, reported Thalía Rodríguez was shot in the head outside her home in Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital.

Rodríguez, 58, led Asociación Cozumel Trans, a Honduran trans rights group.

Reportar sin Miedo reported Rodríguez ran her own business for nearly three decades until debts, poor sales and the pandemic forced her to close it about a year ago. Reportar sin Miedo interviewed Rodríguez for a feature story on trans Hondurans’ experiences in the country that it published last month.

“Thalía for many years had been fighting to ensure the trans community in Honduras would have rights,” JLo Córdova of Muñecas de Arcoíris, a Honduran trans rights group, told Reportar sin Miedo. “She was a warrior because she always fought for our rights. We condemn and repudiate her murder.” Ferrera, the co-founder of Asociación Cozumel Trans who the Blade interviewed in Tegucigalpa in 2017, also condemned Rodríguez’s murder.

 
 
 
 
 
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The U.S. Embassy in Honduras has also condemned Rodríguez’s murder.

“We mourn the murder of trans activist and leader Thalía Rodríguez,” tweeted the embassy on Tuesday. “We remain committed to ending violence, discrimination, criminalization and stigma against LGBTQI+ people. We call for an immediate and transparent investigation.”

Anti-trans violence is commonplace in Honduras, a country in Central America’s Northern Triangle that borders Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Reportar sin Miedo reports Rodríguez is the 400th trans person to be reported killed in Honduras since 2009.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights last year found Honduras responsible for the murder of Vicky Hernández, a trans woman who was killed hours after the 2009 coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya. President-elect Xiomara Castro, who is Zelaya’s wife, is scheduled to take office on Jan. 27.

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Central America

UNHCR notes work with LGBTQ asylum seekers in Central America

Agency adopted LGBTQ-inclusive non-discrimination policy in 2018

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A flyer from the U.N. Refugee Agency in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, on Jan. 29, 2019, advises migrants who are fleeing violence, persecution, war or discrimination have a right to apply for refugee status. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

GUATEMALA CITY — Officials with the U.N. Refugee Agency in Central America and Mexico say they remain committed to helping LGBTQ asylum seekers and migrants in the region.

UNHCR Guatemala Representative Besem Obenson told the Los Angeles Blade during an interview at her Guatemala City office last September that she and her colleagues work with Asociación Lambda and other Guatemalan NGOs to provide LGBTQ asylum seekers with access to LGBTQ-friendly shelters, psychosocial care and other programs once they identify themselves as LGBTQ. Obenson said UNHCR also works with the Guatemalan government to improve the way it responds to an asylum seeker with an ID document that does not correspond to their gender presentation.

“Our role … is to strengthen the government’s response to refugees and asylum seekers,” said Obenson.

UNHCR Guatemala Representative Besem Obenson. (Photo courtesy of UNHCR)

Rafael Zavala, a senior UNHCR official in El Salvador, echoed Obenson when he spoke with the Blade at UNHCR’s office in San Salvador, the Salvadoran capital, last July.

Zavala noted UNHCR has a formal partnership with COMCAVIS Trans, a Salvadoran transgender rights group. Zavala said UNHCR also works with two other LGBTQ groups — Aspidh Arcoíris Trans and Diké LGBTI+ — in a less official capacity.

“What we do is work at the community level to strengthen their role in communities,” Zavala told the Blade. “We also build for them safe spaces (to accept internally displaced people, migrants and deportees who are LGBTQ) and also find spaces where they can receive services, attention and legal assistance.”

Anti-LGBTQ violence among migration ‘root causes’

Vice President Kamala Harris and others have acknowledged anti-LGBTQ violence is one of the “root causes” of migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle that includes El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The Mexican Commission on Refugee Aid (COMAR) on Monday reported 27.7 percent of the 131,448 people who asked for asylum in Mexico in 2021 were Honduran.

The Justice Department notes 85,391 people asked for asylum in the U.S. in the 2021 fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2020, and Sept. 30, 2021. More than twice as many people asked for asylum in the U.S. during the 2020 fiscal year, which began before the pandemic.

The Justice Department statistics indicate 10 percent of the 8,679 Guatemalans, 11 percent of the 5,464 Hondurans and 14 percent of the 8,030 Salvadorans who applied for asylum in the U.S. during the 2021 fiscal year won their cases. Neither the Justice Department nor COMAR specify the asylum seekers’ sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Biden administration last February began to allow into the U.S. asylum seekers who the previous White House forced to pursue their cases in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program. The Biden administration has sought to end MPP, but a federal appeals court last month blocked this effort.

Title 42, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention rule that closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic, remains in place.

UNHCR non-discrimination policy includes sexual orientation, gender identity

UNHCR Senior Protection Officer Sofia Cardona last summer during an interview at UNHCR’s Mexico City office acknowledged that identifying asylum seekers who are LGBTQ is a challenge. Cardona and other UNHCR representatives with whom the Blade spoke for this story referred to the agency’s 2018 non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity and specifically recognizes LGBTQ asylum seekers.

“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) persons face complex challenges, threats and barriers and are often exposed to discrimination, abuse, prejudice and violence due to their sex, sexual orientation and/or gender identity,” notes the policy. “This is often severely compounded in situations of displacement, where the nature of the discrimination they encounter can be particularly virulent, their isolation from family and community profound and the harm inflicted on them severe.”

The policy states “diversity refers to different values, attitudes, cultural perspectives, beliefs, ethnicities, nationalities, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, health, social and economic status, skills and other specific personal characteristics.”

“Diversity characteristics vary from person to person and intersect, making each person unique,” it reads. “These differences must be recognized, understood, respected and valued by UNHCR in each context and operation in order to address effectively the needs of all persons of concern. Respecting diversity means recognizing and valuing those differences and creating a protective, inclusive and non-discriminatory environment where everyone’s rights are upheld.”

Cardona noted UNHCR staff and representatives of NGOs and governments with which it works regularly attend LGBTQ sensitivity trainings. Topics include ways to determine whether an asylum seeker is LGBTQ without forcing them to out themselves.

“You can’t force a disclosure,” said Cardona. “You can neve directly ask somebody, so, are you gay? Are you transgender? It’s incorrect because you may put people at risk, so it’s a very thin line of you can never force a disclosure of someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation, but you must signify to somebody that you are a safe space to receive that disclosure.”

Cardona said UNHCR representatives can ask an asylum seeker what their name is or disclose to them that they are “de la diversidad” or “from a diverse background.”

“You never begin an interview assuming anything by the way a person looks because in forced displacement gender expression is unlikely to match up to gender identity,” Cardona told the Blade. “So you need to understand that you may very well have conversations with a trans man who is wearing makeup and a dress, and you may very well be having a conversation with a trans woman who has a beard because that is how they are protecting themselves in a sphere of forced displacement.”

Cardona also noted UNHCR staff wear buttons with slogans that include “en seguridad” or “espacio libre de discriminación,” which translates into “in safety” or “discrimination-free space” respectively. Both Cardona and Zavala were wearing such buttons when they spoke with the Blade.

“We try very, very, very hard to work with our staff and also our partners … so they have their capacity strengthened in LGBTI rights,” Dagmara Mejia, the director of UNHCR’s field office in the Mexican border city of Tijuana, told the Blade last summer during an interview at her office.

Mejia noted the trainings she and her colleagues conduct focuses on topics that include the use pronouns that correspond to an asylum seeker’s gender identity and shelter standards for LGBTQ asylum seekers.

UNHCR works with Jardín de las Mariposas, a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana that is less than two miles from El Chaparral, the main port of entry between the city and San Diego. UNHCR also maintains contact with Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration Executive Director Steve Roth and the California-based Transgender Law Center.

“If there is no disclosure, no trust, then we cannot meet their needs and respond,” said Mejia.

Jardín de las Mariposas is a shelter for LGBTQ asylum seekers in Tijuana, Mexico. (Photo by Jon Atwell/Alight)

“We also create these environments that allow the community to feel safe and to know that it is a place where they can come without the risk of discrimination,” said Zavala.

Obenson told the Blade that UNHCR has worked with the Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation (FUNDAECO), a Guatemalan NGO, to hire asylum seekers who have chosen to stay in Guatemala as park rangers. Trans women are among those who FUNDAECO has hired.

“People need to feel safe,” said Obenson. “People need to be able to live their authentic selves without fear of violence or fear of retribution.”

“That for me, as a rep, is what I strive for,” added Obenson. “Everything that we do here at UNHCR is to encourage that.”

Ernesto Valle contributed to this story from San Salvador, El Salvador.

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