Courts in more than two-thirds of Mexico’s 31 states have granted same-sex couples the right to marry over the past two years in a series of rulings that will likely make marriage equality a reality nationwide in the near future.
The wave of rulings throughout Mexico hasn’t caused the uproar that has followed rulings in the United States over the past year striking down state laws barring same-sex couples from marrying. Couples have not rushed to marry nor have conservatives organized major protests.
This is in part because the technicalities of Mexican law have meant these decisions have been much more narrow in their immediate impact. Each decision applies only to the individuals who have brought the cases, and other same-sex couples will still have to sue in order to marry. It takes multiple cases meeting certain technical requirements for the courts to nullify a state law in Mexico — a hurdle that has not yet been met.
But with new rulings being announced almost every week — judges in seven new states ruled in favor of marriage equality in the first three months of 2015 alone — it seems almost inevitable that this day is coming, say legal experts who have closely followed the litigation.
“It’s just a matter of time,” said Geraldina Gonzalez de la Vega, a lawyer who worked on the first of these suits filed in 2011 and is now a clerk to a Supreme Court minister. “This has spread all over the country.”
The first place in Mexico to allow same-sex couples to marry was Mexico City — a federal district that functions like a state, sort of like Washington D.C in the U.S. A marriage equality law was adopted by the city’s legislature at the very end of 2009. When opponents took the law to Mexico’s Supreme Court, the judges ruled that it was constitutional for Mexico City to recognize same-sex couples and went one step further: They also held that the city’s marriages were valid in every state of the country.
But the Supreme Court left state marriage codes restricting marriage to heterosexual couples in place. The first case to argue that state marriage laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman were also unconstitutional seemed like a long shot. Unlike in the United States, where legal activists spent years spelling out the grounds for marriage equality and some state challenges attracted A-list attorneys, the idea to challenge a state marriage code came from a law student in the largely rural state of Oaxaca.
Alex Alí Méndez Díaz has now been involved in lawsuits in 19 states even though he is still finishing advanced studies in Mexico City and has an unrelated full-time job. Méndez first thought about challenging state marriage laws when he met a couple named Alejandro and Guillermo while helping to plan a pride parade in his native state of Oaxaca in 2011. The two wanted to marry, but they couldn’t afford to make the trip to register their union in Mexico City.
“These guys said to me, ‘We want to get married but we don’t want to leave. ... Can we get married here in Oaxaca?'” Méndez recounted during a 2012 interview with this reporter in Oaxaca City. He downloaded the ruling in the Mexico City case and concluded that it laid the foundation for challenging Oaxaca’s marriage code.
Others in Oaxaca’s local LGBT rights organizations thought going to court was a bad idea, Méndez said, in part because they were worried that the state wasn’t ready for a public discussion about same-sex marriage. But he was sure of his legal arguments, so he decided to bring the case by himself.
“I said, ‘Fine, if the collective won’t do this as a group, well, I’m the only lawyer [in the organization]. I’ll do it,'” he said.
In August 2011, Mendez filed cases on behalf of Alejandro and Guillermo and another couple he recruited through Facebook. In early 2012, he filed one more. These were amparos, a kind of suit in the Mexican system concerning human rights violations. He lost two of them — including Alejandro and Guillermo’s — but the third, on behalf of a couple identified as Lizeth and Montserrat, eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. In December 2012 the Supreme Court sided with the couple.
“Like racial segregation, founded on the unacceptable idea of white supremacy, the exclusion of homosexual couples from marriage also is based on prejudice that historically has existed against homosexuals”
The written decision in the case, published in early 2013, made an impassioned argument for marriage equality. A unanimous opinion authored by Supreme Court Minister Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea said that the court needed to step in partly because of a provision added to the Mexican constitution in 2011 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “sexual preferences.” Unlike in the U.S., Mexican courts recognize rulings from other countries, so Zaldívar also based the decision in part on landmark U.S. Supreme Court judgements striking down racial segregation.
“Like racial segregation, founded on the unacceptable idea of white supremacy, the exclusion of homosexual couples from marriage also is based on prejudice that historically has existed against homosexuals,” Zaldívar wrote, referring both to the 1954 school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education and the 1967 case striking down laws banning interracial marriage, Loving v. Virginia.
The judgement allowed just the petitioners to marry — Mexican law requires essentially five identical rulings on a subject from a high-level court in order to establish precedent binding all government officials. But it provided a very clear blueprint for bringing more challenges. Méndez announced on Twitter less than a week after the decision was handed down in December in 2012 that he was preparing to file amparos on behalf of more couples in Oaxaca, and lawyers in several other states immediately began talking about copying the strategy.
“In the two years [since], we have succeeded in covering almost the entire country.”
Méndez also began working on an amparo colectivo, a petition of 39 individuals from Oaxaca challenging the marriage restriction. These actions didn’t revolve around specific couples alleging their rights had been violated because they’d been denied the right to marry. Instead, it was a group of gays and lesbians who said it was inherently discriminatory for the state to bar them from matrimony. This would streamline the process, allowing large numbers of couples to win marriage rights through a single suit, and also allow single people to win the right to marry even if they didn’t yet have a partner.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of this amparo colectivo in April last year. Since then, groups numbering in the hundreds have successfully brought these suits in multiple states.
As of late February, there have been rulings in favor of marriage equality in 22 states, according to local news reports, and cases have been filed in at least four others. This legal wave nudged the legislature of one state on the U.S. border, Coahuila, to pass a marriage equality law in September. And the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo — where same-sex marriages actually began taking advantage in 2011 of the little-noticed fact that the wording of its marriage statute was actually gender-neutral — held two mass weddings of same-sex couples this year.
Méndez himself seems astonished at the pace of change.
“Imagine, in 2012, we won the first judgement in Oaxaca,” Méndez marveled during a phone interview last week. “In the two years [since], we have succeeded in covering almost the entire country.”
Even some LGBT rights supporters are a little mystified that marriage equality rulings haven’t sparked a national backlash. The fight over Mexico City’s 2009 marriage equality law brought strong opposition from the country’s Catholic hierarchy. Yet while some state bishops have condemned marriages between same-sex couples in the past few years, there has been no substantial opposition.
“The church was really concerned with the amendment here in Mexico City,” Geraldina Gonzalez de la Vega, the Supreme Court clerk who helped Méndez bring the Oaxaca case, said. But now, with scores of amparos pending, “they are not saying anything.”
Gonzalez attributes this in part to the fact that there isn’t much history of using the courts to force widespread change in Mexico, and so neither activists nor the media fully understand the scale of the change that’s underway. Méndez thinks this will change as the litigation moves from cases involving individual couples and produces the kind of rulings that will allow same-sex couples to marry in their states without having to file suit.
“The moment that there is an order from the Supreme Court forcing reform we’ll begin to see all kinds of resistance,” Méndez said. “We’re going to have serious problems with protests in opposition.”
Méndez expects the Supreme Court to start issuing the kinds of decisions that would make marriage widely available to same-sex couples throughout the country sometime in the next “two or three years,” based on the timeline for the cases already in the works. That may come sooner in some states — on Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling ordering the state of México (which borders Mexico City) to change its marriage codes, but it will take an additional case to make that binding precedent in the state. Three more states — Oaxaca, Jalisco, and Colima — are also on the verge of crossing that threshold.
As the wins become more substantial, advocates may no longer be able to carry on their work under the radar, and there are already signs that a backlash is coming. January brought the first high-profile resistance by local officials to a Supreme Court ruling allowing a couple to marry, a marriage equality standoff that made some national news. This came when the state of Baja California tried to duck a Supreme Court court order allowing a couple to wed in the city of Mexicali. The couple was turned away from city hall three times, the last of which after a volunteer who performs a mandatory pre-marital counseling session at city hall submitted a complaint saying the men “suffer from madness.” LGBT rights activists organized a protest in front of city hall under the hashtag #MisDerechosNoSonLocura (#MyRightsAreNotMadness), and city officials finally capitulated and allowed Víctor Fernando Urías Amparo and Víctor Manuel Aguirre Espinoza to marry on Jan. 17.
There are also signs that it could emerge as a theme in the campaign for national congressional elections that will be held in June, at least in some states. The clearest hints of this have come from Chihuahua, where Méndez said there have been 25 successful amparos. On Feb. 10, the leader of the opposition PAN party in the state legislature declared, “We are going to oppose approval of gay unions, we are going to vote against them, and that is what we were discussing with the bishop.”
But even if a backlash erupts now, Méndez said, the cases they’ve already won make marriage equality all but inevitable.
“Outside of Mexico, and even inside of Mexico, these advances are not widely known,” Méndez said. “It is very slow, it is very invisible — but it is irreversible.
Rex Wockner provided research assistance for this story.
This post has been updated to reflect a March 4 ruling against a law in the state of Chiapas banning same-sex couples from marrying
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 16, 2015, at 10:38 a.m. ET
CAIRO — When asked to explain what Cairo's medical inspectors look for when they examine someone who's been arrested for homosexuality, Dr. Maged Louis picked up a pen and started sketching an oval with sharp points on both ends.
"The shape of the hole will change," he said. The anus "won't be normal any more and will look like the female vagina."
More than 150 people have been arrested on charges of homosexuality since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power just under two years ago, the largest roundup of alleged LGBT people in more than a decade in Egypt. Anal exams are a routine part of the investigation in such cases, and Louis has a role in overseeing all of them. He is the deputy director of the Justice Ministry's Forensic Medical Authority, as well as the chief of forensic medicine for the Cairo police district.
"First we make them take the prostrate position — the position that Muslims take when they pray," he said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. The tests are intended not just to determine whether someone has ever had anal sex, but also to detect "chronic homosexuals," because the letter of Egyptian law only criminalizes men who engage in "habitual debauchery." Louis said that he believed that in addition to their elongation, the anuses of "chronic homosexuals" also don't clench when touched or don't contract as tightly. They are smooth and lack the "corrugations" — wrinkles — found on "normal" anuses, he said. And though he denied that examiners penetrate subjects under examination, he also said they can detect a "chronic homosexual" if his anus can accept larger objects.
"A normal man's anus can't take more than one joint of the small finger," he said.
International human rights and medical experts dismissed Louis's checklist as having "no medical basis" and being "categorically not true." Most of those interviewed by BuzzFeed News couldn't contain their shock before all of the criteria were listed.
"I think you heard my laugh — I think that says it all," said Dr. Joel Palefsky, a professor at the University of California San Francisco specializing in anal cancer who is president of the International Anal Neoplasia Society. "We run a clinic where we do anal examinations of thousands of patients ... Never in my 20 years of doing this have I seen an anus that looks like a vagina."
Human Rights Watch and other advocacy organizations have long denounced such anal exams — which are routine in several of the world's roughly 80 countries that criminalize sodomy — as a form of torture that violates international law. Medical leaders in some of the countries where these exams are used have called for their abolition, such as in Lebanon.
But Louis was incredulous that anyone could doubt his inspectors' work.
"All of what I said is science and written in books," he said. "Doctors all over the world know that."
The idea that inspectors are intentionally fabricating evidence because of their own homophobia isn't what makes these exams so disturbing — though that does sometimes happen, according to defendants' accounts. It's that beliefs about homosexuality are leading doctors — some of whom have done extensive (and horrific) research into perfecting diagnostic techniques — to believe that what they are doing is science.
One of the modern pioneers in anal examinations in Egypt was Dr. Aymen Fouda, Louis' predecessor as deputy director of the Forensic Medical Authority, who went on to become chief medical inspector from 2005 through 2007.
During a 2003 interview with Scott Long, then-director of Human Rights Watch's LGBT program, Fouda said the exams were based on techniques developed in Europe.
"In this kind of investigation there are six criteria which were established by the celebrated Frenchman [Auguste Ambroise] Tardieu," Fouda said, referring to the 19th-century forensic doctor who published a book in 1857 called The Forensic Study of Assaults against Decency. In the book, Tardieu spelled out six "characteristic signs" of "habitual pederasty," which included those described by Dr. Louis as well as sores and fissures. But, he wrote, "[t]he unique sign and the only unequivocal mark of pederasty" is an "infundibuliform" — or funnel-shaped — anus.
Fouda told Long that forensic experts were working on developing "new, advanced methods" to detect homosexuality "involving the use of electricity." Fouda had co-authored a 1998 study published in a journal published by the Egyptian Society of Forensic Medical Sciences that experimented with inserting hypodermic needles into the muscle of the anus in "unanesthetized humans" which claimed to demonstrate that gay men's anuses conduct electricity at a different rate. Other researchers continued experimenting with related methods, including a doctoral student who defended a dissertation at Ain Shams University — one of Egypt's most prestigious — in 2003 entitled "Medico-legal Assessment of the Anal Sphincter Functions in Sodomists."
Tardieu's theories were suspect in Europe even when they were first published, said Khaled Fahmy, a historian of Egyptian forensic medicine at the American University of Cairo who has studied its translation into Arabic.
"Even back then this is a highly ideological book," he told BuzzFeed News, part of a "morals campaign" that was a response to events in Paris at the time. And he thought it "would be shocking" to the Egyptian public if it were widely known that courts were continuing to treat examinations as serious evidence that were based on science that was 150 years old.
But, he speculated, they endure in part because they reinforce certain basic notions about homosexuality that circulate in Egypt: that it is like a disease, usually passed on to children through sexual abuse.
"There is a belief that this abuse during childhood will leave a physical mark, and it leaves a mark on the anus," he said. "We now have a homosexual body — not only a homosexual character which is a defective character, but it has physical traces that a forensic doctor can discern."
And though these anal exams now seem laughable in Europe and the United States, the belief that a detectable physical basis for sexual orientation persists into the 21st century. In 2010, the Czech Republic announced that it would stop subjecting gay refugees to a practice called "phallometry" or "penile plethysmography" — which involves attaching a pressure-sensing device to the refugee's penis while he is shown heterosexual pornography — after it was denounced as "degrading treatment" by the United Nations Refugee Agency.
The same belief for a measurable sign of homosexuality also lingers in the hunt for a "gay gene," suggests Graeme Reid, the current head of Human Rights Watch's LGBT program. Though the argument that homosexuality is determined by biology has been very effective for the LGBT rights movement in the U.S. and Europe, Reid said, efforts to isolate a "gay gene" are also based on a simplistic, "flawed cultural assumption" about the biological basis of sexuality.
"The idea that there is kind of one causation for sexuality seems absurd given what we know about the complexity of human sexuality," Reid said.
Some defendants who have undergone anal exams in Egypt describe open cruelty on the part of the doctors. One of the defendants in Egypt's largest homosexuality trials in recent history — the 2001 trial of 52 men that became known as the "Queen Boat" case — told Long of Human Rights Watch that the anal exam was one of the "two worst times in my life"; the other was when the judge sentenced him to two years in jail. "The doctors treated us like pigs," said another quoted in Long's report on the trial, and several noted that their degradation was compounded by the fact that they were forced to assume a sexually subservient position in front of women. Anal exams are far from the only intrusive practice that appears to be becoming more common in Sisi's Egypt — "virginity tests" for women who are arrested are also making a comeback since the military reasserted control, and Sisi has personally defended the practice.
Fahmy said that some of the doctors "may" see themselves as administering a form of punishment through these exams. But he thinks in most cases, the doctors "would be thinking this is not torture; they're not really humiliating them." A man who has allowed another to penetrate him — which carries much greater stigma than doing the penetrating — has already lost his honor in the eyes of many Egyptians, and so these exams seem like nothing by comparison.
Doctors likely believe that "these are people who have forfeited their honor to begin with," Fahmy said. "By being who they are, by being homosexual, they effectively have forfeited the constitutional protection that they are entitled to."
Because these "examinations have no forensic or evidentiary value for consensual homosexual acts," Human Rights Watch maintains that doctors who perform them violate the United Nations Principles of Medical Ethics, which says physicians should not "apply their knowledge and skills in order to assist in the interrogation of prisoners and detainees in a manner that may adversely affect [their] physical or mental health or condition."
And there is no doubt that these exams are absurd, say doctors practicing in the United States. Dr. Ross Cranston, director of the Anal Dysplasia Clinic and Research Program in the University of Pittsburgh Division of Infectious Diseases, said not all gay men have anal sex regularly or at all, and that no credible study has ever shown any clear difference in things like muscle strength.
"I could not tell a gay anal canal from a straight anal canal," Cranston said. "There's no typical sign of the gay anal canal."
Human Rights Watch's Reid said the organization will begin a project this spring to document how common anal exams are and the role of medical practitioners in them. The organization has documented them in at least six countries in the course of investigating specific cases of abuse, but no comprehensive review has ever been done to establish how widespread they are. And it's not clear, Reid said, whether "there's a collaboration between medical examiners and police to deliberately subject people to humiliation and torture, or medical examiners genuinely believe that this has some kind of a medical basis."
Anecdotal reports suggest there is a good deal of skepticism about anal exams even in countries with notoriously homophobic regimes. In Uganda, for example, anal exams are "the first line of investigation" when someone is arrested for homosexuality, said Adrian Jjuuko, director of the Human Rights Awareness and Promotion Forum, which often provides legal support in cases involving LGBT rights. A Ugandan man who was arrested for homosexuality along with two others in November told BuzzFeed News that police stuck their hands down their pants when they were first detained to "see if we had Pampers," believing "gays put diapers on themselves" because anal sex causes incontinence.
But despite the police's fixation on the anus, Jjuuko said, "the state does not use [anal exams] as evidence."
The amount of research Egypt's forensic experts appear to have invested in anal exams would seem to set them apart. It's not clear whether the doctors who perform the exams have the same rigor — Long collected reports from defendants in the 2001 case who said investigators reached their conclusions based on the fact that they appeared feminine or had no hair on their chests.
Belief in the scientific rigor of anal exams is widely shared in Egypt. Medical examiners aren't just a tool the police use to simply rubber-stamp charges — in fact, they've contradicted the charges in Egypt's two most high-profile homosexuality trials under Sisi's regime.
During the trial last month of 26 men accused of participating in a "gay sex party" at a working-class bathhouse, it wasn't prosecutors who introduced the results of the anal exams, but the defense. Prosecutors didn't introduce them because only three of the men were found to have been sexually "used," contradicting the testimony of the arresting officer, who claimed to have personally witnessed multiple couples engaged in anal sex.
All 26 men were acquitted in January, the first time defendants had been acquitted on charges of homosexuality in a high-profile case since Sisi began controlling Egypt. But an exam pronouncing a defendant's anus "un-used" is not a guarantee of acquittal. Examiners routinely add a disclaimer to reports when they find no evidence of penetration that says anal sex can be undetectable if it happens with "full consent, taking the right position, and the use of lubricants." And in another recent case — in which eight men were prosecuted based on a YouTube video prosecutors alleged was of a same-sex wedding — all were sentenced to a year in jail despite the fact that medical examiners said there was no evidence of penetration.
Even some Egyptian lawyers who support LGBT rights don't question the legitimacy of the exams.
In some cases, attorneys even demand police send their clients for forensic exams in the hopes that it will refute the charges. Mohamed Abo Zakry, a defense attorney with an organization representing seven of the defendants in the bathhouse case, reacted as if it were a stupid question when asked about challenging the legitimacy of the tests during an interview with BuzzFeed News just before the acquittal in January.
"We cannot say the exams are not accurate," Zakry said. "They are accurate. Any [doctor] who has experience can see clearly if this guy is gay or not."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 8, 2015, at 10:52 a.m. ET
SENSUNTEPEQUE, El Salvador — Karla Avelar had a backache when she reached the Sensuntepeque Penal Center, a cluster of cinderblock buildings perched on the side of a lush green valley near El Salvador's border with Honduras. So, after lunch, she took off her shirt and lay facedown on the cement floor of a room that doubles as activity space and cafeteria. Five women in bright makeup gave her a head-to-toe massage. They used hand cream as massage oil and placed a small candle over the knot in her back to draw out the pain.
Avelar was so at ease inside the prison that it is hard to imagine that she was regularly raped and tortured while she was incarcerated there between 1996 and 2000. Avelar, now 37 years old, was one of the many trans sex workers from San Salvador, El Salvador's capital, who has done time there over the past several decades. The ones who passed through there around the same time as Avelar report being abused by guards and pressed into a kind of slavery by the gangs who controlled the prison.
Those days are over, thanks in part to a legal complaint Avelar herself filed after her release. The women who rubbed her back on her recent visit, just before Christmas, are among the roughly 50 inmates who live in Sector 2, a special unit that houses trans women along with a handful of gay men. They still interact with the other prisoners in some common areas — several of them have boyfriends in the men's unit, and the prison supplies them with condoms — but they live and sleep in a part of the prison that is walled off from the men's unit for their safety.
"Today there is no rape," said one 25-year-old inmate who gave her name as Kendra. Kendra said she was subject to some verbal abuse when she first arrived in 2010 — a guard forced her to kneel for two hours while hurling homophobic insults at her — but Avelar came to see her and helped put a stop to it. The sealing of Sector 2 in that same year coincided with a decision by the prison administration to move the gang members out of the prison, which also went a long way to improving the trans and gay inmates' situation.
Many of them have stories much like Avelar's: Thrown out of home at an early age, they got by as sex workers, and survived rape or run-ins with gangs before landing in Sensuntepeque. They look to Avelar as a cross between a godmother and an advocate, able to win concessions from the prison administration that they could never get on their own. During the December visit, Avelar delivered a petition from the residents of Sector 2 to the warden asking that they be allowed to join the women's unit for a Christmas pageant. He agreed to it in writing on the spot.
"They're a little afraid of me because I've gotten them to remove certain guards," she told BuzzFeed News during the three-hour drive to the prison from San Salvador. "So with me, [the guards] are all like, 'Hello, Niña Karlita,'" greeting her with an affectionate nickname.
In a country where HIV and violence claims so many trans women's lives that there are few trans women in San Salvador over the age of 35, it's remarkable that Avelar is even still alive. She was raped and threatened with murder for the first time when she was 10, has survived at least three murder attempts as an adult, and has lived with HIV that went untreated for more than 13 years. Since 2008, she has run the trans rights organization she founded in San Salvador, known by the acronym COMCAVIS Trans. She regularly travels around the world to make the case for trans rights before international human rights bodies.
Avelar is part of a generation of trans activists in El Salvador, most of whom never finished primary school. They have won some substantial victories — including a directive issued by the government in 2010 prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in government jobs — even though human rights advocates consider El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas for LGBT people. Based on media reports, COMCAVIS has documented at least twelve women and two gay men were killed in 2014, a figure they believe understates the actual number of murders.
"In terms of Karla's transformation, I can say, 'Wow, when I'm all grown up I want to be just like her' — only that she's younger than me," said William Hernández, who founded El Salvador's first LGBT rights organization in 1994, Entre Amigos (which translates to "Among Friends").
"We met her on the streets," Hernandez said. "We knew the comings and goings of all of the things she lived through." Now, he marvels at seeing her in meetings seated next to ambassadors and cabinet ministers. "And she's not just sitting there — she's actually expressing herself, making decisions and laying the cards on the table."
Avelar was born in Chalatenango, a rural district just to the northwest of the one that houses the Sensuntepeque prison. She left home when she was 10 years old, after the second time her cousin raped her in their family house. Another cousin used to shoot at her from time to time — and finally told her to get out.
"My cousin warned me that if I didn't leave home he'd kill me, because in his family there were only machos," Avelar said. She was dressing as a boy at the time, she said, but "I wasn't fooling anybody. ... In my town, in my neighborhood, everybody stopped calling me 'Carlos'; they called me 'Karla' instead. Or 'the faggot.'"
She left without enough money for bus fare, so she started walking toward San Salvador. She walked for a day and a half before reaching Apopa, a town just outside the capital, arriving at around 11 p.m. A man took pity on her and paid for her to take a bus the rest of the way. She spent the next six months sleeping in the San Salvador bus station or on the street, feeding herself from the trash.
She eventually saved up a little money from begging and bought a case of Coca-Cola, and began a business selling soda in one of the city's largest markets. There she met a woman named María who took her in but made her work a grueling schedule of domestic chores.
The woman's son also raped her, Avelar said, "but I stayed there because I didn't know what else to do."
One of her most dangerous chores was buying tortillas. María's house was in a neighborhood controlled by the 18th Street gang, but the tortillería was in territory of the rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS). On one of these tortilla runs, a group of MS members grabbed her and took her to a place where she said about 15 men raped her. There were more waiting their turn, but she found the courage to make a break for it.
She returned to homelessness shortly after. That's where she first met another trans woman, named Diana, who invited Avelar to come along with her when she worked the streets. Avelar discovered that sex work finally gave her a way to earn money on her own and a little bit of control over her life.
"I was young [and] I made money," she said.
Avelar stayed friends with Diana until about eight years ago, when Diana was killed by her partner, a police officer. They had no real name for what they were at the time they first met. Most of the trans women in San Salvador were lumped into the category of "homosexuals" or they called themselves "locas," which literally means "crazy women" but often is used to mean something similar to "fag."
"At that time, we didn't even know that we were 'trans' or that we were the subjects of rights or anything," Avelar said.
Many of the trans sex workers who were already working in San Salvador when Avelar entered the business in 1990 remember those years as the tail end of a golden age. A civil war raged in El Salvador from the early 1980s until 1992, but the capital itself was comparatively peaceful and home to a thriving red-light district where gay men were relatively open and trans sex workers enjoyed steady business from the soldiers and police. There were a few strips where they worked, but the center of activity was a four-block area known as the Praviana. The women who spent time there in the '80s and early '90s estimate that in an area of about four blocks, anywhere from 70 to 90 trans women lived, most of them sex workers in the neighborhood's hotels.
Avelar was too intimidated by the other trans women to work in the heart of the Praviana. The veterans didn't exactly welcome her with open arms — they bullied her ruthlessly, calling her "la machorra" ("the dyke") because she wore short hair.
The "trans women who had been there a long time … would walk up and steal my money — sometimes they would even leave me naked," Avelar said. Once, a woman waved a machete in her face and told her she "had a pretty face for slicing up into little pieces."
Avelar eventually learned to fight back, and she began dishing out the same kind of abuse to the women who had treated her so badly. But this was as the Praviana began to decline in the 1990s. Many of the women left for the United States, following a well-worn path that many Salvadorans took in the dangerous and unstable period as organized gangs tightened control of the country following the civil war.
And then there was the "Matalocas" — the "Trannykiller." A serial killer started attacking trans women on the street in a series of drive-by shootings. He was said to have a wooden leg.
A man matching his description nearly killed Avelar in 1992. One night, Avelar said, she got into the car of a john who drove her to a secluded part of town after agreeing on a price. Her heart stopped when she went to go down on him and discovered he had an artificial leg.
"I touched his peg leg and I got scared," Avelar remembered. "I said to myself, 'He's already killed me.'"
She tried to act calm and finished the blow job, but he had noticed her panic. He pulled her off his penis, smacked her across the head with the butt of a pistol, and then made her get out of the car. That's when "penetration occurred" she said, and then he forced her back into the car and promised to kill her if she tried to escape.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 11, 2014, at 11:44 a.m. ET
MEXICO CITY — Jefferson's face was covered in fake blood as he talked about leaving El Salvador for the United States after gangs beat him up for wearing women's clothes.
The 17-year-old was wearing a cadaver costume to go trick-or-treating with a group of teenagers on the south side of Mexico City, where U.S.-style Halloween mixes with Mexico's Día de los Muertos. He had also helped build an altar of offerings of food and flowers for the dead spirits believed to visit the living in the first days of November. More than 100 kids also staying in the shelter where he has lived for the past year and a half did the same. Jefferson wore a bright smile under his makeup, running between groups of friends in the auditorium as the offerings were judged.
The shelter was the most stable home the teen — who chose the pseudonym Jefferson to keep his real name private — had known. His mother kicked him out of their home in rural El Salvador when he was 11 because he had started wearing women's clothes. "She realized this is how I was and she beat me, saying, 'I'd rather have a crazy person in my house than a gay one,'" Jefferson said. Jefferson survived as a prostitute on the streets of the capital San Salvador for three months, until his mother got sick with an illness that paralyzed her face and forced him to return home to support her. As her situation deteriorated, his cross-dressing caught the attention of some of the gang members in his neighborhood. Gangs have grown into large organized crime syndicates in Central America over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to the U.S. policy of deporting immigrants who had been part of gangs like MS13 in Los Angeles. The gang members told him they didn't like seeing people like him "contaminating the neighborhood," beat him up, and pressured him into working for them, though he didn't say what work he did.
On Feb. 19, 2012, gang members beat him up yet again. The same night, his mother took herself to the hospital. That's when he decided to head to the United States.
"I decided it was better to get out," he said.
Jefferson decided to make the trip north around the same time more and more kids from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were doing the same, sometimes at their parents' urging. These three countries alone make up 93% of the more than 60,000 children who attempted to enter the United States on their own in 2014. The explosion in the number of unaccompanied child migrants — rapidly rising from fewer than 20,000 in 2011 — has largely been driven by gang violence, political instability, and extreme poverty within their borders.
Human rights activists say these countries also have some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the Americas — especially targeting trans women — although comprehensive hate crime statistics are not readily available. The Salvadoran trans advocacy organization COMCAVIS has documented 14 murders of LGBT people this year; 12 were trans women and two were gay men. One survey of trans women in El Salvador found that 87% knew at least one trans woman who had been murdered, and not a single case in which the killers had been arrested.
LGBT kids head north in search of the same stability and security as other migrant children. But they also seek a kind of love and acceptance that seems unimaginable at home.
Jefferson remembered telling his mother as he left, "I am sick of my family. I want a better family."
Jefferson began walking toward Guatemala that night in February 2012 with almost no money in his pockets, "maybe 10 cents." He was vague about what happened before he reached Guatemala, but it took almost a year before he made it out of El Salvador. He said he walked and hitchhiked. Sometimes the truck drivers who gave him rides would also feed him, but he mostly slept on the street.
He had some luck when he entered Guatemala and found someone to take him all the way to the Mexican border in just one day. He slipped into Chiapas and stayed in a shelter for migrants while begging on the street to raise enough money to pay for a seat on the minibuses that transport migrants north to the U.S. He eventually made it on one — but the bus was promptly stopped by immigration police. They told Jefferson they were going to send him back to El Salvador.
Jefferson said he told the officers, "I can't go back to my country because I … faced death threats. ... After what I've done, they're not going to forgive me."
Jefferson had a strong claim against deportation: Both the U.S. and Mexico clearly recognize LGBT people as part of a social group that have grounds for political asylum, unlike people who are fleeing poverty or gang violence. Instead of being sent home, Jefferson's case was referred to the Mexican agency that grants humanitarian visas, known as COMAR, and he was taken to a detention facility in the city of Palenque to wait for their decision.
Advocates say most LGBT migrants don't petition for asylum in Mexico, largely because it doesn't promise the same work opportunities as the U.S., and Mexico also has high rates of anti-LGBT violence. (Advocates who work with LGBT people seeking asylum in the U.S. say that Mexico is among the most common countries their clients are fleeing.) But others simply don't know they have the right to petition or fail to navigate complicated legal processes that even many adults don't understand. Even in the U.S., where there are many programs to connect unaccompanied minors with immigration lawyers, only a relatively small number of asylum cases are filed — less than 3 percent of the children estimated to have entered the U.S. in the past year have petitioned for asylum, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.
And law enforcement can pose special dangers for LGBT migrants. One 16-year-old trans girl from El Salvador who was deported earlier this year after being caught by Mexico City police reported to the El Salvadoran trans rights group COMCAVIS that she was gang raped by officers while in detention. Jefferson also said he was raped during his nearly three months in detention.
Though he was only 15, Jefferson was placed in a facility with adult men and says he was told there were no separate facilities for children. He says there were no guards inside the facility who could protect him; only the perimeter of the facility was guarded. So when he started being harassed, there was no one he could turn to.
"There were two," he said. "One closed the door, and the other…"
He said he tried to tell those in charge what was happening, but "they didn't do anything" except arrange for him to see a doctor and a psychologist and tried to broker a dialogue between him and his attacker. "They told me that he wanted to talk to me, but I didn't want to do it," he said.
Jefferson's story has a mostly happy ending — at least temporarily.
He was ultimately granted the right to stay in Mexico. After nearly three months, COMAR granted him a visa and he was taken to the airport. Those in charge wouldn't tell him where he was going — a technique to ensure that the men who had assaulted him inside the detention center would not be able to find him, he was later told. The flight to Mexico City was the first time he'd been on an airplane. The flight, he said, was "bone-chilling."
They took him to the shelter where he now lives, which houses both Mexican and migrant children who have no homes. It is affiliated with the global organization Covenant House International, but its management has asked that BuzzFeed News not publish its name for Jefferson's security.
Five boys he had met in the detention center were already living at the shelter, and being reunited with them was like coming home — but to a family that actually loved him. "I felt, like, even better than I did with my family, because my family never gave me even a hug or a toy," Jefferson said. Since the group of boys were reunited at the shelter, "we love each other as if we are brothers."
Life isn't perfect there — he has to wear boy's clothes and keep his hair short. A spokeswoman for the shelter said this was for his own safety because "unfortunately Mexican society faces some scenarios which are not LGBT-friendly."
But Jefferson said this "isn't a problem," especially since he's only a year away from being 18, when he will be able to live as he choses. He's been out to the other kids since the day he arrived and never had any problems, he said, and there is at least one other LGBT teen who lives there. Jefferson is finishing high school and studying how to cook, make clothes, and do makeup.
"Overall, I'm doing very well," he said.
When Jefferson becomes an adult in the eyes of the law, he plans to pick up where he left off and finish his journey to the U.S., even though he has a permit to stay in Mexico. If he makes it, he risks being put into a U.S. detention center, where harassment and violence targeting LGBT people has been such a serious problem that a civil rights group filed a mass civil rights complaint against the Department of Homeland Security in 2011. In addition to proving why he can't return to El Salvador, he'll also have to make a case for why he cannot stay in Mexico, because once a refugee is given safe harbor by another country, they're ineligible for asylum in the United States. And while there are many programs to get legal services to child immigrants, adults are not so lucky — they have to find a lawyer on their own, and there's no guarantee of legal representation for people facing deportation the way there is for defendants facing criminal charges.
Jefferson said too much of Mexico is just as dangerous as El Salvador. He also worries that he won't be able to earn enough money there. Despite his harsh words to his mother when he left, he says part of his reason for leaving is that he didn't want her to worry about his problems with the gangs as she struggled with her health. He's hoping that in the U.S., his diploma from the sewing school will let him find "better work [to pay for a] cure for my mother's disease."
But this time, he said, he would be determined to make the trip different than the one that brought him to Mexico City.
"I don't want to go back to what I came from, traveling in a trailer, hitchhiking," he said. "I endured hunger, cold, punches, humiliation from people. I've had enough of traveling by land."
He plans to fly.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on August 10, 2014, at 10:52 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — As a child, Nicholas Opiyo would walk miles from his home in northern rural Uganda to sleep in town every night. They called kids like him "night commuters," a generation of children who would walk miles each night to avoid being abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army and forced into its ranks. The rebel group was fighting a fierce battle against the government of President Yoweri Museveni in the 1980s and 1990s and was infamous for its use of child soldiers.
Today, Opiyo is 34 and riding one of his biggest wins as one of Uganda's top human rights lawyers. Late last month, he and a team of lawyers won a case in Uganda's Constitutional Court, striking down the country's Anti-Homosexuality Act, which called for up to a lifetime in prison for those convicted of homosexuality.
Days later he won another high-profile case, getting the Constitutional Court to block Museveni's reappointment of the chief judge after he had exceeded the mandatory retirement age. He has now argued more than six cases before the Constitutional Court.
Taking these cases has come at some cost. In March, Opiyo was ousted as general secretary of the Uganda Law Society, when the country's Christian Lawyers Fraternity campaigned against his leadership because of his challenge to the anti-LGBT law. His Facebook wall has filled with insults, he said in an interview during a recent visit to Washington, and he says even his own 25-year-old nephew has called him "retarded" for taking the case.
But Opiyo sees taking that abuse as part of his job as one of the most high-profile human rights attorneys in Uganda. He has specialized in not only working on some of Uganda's most politically sensitive cases, but in defending people who have run afoul of authorities with no means to fight back.
"That is in no way near the pain that the members of the [LGBT] community suffered," Opiyo said of the abuse. "I am a public figure. I can withstand all of that. For me, I'm OK."
Fighting these kinds of fights is why he became a lawyer in the first place.
Opiyo grew up on the outskirts of Gulu, the capital of a northern district that was a center of fighting between Museveni's government and the LRA, a rebel group that had its roots in an extremist brand of Christianity but became increasingly devoted to raw terror under the leadership of Joseph Kony. Sleeping in Gulu wasn't an iron-clad guarantee of a safe night — the LRA overtook the town from time to time — but government forces were largely able to keep the rebels out of the heart of the city.
So, from the time he was around 8 until he was 14 or 15, Opiyo would walk 4 to 10 kilometers to sleep, often choosing a church compound in the city center. If the church was full by the time he arrived, he would sleep on the stoops of shops around town. Sometimes he would sleep alongside some of his six full siblings, and once in a while near his mother, who was the last of his father's three wives.
"I lived this injustice — I saw it," Opiyo said. His career path was set, he said, when he saw his father arrested by government soldiers in an operation to ferret out LRA collaborators within the town. The soldiers rounded up all the men over 18 and herded them into a dilapidated stadium, where they were held for days without food or adequate clothing. Through a crack in the stadium wall, Opiyo watched as his father was beaten and paraded before captured rebels who were supposed to identify those they'd worked with. Those men were then loaded into trucks and taken away. Sometimes Opiyo's father would talk to him and his siblings through the crack, but he tried to shield them from the danger he was in.
"He didn't want to explain to us the details," Opiyo said.
His father was released after three days, but the terror and humiliation of the incident stayed with Opiyo throughout his education, which his parents — both teachers — ensured he continued throughout the civil war.
"I saw terrible things happening to my family, and I said no."
Opiyo first thought he'd be a journalist so he could get the word out about abuses like the ones that had befallen his family. This was in part because the BBC played a key part in his education. From the age of 6, he would listen to the BBC program Focus on Africa every night with his father, who would then leave the room when the 8 o'clock news began. Opiyo's job was to report to his father the events of the day when he came back.
This was part of his father's way to teach Opiyo English — his mother tongue is the local language, Acholi. But it also gave him an interest in public affairs, and a pride at being engaged in world events.
"I used to be the guy in school to break the big news to the headmaster," said Opiyo, who swings from principled argument to cracking jokes in a single sentence. He especially recalled bringing in word that the first African had been elected secretary general of United Nations when Egypt's Boutros Boutros Ghali was selected in 1992.
He got his basic education in rustic private schools, where he also would sleep on the floor at night. He didn't reach the big city until he was 20, when he headed to the capital Kampala to attend Uganda Christian University. This was his first taste of relative stability, since Kampala was somewhat insulated from the armed conflict that continued to percolate throughout the country. But it was also a culture shock. It was the first time he'd encountered a flush toilet.
Though he had started writing for newspapers while still in high school, Opiyo decided to study law, in part because he was inspired by his cousin, Norbert Mao, who had entered politics after practicing law and now heads one of Uganda's opposition parties.
"First I wanted to be a journalist so I could speak about [mistreatment]," Opiyo said. "But I thought … I can go to court and change things."
He focused on human rights in university, and, after he finished law school, found a job as an interpreter for the International Criminal Court's investigation into war crimes committed during the LRA war. He then became an investigator with an organization called the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, monitoring police abuse.
He took up cases on the side. The ones that stand out in his mind are those in which people found themselves locked up without any way to challenge their detention. In one instance in 2008, he came upon a woman in tears in a jail because her father, a local official, had been arrested for forging a document just a week after his wife had died. He tried to offer her help, but she thought he was trying to pick her up and brushed him off. But he left her his card.
"I think she realized much later … you cannot get a girlfriend in a police station in a crying state," Opiyo said, now laughing. "It's the wrong place to get a girlfriend."
After he was able to secure the man's release, he thought the business was done and he was preparing to move onto another case. But the next day the whole family turned up at his office with gifts: chickens, cooked bananas, a flask (though Opiyo is a teetotaler). Another time a man whom he'd gotten out of prison after a year and a half being held without charge offered him his daughter in marriage.
Opiyo's first constitutional case began in 2006. At the end of the legislative session, the government made payments to lawmakers — and several civil society groups contend was those payments were an attempt to buy their votes. Opiyo was part of the legal team that sued on their behalf. They lost, but, he said, he was satisfied that "the point had been made."
He later was part of legal teams that took on the ruling party in other cases. He helped sue to stop elections because the voter rolls were "full of irregularities." Earlier this year he helped successfully challenge the ruling party's attempt to expel four members who had become known as the "Rebel MPs" because they openly broke with party leadership over several issues.
When a group of LGBT people, opposition politicians, and human rights advocates came together earlier this year to challenge the Anti-Homosexuality Act, signed into law by Museveni in February, Opiyo joined as a petitioner and was one of the six lawyers working on the case. He had taken up some cases over the years on behalf of LGBT people, and he had earned the trust of the community. He was also the general secretary of the Uganda Lawy Society at the time — his involvement in the case ultimately cost him his leadership post — and he'd sought the position in the hopes of prodding the group to be a clear voice in support of human rights.
Opiyo took the lead on one of the least profound questions in the case — but it turned out to be the key to victory. While other lawyers focused on the way the Anti-Homosexuality Act violated rights protected by the Ugandan constitution, Opiyo made the case that the law was invalid for procedural reasons: There were not enough members of Parliament present when they voted on the bill in December to meet the Parliament's requirements for conducting official business, and so the court had no choice but to invalidate the law.
Some other members of the team, Opiyo said, weren't even sure they should include this point in their arguments at all — they thought the court was unlikely to take it seriously. But in the end, it was the only point they argued before the Constitutional Court. The court agreed with Opiyo's argument, and dismissed the law on Aug. 1 without ever considering the constitutional questions.
The case is not over, however. On Friday, Uganda's attorney general filed notice to appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court. Even if they sustain the ruling, the issue could soon be back before the courts. A group of lawmakers are collecting signatures to force a quick re-vote on the Anti-Homosexuality Act with the necessary number of lawmakers present.
Opiyo, who now runs an organization models on the American Civil Liberties Union called Chapter 4, is also working on several other high-profile cases: suits against new laws restricting freedom of assembly and the press, as well as a challenge to an Anti-Pornography Act passed the day before as the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which became known as the "mini-skirt law" because of its sweeping definition of things deemed too sexually explicit.
Opiyo, who came to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leadership Summit organized by the White House last week, said he has no worry about returning to Uganda even after having helped defeat the Museveni regime in several high-profile cases.
Even in Uganda — where elections are dubious and the ruling party shuts down media outlets when it doesn't like what they publish — "the legal profession still has a fairly good level of independence," Opiyo said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on July 1, 2014, at 9:11 p.m. ET
ROME — After Sergio Lo Giudice's baby was born in May, he appeared before a California judge to ask that his name be removed from his son's birth certificate.
Lo Giudice is a 53-year-old LGBT activist turned politician, who now represents Bologna in the Italian Senate. When he and his husband decided to have a baby via a surrogate mother, they chose to do it in California because it was illegal for them to do so under Italian law. California recorded Lo Giudice and Michele Giarratano as the child's parents, but the two men feared they would have trouble bringing him home and establishing his Italian citizenship because Italy doesn't recognize same-sex parents.
Their country doesn't recognize their marriage either. Italy is the only country in Western Europe that provides no legal recognition of any kind to same-sex couples; almost every large country in the region has enacted full marriage equality. But that may change this fall: Lo Giudice is part of a group in the Senate Justice Commission that reached agreement on a draft bill on partnership legislation last month, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has said he wants Parliament to begin debating in September.
The fact that Vatican City is just a short walk across the bridge from Parliament goes a long way to explain why Italy has remained so far behind its neighbors on this question. And the battle over this bill pulls at the seams of Italy's twin nature as a cosmopolitan European state with obligations under international accords that increasingly protect LGBT rights and its place as the seat of the Catholic Church. It is also opening fault lines within the Holy See itself, with an old guard committed to the culture wars fought zealously by Pope Benedict set against Pope Francis' efforts to move away from the divisive fights over sexuality that he believes drive many away from the church.
While Francis' vision hasn't changed any church doctrine, his rhetorical disarmament has made it far easier for Italian politicians to back partnership rights. Those working on the bill believe marriage equality is still politically impossible, and their civil union proposal would also prohibit two-parent adoption by same-sex couples. But it would allow stepchild adoption in cases where one spouse is already the legal parent of a child, so Lo Giudice could once again be recognized as his son's father.
But some same-sex couples and local officials aren't waiting for Parliament to act. The mayor of Naples has declared that his city would start transcribing foreign marriages of same-sex couples into its wedding rolls. Naples is the first large city to take this step after a lower court ordered officials in the small Tuscan city of Grosseto to record a foreign marriage in April.
"It seems that in Italy there is a common line of thought in the battle against homophobia: toward equality," said Naples Mayor Luigi de Magistris in announcing the move. "But we never succeed in converting that into law."
The registration of foreign marriages by local officials may have an impact that is more symbolic than legal, worry some to LGBT activists, in part because the Supreme Court issued a ruling in mid-June that undercut it.
That decision came over the case of a couple who now are both named Alessandra, but who were legally married when one of them was Alessandro. When Alessandra Bernaroli legally changed her gender designation in 2009, after the couple had been married for nine years, the courts annulled their marriage, despite their objections. In June, the Constitutional Court ruled that their rights had been violated when they were forced to divorce, which initially led some LGBT rights supporters to celebrate the decision. It said, however, that their marriage was still invalid until Parliament passed a law recognizing same-sex unions and ordered Parliament to swiftly enact new legislation.
Back in 2010, the courts had already ordered Parliament to pass such legislation, which lawmakers ignored. (The Italian courts are much weaker than in places like the United States, where Supreme Court rulings translate directly into changes in law.) And the new ruling undercut the old one in a way that had many LGBT advocates feeling like it was more of a setback than a victory. The 2010 ruling left it up to Parliament whether to enact marriage equality or create a new institution to recognize same-sex unions. The June ruling instructed Parliament to create "a different form of registered partnership" that is "not the same as marriage," and included language that suggested the Italian constitution rules out marriage between people of the same sex.
But civil unions are better than nothing, said Ivan Scalfarotto, secretary for parliamentary relations in the Renzi government and Italy's first out gay government minister. Scalfarotto said that he would prefer marriage equality and full adoption rights. But he said as he approaches the age of 50, he doesn't want to wait any longer for basic protections for his relationship.
"I would not like to [wait to] live in the perfect world when I'm 80," Scalfarotto said. "I'd really love to make sure that the person I love has the right to be recognized as my partner, [and] if I pass away — now — I want him to be able to live in our house, and I want everyone to respect that. ... In principle, I would like to have everything, but principles are a luxury … [that] at this moment, unfortunately, in my country we cannot afford."
Despite the presence of the Vatican, public opinion doesn't show any evidence that Italians are much more disapproving of same-sex relationships than nearby countries with marriage equality. Seventy-four percent of Italians who responded to a 2013 Pew survey said they believed "homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society" — about the same as France, which has had civil unions since 1998 and passed marriage equality last year. A 2013 Ipsos poll found that 48% of Italians supported marriage rights for same-sex couples and an additional 31% oppose marriage but support an alternative form of partnership recognition, on par with Great Britain.
The change in tone ushered in by Pope Francis has helped create an environment where this public opinion can be translated into political action.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 3, 2014, at 3:52 p.m. ET
The Obama administration has delayed action in adjusting aid to Uganda in response to passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, even though an interagency review process put forward recommendations some weeks ago.
Sources familiar with the review process, which the administration announced just after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-gay bill into law in February, told BuzzFeed they have expected an announcement from the United States government for some time because the recommendations were pending, but the White House has been silent.
This inaction follows a seemingly contradictory series of announcements in March. The White House announced an adjustment of around $10 million — including a cut to a religious organization that vocally supported the law — out of the more than $700 million that the U.S. gives to Uganda annually on March 23 because of the new law. But days later, the U.S. embassy in Kampala issued a press release saying "No Changes in U.S. Assistance to Uganda." And the initial cuts were announced on the same night as the administration said it would send military helicopters much coveted by President Museveni to assist in the hunt for rebel leader Joseph Kony.
As the review has dragged on, American LGBT and public health advocates have grown increasingly frustrated by the White House, which they say has frozen them out of consultations over responding to the law. The administration has increasingly held back details on what options are under consideration and when they might come.
"They haven't been telling us anything concrete," one told BuzzFeed.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin publicly called out President Obama for his inaction in a letter that said the "delay is putting lives at risk."
"More than three months since the enactment of this law, I respectfully ask
that you direct the Administration's interagency review to begin issuing immediate, concrete results that will illustrate the United States's commitment to protecting human rights in Uganda," Griffin wrote. "President Museveni must understand that there will be continuing and long term political and economic consequences to state-driven homophobia."
Griffin also called for expanding the review to include other countries that have recently enacted "heinous anti-LGBT laws" — Nigeria, Russia, and Brunei — in order to "signal to the world that these consequences are not directed solely towards Africa."
National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell would not comment on why the administration had not made a final decision on the recommendations from the interagency review process. However, he avoided referencing the review in a statement responding to the Human Rights Campaign's letter.
"In response to President Museveni's decision to assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the United States took immediate steps to demonstrate our support for the LGBT community in Uganda, deter other countries from enacting similar laws, and reinforce our commitment to the promotion and defense of human rights for all people – including LGBT individuals," Ventrell wrote. "As we move forward, we will take additional steps to demonstrate our opposition to the Act and our support for LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world—recognizing that the struggle to end discrimination against LGBT persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on May 5, 2014, at 8:51 a.m. ET
KAMPALA, Uganda — With one of the world's most infamous anti-gay laws, Uganda seems like the last place on Earth an LGBTI person would go seeking safety. But almost 100 LGBTI refugees have sought help from an NGO in Uganda's capital to seek asylum in the country, and there may be many more in the country illegally without seeking formal permission to stay.
Many of them have come during the five years Uganda have been debating its Anti-Homosexuality Act, which originally proposed a death sentence for homosexuality. If they're crossing the border, you can be sure the situations in their home countries are "quite worse than Uganda," said David, who works for an NGO in Kampala that assists LGBTI asylum-seekers. David asked that his real name not be used out of fear for his safety; one of his colleagues was beaten in a supermarket last year over his LGBTI work. He also asked that the organization he works for not be identified out of concern that it could be shut down by the Ugandan government, since the version of the law enacted in February essentially bans LGBTI advocacy as well as imposing up to a lifetime prison sentence for homosexuality.
"There is a common saying, 'If you see a rat running from a bush into a hut that is burning, that means it could be hotter in the bush,'" David said. Some people in neighboring countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Burundi are fleeing situations that are so bad that they make Uganda seem safe.
One of these asylum-seekers is a trans man from Rwanda who asked to be identified as Green, because of his love of trees. "I like to be near trees," he said during an interview in Kampala. "They don't have hate, they don't reject me, and if I tell them [secrets], they won't tell everybody."
Green arrived in Kampala four years ago, still recovering from a police beating at his home in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, that was so severe he walks with a crutch to this day. Green grew up largely on the streets after his father turned his back on him when he was a very small child, but he managed to continue his education all the way through university, determined to be an activist for children's rights and the rights of the disabled.
According to Green's account, police showed up at his house a few months after he graduated, accompanied by a neighborhood official, who accused him of recruiting girls into homosexuality even though Rwanda has no law against same-sex intercourse.
"You're a lesbian," Green said the police asserted. "You are teaching people [lesbianism] since your childhood."
When Green denied the accusation, the police officers beat him until he lost consciousness. He ultimately escaped that day, but they hunted him down a few days later and brought him to jail. By twist of fate, one of his former schoolmates was a police officer at the jail, and she arranged for him to escape when he was let out of his cell to go to the bathroom. If he did not flee, the schoolmate warned, he would be sent to the main prison or, more likely, killed.
Green's relatives helped him sneak across the Ugandan border without papers. He made it to the capital, Kampala, and found a place to live. But then, in 2012, his neighbor began threatening to rape and kill him, he said. Green said he managed to fight off the neighbor the first few times he tried to deliver on his threat, but late one November night the neighbor forced his way into the apartment and raped him. As the neighbor left, he described his plan to to kill Green: The next time he would cover himself with HIV-infected blood before raping Green again so that he would contract the virus.
Going to the police was out of the question. Green's short-term asylum status had expired, and he had given up on seeking permanent refugee status because the process was too humiliating and risky — his masculine appearance was in conflict with his female legal name. He couldn't flee to another country because he had no papers and little money. He thought about killing himself.
"I was here in Uganda, but I was in a prison. ... I was not able to open my door at any time," Green said.
After a period of homelessness, he eventually managed to find a new place to stay, far from the rapist neighbor. But now, it is becoming less safe by the day. When he walks down the street, Green says people call him "Obama" — Obama has become a derogatory word for people who support LGBTI rights.
"I think every [day] I can be arrested again or killed," Green said. "There is no life" for him in Uganda, he said.
Surprisingly, LGBTI people could easily register as asylum-seekers with the Ugandan government before the law became law in February. David, the NGO employee, said he knew of at least four cases in the past year in which his clients had even declared they were seeking asylum because of sexual orientation-based persecution and had their petitions granted by the office of the prime minister's office, which reviews asylum claims.
Most of David's clients come from Congo, but also countries like Rwanda and Burundi. Many come from places where homosexuality isn't technically criminalized, but where they still sometimes face assault and police abuse under the authority of "morality" or "decency" laws. Before the end of 2013, David's organization handling 60 cases of LGBTI asylum-seekers and it added 30 more in the first months of 2014, mostly people who were already in the country but were now seeking legal help fearing the Anti-Homosexuality Act.
The new law has made the formal asylum process extremely risky for LGBTI people, even those who are applying for refugee status for other reasons. Under Ugandan law, asylum-seekers must begin the process of applying for permission to stay in the country by reporting to the Ugandan police. Walking into a police station "is like going into the lion's den" for LGBTI people, said David, because the Anti-Homosexuality Act seems to have given police carte blanche to arrest people suspected of being gay or "promoting homosexuality."
In March, police showed just how far they are prepared to take this authority. They raided an HIV center run by the United States Military HIV Program in partnership with Uganda's Makerere Univeristy, after an undercover investigation lasting several weeks into allegations that the initiative was "carrying out recruitment and training of young males in unnatural sexual acts." The undercover officers filed a report saying the center was collecting "sperms" from participants, and that men and boys between the ages of 15-25 were "a pornographic film as a teaching package for homosexual[s]." One staff member was arrested, and several patients in the clinic at the time of the raid reportedly were photographed by police.
Gay men and lesbians who feel they could conceal their sexual orientation might decide to chance it, David said, but it's a risk that's completely out of the question for transgender or intersex people whose status is harder to hide. "With the new law, it's something you just can't try," David said.
Most of the asylum-seekers who seek help from David's organization have gone underground since the law passed. A support group for the community has stopped meeting out of fear for participants' safety. At least one client was killed by a mob, David said, and others have been beaten. Some have just disappeared — they've stopped coming to the organization's office and their phones have stopped working. They now live with very little legal protection and almost no support network, leaving them especially vulnerable to anti-LGBTI harassment in daily life, which has increased for all LGBTI people in Uganda.
Not being able to safely petition for refugee status makes it very hard for LGBTI asylum-seekers to get somewhere safer. The United States, Australia, and some other Western countries will accept some refugees who can't safely stay in the country where they first take refuge, but only after they have been granted refugee status there. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees can sometimes use its powers to grant refugee status to individuals even if the country where they seek asylum doesn't accept their claims, but it ordinarily doesn't do that until after an asylum-seeker has been formally rejected by the government.
This leaves people like Green, the Rwandan trans man, feeling trapped.
Green was with a friend who had fled the Democratic Republic of Congo in February when he learned that Museveni had signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. He turned to his friend and said, "Now we are going to die."
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 16, 2014, at 10:00 p.m. ET
BANGALORE, India — In a sweep that lasted through the first night of India's biggest celebration, Diwali, police in November arrested 13 people for homosexuality in the town of Hassan, about a three hours' drive from India's tech hub of Bangalore. At the police station, some of those arrested say they were asked if they were really men, whether they liked getting fucked in the ass, and if they had pimped out their wives to get them pregnant. At least two were stripped, beaten, and threatened with having a nightstick shoved up their rectum.
The next day, their names were splashed across the pages of local newspapers under lurid headlines. Some lost their jobs.
At first, the arrests appeared to be an example of police lawlessness, and LGBT activists from Bangalore rushed in to investigate. The cops had charged the men under Section 377, a colonial-era law criminalizing "sex against the order of nature," including same-sex intercourse. But the law was unenforceable at the time of their arrest — at least in cases of consensual intercourse — because it had been suspended under a 2009 ruling of the Delhi High Court as an unconstitutional violation of LGBT people's rights.
Now the situation is different. Just over a month after the arrests, India's Supreme Court reinstated Section 377. To activists, that cast the raids in a whole new light. Many LGBT people had decided to come out in the four and a half years since the law was suspended, believing the threat of arrest or prosecution was over. Now, as the men in Hassan wait for formal charges to be presented to the court, there is increasing concern that their situation could be a sign of how easily LGBT people's lives could be destroyed now that the law is back on the books.
This is the story of the police sweep, based on interviews with four of the 13 people arrested that night, as well as a fifth person whose accusations prompted the raids. The accuser and three of the accused spoke with BuzzFeed by phone with the help of an interpreter translating from Kannada or Hindi. The fourth accused man answered questions by email in English.
BuzzFeed also reviewed police documents provided by LGBT activists and translated from Kannada. Several calls to the cell phone of the police officer who oversaw the raids, Superintendent Ravi Channannavar, went unanswered, and he did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
Nov. 3 was the first night of Diwali, the most important festival in the Hindu calendar, and most Indians were lighting candles, setting off fireworks, and exchanging gifts. Late that night, a 21-year-old college student identified in court papers as "Puttaraju, son of Thippeswamy," walked into the Hassan police station to make a complaint.
According to police records, Puttaraju alleged that three employees of a government-funded HIV program called the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement had forced him into sex work more than two years before, in August 2011. He asked police to arrest them, plus two men he said the HIV workers had forced him to service. He also named a sixth person who he said "forcefully had unnatural sex with me against my will" without the involvement of the HIV workers.
The police appear to have taken his statement twice, producing a handwritten First Information Report (FIR), which is time-stamped 10 p.m., and a second, typed version, which he signed at 12:10 a.m. on Nov. 4. The police recorded that he had waited so long to come forward because he "was not sure and was under tremendous pressure and fear," but now had "gathered strength to complain against all of them."
The accusations came as a shock to the HIV workers, some of whom said they were "quite close" with Puttaraju. He had been a client at the Youth Movement, and they'd helped him get tested and access anti-retroviral therapy when he was found to be HIV positive. They had given him some money for food since he was constantly short of cash.
In an interview, Puttaraju said he finally came forward in part because he was angry that those he accused had not done enough to help him pay for his tuition and medication. "I used to ask for support with my education and health status, [but] nobody has helped me so far," he said. He also suggested that he was also doing the sex work he claimed he'd been forced into in order to cover his bills. "I could have stopped all this, but I needed money," Puttaraju said.
The night of Diwali, the police filed two other complaints. One said they had caught three men "indulging in unnatural sex" and "inviting people to have unnatural sex with them in public" in the town's Maharaja Park between 9 and 10 p.m., at the same time that Puttaraju was making his complaint. The second said police had caught five others "indulging in similar activities" on the grounds of a local high school during the same time period.
Puttaraju's problematic complaint, and the simultaneous arrests of the other men, has raised a host of questions among LGBT activists, who believe it was a premeditated scheme by police to target the town's LGBT community. At least one of the men allegedly busted while having public sex was actually dragged out of his home five hours later, witnesses to his arrest said. And it is unclear whether the police actually caught anyone having public sex.
Within 20 minutes of Puttaraju signing his complaint, four police officers were at the door of Dr. H.K. Palaksha, a well-known local pediatrician and head of a foundation for orphans and the poor, with whom Puttaraju said he had been forced to have sex. The officers told him nothing of the complaint, but said there was an abandoned baby at the police station whom they wanted him to examine and transfer to his shelter.
The minute he walked into the police station, it was clear there was no baby. Officers seized Palaksha's cell phone and put him under arrest, never explaining why. It was only when he read the news in the days that followed that he learned Puttaraju had accused him of having "forced [him] to indulge in unnatural sex."
That same night, police arrived around 3 a.m. at the homes of two of the HIV workers to whom Puttaraju accused of pimping him out. Officers told the HIV workers there were HIV-positive people at the police station in need of counseling.
Before returning to the police station, the police stopped to pick up a 25-year-old, who asked to be identified by the alias Prajwal because he has been subject to harassment since his arrest. Prajwal is one of the men the police claimed to have arrested having sex at the high school five hours earlier. After Prajwal answered the door, he and the two HIV workers said, police grabbed him by the back of the neck and shoved him into the police van as his mother implored them to explain why they were taking her son in the middle of the night.
The four men interviewed by BuzzFeed — Prajwal, two of the HIV workers, and Dr. Palaksha — said they all endured abuse by police, and activists who investigated the incident reported that the rest of those arrested in the raids received similar treatment.
At the police station, according to the accounts of Prajwal and the two HIV workers, officers stripped off Prajwal's pants while speculating whether he truly had a penis. "Let's test if you are a man or a woman," the police said. "Let's see if you have [a dick] or not. Oh! You seem to have it!"
Then they started prodding his penis with their nightsticks, trying to force him to get an erection. They beat him when he tried to pull up his pants, and mocked him when his penis stayed soft, declaring, "He isn't a man at all." He started weeping, pleading with them to tell him what he had done wrong, as they interrogated him about his sex life.
"How do you have sex, do you take it through your backside?" they taunted. "How long can you hold on when I take it [up the ass]? Do you take it in the mouth as well? We should take you to the streets and stone you to death — how many like you are there? Tell me their names!"
One of the HIV educators, who asked to be identified by his first name, Faisal, said officers stripped off his pants and threatened to rape him with a nightstick — known in India as a lathi — as they struck him on his head and hands. One of the officers said he would "make sure the lathi is shoved up your ass."
The group arrested that night was taken to jail in the early morning, after being charged under Section 377 and then being paraded in front of local TV and newspaper journalists. Dr. Palaksha was able to secure bail after one day, but the 12 others were held for around 10 days, during which they slept in shifts to protect each other from constant threats of violence and sexual assault from other prisoners, who they say were encouraged by guards.
They learned about the charges from the reports that flooded local media in the days that followed. "Police busted homosexuals network," blared Kannada Prabha, a local newspaper. "Support for homosexuality … Homosexual sex in public places, sexual violence on innocents," wrote the Vijayavani newspaper. "Student got HIV due to his engagement in homosexual activities," said Prajavani, another local paper.
When LGBT activists obtained the police reports, several things struck them as odd.
First, the timing: Puttaraju made his complaint more than two years after the alleged events began. Activists found the speed of the police response even stranger — it is out of character for Indian police to take immediate action and they often dismiss accusations of sexual violence. "He reports it late in the night, and immediately the police swing into action? [That] doesn't happen in India," said Shubha Chacko of the Bangalore LGBT organization Aneka.
There are also discrepancies between Puttaraju's two police statements. In the first, handwritten FIR, he said he was blackmailed into sex work under the threat of being outed: "The above people threatened me, that if I don't listen to what they say they will tell my life history to everyone in college, to my parents and to the people around the room where I stayed."
But the second, typed version included a more serious charge of coercion. "They threatened to kill me if I don't listen to them," he said. Puttaraju also frequently mentioned being paid for the sex work in the second FIR, but never mentioned money changing hands in the first.
The differences in Puttaraju's complaints raise "doubt about whether it is an authentic complaint," the LGBT activists wrote in their report on the arrests; perhaps it was a sign that he was being coached — or used — by the police, the activists suggested.
The police reports regarding the men allegedly caught having sex in public have even more glaring problems: First, the activists documented that at least some of those charged — like Prajwal — were not arrested from the places the police claim. And the description of their behavior doesn't fit a charge under 377; the FIRs never allege penetration even though the law specifically criminalizes "carnal knowledge."
"The collusive fashion in which the [charges] were registered suggests that the sole objective behind these rapid [police] actions was to target the sexual minority community," the activists wrote.
Puttaraju, they suggested, was simply being used: "The tactic of coercing sexual minority persons to file a complaint against their own community members has been used before by the police."
But Puttaraju doesn't see himself as the police's pawn. He said he had thought carefully about lodging the complaint and met with police well before formally filing it. "Before I went to the police station, I met the superintendent of police and told him everything. I showed him the cruising areas and everything."
He said he finally decided to complain because he believed the HIV workers had made public that he was HIV positive. He said they had also turned down his requests for help with his tuition, as had Dr. Palaksha, whom he claimed "forced him to indulge in unnatural sex" one year before the complaint.
"Nobody helped me then, nobody is helping me now," Puttaraju said. "They made use of me [but] they never gave me money."
Those accused confirm that Puttaraju had asked for cash, but deny drawing him into sex work. The two HIV counselors said they had frequently given him sums equal to about $5. Dr. Palaksha said he only met Puttaraju once, when Youth Movement workers brought him to his clinic about a year ago for treatment of a respiratory infection, and didn't hear from again until about a month before the arrests when he called asking for his foundations' help with his school bills. The doctor said he would have to apply in the spring.
Dr. Palaksha said that, "apart from this story, I do not know" why Puttaraju might have named him in his complaint. He denied that he had paid Puttaraju for sex or had engaged in any inappropriate contact.
"I am a married man with two children," he said, adding that he lives a pious life in which he does not even "consume alcohol [or] non-vegetarian food."
Even before 2009, when Section 377 was fully in force, people were rarely convicted under it; fewer than 200 people had been convicted under it in the more than 150 years it had been in force. But focusing on convictions understates its effect, said Arvind Narrain, a lawyer who worked on the 377 case the Supreme Court ruled on in December and helped investigate the Hassan arrests. Police have used the provision as a pretense for harassing LGBT people and those who work with the community.
In 2001, employees of two HIV organizations were detained for 47 days in the northeastern city of Lucknow for running a "sex racket." The filings in the Supreme Court litigation document several cases in which the police used 377 as pretense for horrific abuse, including a 2004 instance in which a hijra — a trans woman — was tortured at a police station after officers "rescued" her from a gang rape.
Narrain said he has "no doubt" that the cases against the men swept up in the Hassan raids will ultimately fail. "But in the meantime your life is destroyed."
The media sensation around the case ensured that the men's ordeal didn't end when they were released from jail in mid-November. Dr. Palaksha said he was harassed at his clinic by reporters who threaten to invent new charges against him if he doesn't pay them, a plot in which he alleged the police were colluding. His wife has stuck by his side, but his patients are deserting him, he said, and he is having difficulty sustaining his foundation.
"I believe in God," he said. "He will definitely help me — I do not want to shut down my NGO."
The others arrested that night — who don't have Dr. Palaksha's relative wealth or education — are in an even more precarious situation. The Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement has not given the HIV counselors back their jobs since the arrests, and the counselors say they are having hard time finding other work. They say law enforcement officials are using the threat of charges to demand bribes. And the delicate balance they've maintained between fulfilling the family obligation to marry and finding ways to have relationships with men has collapsed.
One of the HIV workers, who asked not to be named, said his mother was forced to sell their cattle — a major source of income — to bail him out of jail, and that she had to leave her job because she was being relentlessly harassed about his arrest. He said he has attempted suicide because he doesn't know how he's going to support his mother, his wife, and his month-old baby.
He also quietly had a boyfriend for 15 years. But since the arrest, his partner won't even answer his calls: "Now is when I need him, and he is not around."
Police abuse has been a problem for LGBT people even without 377. For example, a gay couple was recently granted asylum in the United States after fleeing India in 2011 following sexual assault by police in the northeastern city of Chandigarh, and there have been many reports over the past four decades of police forcibly separating lesbian couples at the request of their parents even though women cannot technically be charged under 377.
And while 377 has spurred some LGBT people to be more politically engaged — pride marches have been held in parts of the country since the ruling that never had them before — LGBT people throughout the country have told BuzzFeed of people going back into the closet, corporate LGBT support groups being shut down, and increased petty crime targeting communities of trans women. The reports could not be verified, but their widespread circulation reflects the fear that the gains made while out from under the shadow of 377 could suddenly evaporate.
Even some people who are already out and politically active have shrunk from fighting for their rights because of the fear engendered by the return of the law. On Feb. 11, the Mumbai Mirror published the story of a 23-year-old man who was pulled over by police at 2:30 a.m. in the northwestern city of Ahmedabad. He said the officers attempted to rape him and then forced him to perform oral sex. He told the newspaper that the cops said they recognized him from a local gay pride parade held just before the Supreme Court ruling.
"Had homosexuality been legal, I would have had the courage to file a complaint" against the officers, he said. But he did not want to take the risk of further abuse, especially since they appear to have the court's permission to persecute LGBT people.
"My attackers were cops. How can I expect any justice from them?" he said.