A Trail Of Peril And Hope
FACING BIGOTRY AND VIOLENCE IN THEIR NATIVE HONDURAS, MANY TRANSGENDER PEOPLE CHOOSE TO FLEE. SOME OF THOSE WHO STAY BEHIND LOOK BEYOND INTOLERANCE AND WORK FOR CHANGE
Editor’s Note: Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.
Inside a small apartment overlooking a bustling street in the heart of Guatemala City, Vanessa is in the middle of applying makeup concealer to her skin, eye shadow palettes, mascara, eyeliner, all lay on her bed. As she decides which shade of pink eyeshadow she pauses to tell me about her journey to Guatemala. The only window in the studio invites a soft warm summer light that illuminates Vanessa’s purple dress. Pockets of pink come into view. The light reveals a small doll, lying sideways near a purple fabric closet filled to the brim. A ring light stands at the edge of the bed, ready to light up one of her engaging online makeup tutorials.
This is Vanessa’s temporary refuge since fleeing her home in Honduras almost a year ago. “It hurts because I was always that person that never wanted to migrate. As many caravans as I witnessed heading towards the (United States), I never joined. I never yearned for that American dream. I wanted to live and die in my country,” she says.
I arrived in the colorful and vibrant Guatemala City to meet Vanessa; to learn how she left a life that began in El Progreso, Honduras, where she was born into an evangelical Christian family.
For as long as she can remember, Vanessa has been unable to relate to her birth gender. She recalled that some of her first gender memories revolved around knowing she was not a boy, but unable to articulate that.
“I remember being very young, walking down the street with my mother,” Vanessa says. “Men would stare at me, yell out slurs, calling me gay. It was infuriating. Not because they thought I was gay, but because everything inside me wanted to scream, ‘I’m not gay. I am a woman.'”
What she feared growing up, and knows now, is that life as a trans person in her home country can be perilous.
The life expectancy of transgender people in Honduras is estimated to be 35 years. The country also has one of the world’s highest rates of transgender murders. Facing bigotry daily from the Honduran government, family members, religion, and society, many choose to flee. Those who stay behind deal with frequent threats.
For several months, I have followed three Honduran transgender women, Vanessa, Rebecca, and Vienna. Here, we will use only their first names. For many trans people, changing their given birth names can provide a new and spoken truthfulness to their identities. Through their narratives, I explored how violence in Honduras has changed their lives.
From being falsely criminalized, coping with the tragic murder of activist Berta Cáceres, and to the pursuit of a new future in another country, these three women redefined resilience for me. They showed me the difficulty of living their lives in peace, and their community’s drive to move forward.
GROWING UP FAST
Increasing rumors began to make Vanessa’s family question her identity. It started with a visiting uncle accusing her of being gay. Eventually, Vanessa’s mother would ask — and Vanessa would respond, “I am not gay.” “I couldn’t tell anyone that inside I was a girl. I knew if I did, they would reject me,” she said.
When Vanessa was 12, her mother passed. Her father had already abandoned the family. With both parents gone, Vanessa was left to care for her younger brother.
She grew up quickly. She held countless jobs in which she continued wearing men’s clothes. It was not until she joined a Catholic church program, Nuevo Renacer – the rebirth — that she crossdressed in public for the first time. The organization would stage plays and skits. Men would wear skirts and dresses to fit their characters. Vanessa reveled in portraying the Mexican singer, Gloria Trevi. It was liberating.
“I would perfect every detail of my face so that I could look beautiful, just like a woman,” Vanessa said.
From that moment, at age 23, Vanessa began to openly dress in women’s clothing. But this free expression did not sit well with her employer.
“For doing shows and because they saw me dressed as a woman, they fired me. … ” she recalled. “From there, the doors began to close for me. I was forced to do what is most difficult for us transgender women to do: sex work.”
“There is no definitive data on the number of transgender sex workers in Honduras,” said Indyra Mendoza, founder of Cattrachas, a rights group that defends LGBTQ communities in Honduras. “We know of very few trans women who are teachers, or have their own pipelines, and or who are engaged in other kinds of work.”
In sex work, trans women are exposed more frequently to violence and discrimination. The country saw a significant spike in homicides after the 2009 military coup d’état ousted the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya. The constitutional crisis left the LGBTQ communities exposed to violence from gangs, local police, and military officers. “President Zelaya asked LGBT organizations to support his campaign for a constitutional assembly. Most groups said yes because Zelaya’s initiative offered an unprecedented opportunity to gain visibility and become part of a larger social movement that called for a new, inclusive constitution. So when Zelaya’s government was overthrown, LGBT people were in the streets from day one, demanding the restoration of democracy,” said Pepe Palacios member of the Movement for Sexual Diversity in Resistance, a Honduran lesbian, gay, bi, and transgender organization, in an interview with the Freedom Socialist Party.
“After the military coup, anyone could kill a transwoman,” Indyra added. “Cases of violence, torture, ill-treatment, discrimination, rape, extortion were seen, mainly by police officers, against transwomen. That is why violent deaths of LGTBQ people and also of women increased.”
A WITNESS TO LETHAL HATE
The Cattrachas group’s most recent survey estimates 389 violent murders of LGBTQ people since 2009. According to that survey, 121 victims were transgender, 1 was transsexual, 221 were gay and 46 were lesbians. Only 89 of those homicides were prosecuted. Most remain unresolved, leaving little hope for justice.
In her time as a sex worker, Vanessa said, she knew of many murders of co-workers, friends, and people of her community who had become her family. In one murder case, she was given witness protection by authorities because of what she’d seen.
Ultimately, however, the system failed her.
“It doesn’t work (witness protection). Well, in my country it doesn’t work. Many have died under this protection plan. There are never any guarantees.” Vanessa said.
She became deeply involved in many human rights campaigns, constantly amplifying calls for justice. “I would confront the police to their face saying, ‘You are the people who kill us, you are the ones who kill trans women.”’ Vanessa said, “But defending the rights of LGBTQ people in Honduras has its repercussions.”
In December of 2020, in El Progreso, Honduras, the police’s Dirección Policial de Investigaciones — an investigations unit known as the DPI for its Spanish acronym — released a news bulletin about the search for a member of the LGBTQ community who allegedly had molested a minor. At the time, Vanessa had relocated to San Pedro Sula, a city 30 minutes north of El Progreso. Her brother and another transwoman friend were also living in Vanessa’s home. One day, according to Vanessa, the DPI arrived at her home searching for a suspect in the sexual assault case. Vanessa was not present. They searched the house asking her brother where the “other” person (Vanessa) was. “They said to him, ‘If you don’t tell us where she is then be prepared for the consequences,” Vanessa said.
The DPI arrested the transwoman living in Vanessa’s home as a suspect for sexual assault of a minor. “She’s like my sister,” Vanessa said. “At first I wanted to go back but then I heard the DPI was still looking for an accomplice. They (DPI) were trying to involve me in the case.” Vanessa did not realize the magnitude of the danger she was in. Police cars began surveilling her home. Her brother received constant threats, forcing him to leave.
“My friends would say, ‘Vanessa, we need to get you out of the country now.’ I said ‘No. No, no, no, prove to me that I committed such a crime.’ I didn’t want to leave.” Vanessa said.
But Vanessa finally decided to leave. In the middle of the night, afraid and hesitant, she crossed the Honduran border into Guatemala, but not as Vanessa. She dressed in men’s clothes and wore a wig and a glued-on beard. “Once again, I had to disappear Vanessa, the woman I had worked so hard to free.”
Pictures of her were placed along the border entry between Honduras and Guatemala. “Never in my life had I seen the Honduran government look for someone that intensely, not even the worst criminals,” Vanessa said.
She recalled that border crossing was excruciating. She needed to pass through unidentified, so Vanessa made the difficult choice to have sex with two police officers. “El Cruce Ciego” (The Blind-Crossing), Vanessa said.
After finally setting foot in Guatemala, alone with only a suitcase in hand, she paid a motorcyclist to take her to the only place she knew of: a shelter called “La Monja Blanca” — The White Nun.
“While on that motorcycle, all I kept thinking was, ‘jump,’ ” Vanessa said.
A PRECARIOUS EXISTENCE
Today, policy in Honduras remains oppressive. For those in the LGBTQ community, marriage, adoption, blood donation, the right to change a name, choose a gender, and even visit loved ones in prison are prohibited.
“In Honduras, we have a highly trans-homo-lesbo phobic country, from the legal point of view,” said Cattrachas’ Mendoza.
“Violence is mainly the reason trans people migrate,” Mendoza added. “When trans women are in the stage of adolescence or childhood, they are not recognized as such. And there begins the systematic violation of the human rights of trans people, especially trans women. Many of them are raped, mistreated, psychologically affected, who see migration as the only way out.”
At the beginning of 2021, a new wave of migrants began traveling to the United States’ border with Mexico.
The first caravan, mainly Central Americans, was estimated to be 8,000 and included some 300 LGBTQ people from Honduras. Among them were an estimated 100 trans women. A report by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law estimates there were 11,400 LBGTQ applications for asylum in the United States between 2012 and 2017. Even though claims originated from 84 countries, more than half were from Central America. Asylum seekers from El Salvador made up 28.%. Hondurans were almost 15% of the total, and Guatemala was just over 8%. The study found that some 96% of claims from LGBTQ applicants were deemed “credible fear” of persecution — what’s needed to advance an asylum bid.
THE PROMISED LAND
Seeking asylum is a complicated and strenuous exercise. For many, a chance for equality and freedom in the United States makes it worth the wait and trauma. But for others the expectations of a promised land conflicts with the reality.
As I climb up to the top level of the Koreatown apartment building in Los Angeles where Rebecca lives, I see the metropolis’ famous downtown skyline of sparkling highrises appear like a welcome poster to the city of dreams.
Walking into Rebecca’s home, I immediately notice high heels perfectly placed on a shoe rack just past the front door. A vanity desk covered with makeup, perfume bottles, and pretty jewelry boxes stands next to a comfy couch, occupied by a large, pink, and plush stuffed octopus and its fuzzy tentacles. The studio is small but inviting. In the kitchen, Pescado the goldfish swims in a pink tank.
“I never thought that I would stay here as long as I have,” Rebecca tells me. “I said to myself, maybe one year, I’ll give it a try for one year, then I’ll go back to Honduras. It’s now been over three years.”
As she begins to tell me her story, Rebecca sets a coffee table with fried banana chips, hot lime Takis, and soda for us.
She first arrived in the U.S. in the winter of 2018. Leaving Honduras meant leaving behind not only a version of herself she had been yearning to release, but also the pivotal role she had played in changing the indigenous LGBTQ community of her country. Rebecca grew up in La Esperanza, a city in the country’s southwestern highlands. She is from the Lenca community, the largest indigenous group in Honduras. (The Lenca account for 60% of the nation’s native population).
Since childhood, Rebecca said, it was difficult for her to identify as male. Growing up she enjoyed chores that culturally belong to Honduran women. She helped in the kitchen, washed clothes, and she found herself attracted to men. At a young age, Rebecca was fully aware that being indigenous already made her an easy target for discrimination. If she made her gender identity known, she would become a pariah. So she remained silent in her truth.
As a teen, she joined her mother in attending meetings of the Civic Council of Popular Organizations and Indigenous People of Honduras, an organization dedicated to environment protection in Intibucá, and the defense of the indigenous Lenca people. This activism opened Rebecca’s eyes and soon led her to a paid position within the organization.
Rebecca grew close to the group’s co-founder, Berta Cáceres. They mobilized villagers across the country. After a few years of friendship and building a bond of trust, Rebecca spoke openly to Cáceres about her gender identity.
“I was so nervous,” Rebecca recalled. “I asked Berta how (the organization) felt about the LGBTQ community. Berta then asked me if I identified as an LGBTQ person. I said yes. And she threw up her hands saying, ‘Well cipote (kid) be proud of who you are!'”
From there, Rebecca moved rapidly, establishing the organization’s first indigenous LGBTQ chapter. Although some members of the organization did not fully support the program, Berta had the ultimate say. Rebecca had discovered her public voice. She would dye her hair and wear form-fitting clothes. Little by little, she came into her own. She traveled around the country, to Cuba, Venezuela, Italy, and the U.S. to advocate for LGBTQ rights.
But on March 3, 2016, the world was shaken. One year after receiving the Goldman Prize for her environmental activism, Cáceres was murdered in her home in La Esperanza.
“I remember my mother waking me up at five in the morning, telling me that Berta had been killed in the middle of the night,” Rebecca said. “I told her to stop joking and that one shouldn’t play around with things like that. She then turned on the radio. I couldn’t believe it.”
Rebecca had been with Berta just the day before, at a rally. In the middle of the event, Rebecca recalls that Cáceres asked her to tag along on some errands around town. The afternoon ended in Cáceres’ mother’s house, in front of bowls of sopa de gallo — chicken soup.
That night, Rebecca said, they went their separate ways. “I told Berta, ‘Please take care of yourself.’ She turned to me, responding, ‘cipote, I’m always looking out for myself.'”
The time that followed was a blur for Rebecca. The number of press conferences and meetings with investigators became overwhelming. She felt like she had no time to mourn. Seeking justice for Cáceres and keeping the organization afloat consumed her focus. Rebecca described how some in the group turned cold towards her and her work on behalf of the LGBTQ community. She said discriminatory slurs soon followed, as did false accusations about her character.
“The most heartbreaking matter was none of my colleagues would stand up for or with me. They all just stood quiet,” Rebecca said.
One night, as she walked home alone, Rebecca said a man suddenly approached her, questioned if she worked at COPINH, and said, “I’m going to kill every single one of you.”
That’s when Rebecca decided to leave Honduras.
She first arrived in New Jersey in 2018, with a work visa, and drifted from one low-paying job to the next.
“In the organization, I had learned about capitalism and socialism in various countries but I had never experienced it for myself. I realized I was becoming the machine, the machine in every factory,” Rebecca said.
She began fighting depression. She thought she needed protection which steered her back into wearing men’s clothing. But it was not enough of a disguise. At work, she endured gay slurs, where she would remain silent. While out shopping one day, Rebecca walked into a women’s clothing store where a little black dress caught her eye. It was with the reflection of the mirror in her dressing room that she decided to reassert her femininity.
Now in Los Angeles, Rebecca struts proudly around the city as a transwoman. She has found employment cleaning houses with a friend. While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on her work, she’s resilient and optimistic.
“The American dream is not how they paint (it) in the movies. Especially for the undocumented. But we have to recognize that we are much better here than in Honduras,” Rebecca says.
Most recently, the Honduran government has received increased pressure to protect the rights of the LGBTQ communities. On June 28, 2021, in a historic ruling, the Inter-America Court declared the State of Honduras responsible for the murder of Vicky Hernandez, a transwoman activist and sex worker who had been killed the night of the military coupe. A hopeful landmark not only for Honduras but for all of Latin America.
“Honduras is a difficult country, but I think it’s going to get better,” said Indyra Mendoza from the Cattrachas organization. “I have seen improvement. Of course, it’s not the same now. Lethal violence has increased, but other parts have improved. For example, the media has trans, gay, and lesbian people in it. It’s always difficult in Honduras, but I think the right to expression has changed a bit. There has been a little more access.”
As the Honduran LGBTQ community begins to see notable changes, activists on the ground have become more vocal on matters affecting their community, not only to protect the next generation but to help keep more people off the migrant trail.
A study carried out by the Observatory of International Migration in Honduras and the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences found that 14% of Honduran LGBTQ people, who were victims of forced migration due to violence, were deported from the U.S. to Honduras between 2015-2019
STAY HOME AND FIGHT
Back in Honduras, I make my way to the center of metropolitan San Pedro Sula. Inside a bright cafe with American music playing in the background, the aroma of just-roasted coffee beans lingers in the air. Patrons’ chatter as an air conditioner fights to keep out the day’s excessive heat, which shows no sign of yielding. Vienna, a tall trans woman in a hot pink dress and high heels framed by perfectly long, straight, and silky black hair, sips her coffee across a small glass table from me.
“Every day we are trying to get legal recognition by our country as a trans community,” she says. “To my government, I literally do not exist. I’m undocumented, unregistered, illegal in my own country. I tell my friends when I get killed don’t let them label me as a woman who was murdered for sex, or by her husband because that is all the world ever says about us.”
Vienna is the director and attorney for the group Asociación Feminista Trans. After her first and only time attempting to migrate north, she found the experience too traumatizing and decided to instead stay in Honduras and fight for her community.
“I know why our community flees, and I try to provide as many resources as I can through our organization as they go through the journey,” Vienna says.
She experienced that journey in 2017.
Accompanied by a friend, Vienna recalled walking north along a road in Mexico. She was headed for the U.S. That’s when they were stopped by two military officers and taken to a detention center. Once there, Vienna requested to be detained with the center’s women for safety. The officer answered, “Prove to me that you are a woman.”
Instead, Vienna says, she paid off the officer with the little bit of money she had left and was put in the women’s section. She had to share a small, hard mattress with her friend. After a week, the officers notified Vienna that she would remain at the detention center for several months before being deported.
While in detention, Vienna developed inflammation in her breasts. (A few months earlier, she had gotten breast implants.) She became extremely sick, yet the officers and staff refused to help, Vienna said, until she saw the director of the facility who was on a tour. Vienna threw herself in front of him and begged for help. The director immediately sent her to the medical ward. The next day she was headed back to Honduras.
“Trans women in centers of detention, I believe, suffer the most. We are constantly at risk.” Vienna says as she finishes her coffee.
Today, Vienna has become a leader in the LGBTQ community. She’s the newly appointed Secretary of Sexual Diversity by the Popular Refoundation Force, a branch of the political Freedom and Refoundation Party.
“There have to be the people who stay behind and fight for what others need. I still have a lot I want to accomplish. Plus I have hope. I see hope when I walk down the street and see the next LGBTQ generation openly expressing themselves, that gives me hope,” Vienna says with a smile.
*Dunia Orellana, co-founder and editor of the online news site Reportar Sin Miedo in Honduras, contributed to this article.
Zaydee Sanchez is a visual storyteller, documentary photographer and writer. Her work focuses on human rights issues, migration, displacement, labor workers, and gender.