'I'm not going to hide what I am anymore'
In the hardscrabble neighbourhood where her family lived in Honduras, criminal gang members took note when Paula’s daughter reached adolescence.
“They said of my daughter, ‘soon she’ll be weighed in pounds,’” Paula said, explaining that the phrase is used by members of the gang to describe young girls they deem ready for sexual exploitation. “They said, ‘we’re going to take her.’”
Paula lived with her partner, Ana, also a mother. Days later, the gang turned its attention to Ana’s son, Oscar, who was about to turn 13.
“A gang member said, ‘Paula, I’m going to deal drugs here on the block … I’m going to need your stepson,’” she said. “‘I’ll be back tomorrow.”
The gang, known as a mara, began in Los Angeles in the 1980s and has since spread its criminal activity across two continents,reigning with characteristic violence in Ana and Paula’s hillside neighbourhood. It practiced extortion, operated drug and prostitution rings and forcibly recruited members.
Ana would never give her son to the gangs, but she knew what that refusal would mean for her and Paula. “I knew they would kill us both,” she said.
Their only option was to escape. Paula sold her one asset, a motorbike. The couple gathered their children’s birth certificates, and the family slipped out of the house with a plan to seek safety abroad.
"I knew they would kill us both."
Around the world, many people who are LGBTIQ+ – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex (born with sex characteristics that do not necessarily fit into binary notions of male or female), or queer – are forced to run for their lives. Many flee persecution because of their gender or sexuality or perceived sexuality. Others, like Paula, 32, and Ana, 40, are trapped in deadly violence in their home countries but also face particular difficulties both at home and after they flee due to their sexual or gender identity.
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Their plight is shared by a growing number of people in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where brutal gang violence – exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters – has made life nearly impossible.
The overland journey to seek safety is fraught with danger. Asylum-seekers face robbery, sexual assault and kidnapping, and some drown trying to cross border rivers or die in traffic accidents. Paula and Ana’s family was robbed in Guatemala. Without bus fare, they walked for three days, finally reaching southern Mexico.
“Paula’s feet were covered in cuts and were bleeding after walking across Guatemala,” Ana said.
In Mexico, they slept on the street and at a shelter – where Paula was accosted by a man demanding to know if she was a man or a woman. Finally, a few days after that incident, a Mexican family in a rural community welcomed the family, offering them water and a mole stew made with iguana.
“They are very good people. They don’t have much, and they opened up their house to us,” Paula said. She and Ana and the children have stayed in the tin-roofed, single-roomed house for the past three months.
After a dip in the rate of asylum claims in Mexico in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people fleeing Central America – mainly El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – is rising again. In the first four months of 2021, Mexico’s Commission for Refugee Assistance, COMAR, registered over 30,000 new asylum applications, nearly a third higher than the same period last year. April 2021 marked an all-time high for monthly asylum claims, as they reached over 9,100.
Mexico recognizes gender as a standalone reason for a person to claim asylum. Within gender, COMAR very often recognizes those who have fled because of their sexual orientation or gender identity and have a high chance of receiving protection.
Flight for LGBTIQ+ asylum-seekers often follows a lifetime marked by violence, harassment and discrimination in their homelands, said Sofia Cardona, a senior protection associate with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Mexico.
"We didn't have anything...but we were together."
“In Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, LGBTIQ+ people face a great deal of generalized homophobia and transphobia. This can be from the churches, from the authorities and particularly from their families,” she said. “This experience of cumulative discrimination can make their lives intolerable and follow them into exile.”.
Ana recalled a violent upbringing in Honduras, where she was beaten by her mother for kissing a girl and expelled from school. Later, she was raped by a boyfriend and forced into a marriage she did not want, to another man.
Paula refused to conform to standard gender roles, despite her family’s pressure, she said.
Spurned by their families and subjected to violence and abuse because of their sexuality or the way they look, LGBTIQ+ people are often driven to the margins of society, Cardona said.
And there is where Ana and Paula met, having been forced into a daily struggle for survival.
“We didn’t have anything – no money, nothing to cook on, but we were together,” Ana said.
Ana and Paula have lodged a claim for asylum in Mexico and are planning for the future. UNHCR has supported them, explaining their rights to them under international law and helping to determine what they will need should they stay in Mexico – including shelter, medical attention, counseling and cash assistance as well as help finding schools for their children.
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The family shares the aid they receive from UNHCR with their Mexican hosts. They are content for now to live in peace in the countryside, with a yard shaded by a mango tree, with some hens, a duck and a pig.
“We like it here. This village is healthy, our children can play, nobody bothers them. You can leave the door unlocked … it’s a better place to bring up our children,” Ana said.
Ana and Paula hope to get married in Mexico City, one of 18 of Mexico’s 31 states where same-sex couples can wed. They are hopeful for the future.
“Our kids say ‘we have two mothers.’ They don’t discriminate,” Ana said.
*Names have been changed and some details omitted for protection reasons.