Inside Mexico’s Surprise Backlash To Marriage Equality

LGBT activists in Mexico thought they’d won the fight for marriage equality — until a new conservative alliance brought thousands into the streets.

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 2, 2016, at 6:11 p.m. ET

MEXICO CITY — On a bright fall day last weekend, tens of thousands of people dressed all in white took to the streets of Mexico City for the country’s first national march against marriage equality.

They had flocked from across the country, and marched with signs bearing the names of their states and a number, which was a count of how many people had participated in local protests held two weeks before in dozens of cities. Thousands carried flags with the logo of the new group that had organized the marches. It called itself the National Front for the Family and said it was made up of “millions” of people from all walks of life as an emergency response to a proposal rolled out by President Enrique Peña Nieto in May to establish marriage equality in all of Mexico’s 31 states through a constitutional amendment.

“Mr. President, count us well,” they chanted, as they marched down Paseo de la Reforma, a wide boulevard punctuated with monuments commemorating key moments in Mexican history. “We’re not just one, we’re not just 100.”

The national media were stunned, and marriage equality supporters were incredulous. There had never been a serious national anti-LGBT movement, and full marriage equality had spread from Mexico City to 10 states since 2009 with only ripples of opposition. The Supreme Court had repeatedly ruled that marriage discrimination was unconstitutional, and many thought the fundamental question was settled. Many LGBT rights supporters thought they’d already won the most important fights — they just needed to push the country’s remaining 21 states to come into compliance with these decisions and allow same-sex couples to marry.

And some things seemed strange about the march, which had been billed as a scrappy grassroots movement. Organizers had set up six Jumbotrons along the march route broadcasting a live feed of the procession, narrated by an advertising consultant who had worked for some of Mexico’s largest mining companies and luxury brands like Versace. The protest’s online image was managed from a war room in an upscale hotel managed by an ad agency that had worked for Mexico’s major right-leaning political party, the National Action Party (PAN), and universities affiliated with the conservative Catholic order Opus Dei.

Who was funding all this, the group’s opponents wanted to know, and how did they get so well-organized so fast?

This was not simply a spontaneous backlash to the president’s proposal. This was an event more than a year in the making, coordinated by a network of conservative groups who wanted to amend the constitution to reverse marriage equality gains, interviews by BuzzFeed News with more than a dozen activists, political advisers, and members of Congress both for and against marriage equality show.

These groups had already stitched together the body of a nationwide movement against marriage equality outside the national spotlight. Since August 2015, they’d worked together to gather signatures in support of a “citizens' initiative” to amend the constitution to block same-sex marriage, and had 200,000 by early 2016 — more than the number needed to technically require Congress to give it formal consideration. This proposal was one of the first to take advantage of relatively new rules to allow citizens to directly introduce legislation to Congress.

But this work was done so quietly that when they submitted their petition to the Senate in February, hardly anyone in the press or the halls of Congress even noticed. Now they needed a surge of energy to get the issue into the spotlight and to rally a broader movement that could demonstrate political muscle. The president’s marriage equality proposal came like a bolt out of the blue, and it was just the opportunity they’d been looking for.

“Many of us are grateful to the president,” said Rodrigo Iván Cortés, leader of the National Front for the Family and a former PAN member of Congress. The president did what they could not, he said, bringing “to life [a movement] that seemed was never going to be brought to life.”

Peña Nieto’s marriage equality proposal caught nearly all of Mexico by surprise.

Olivia Rubio, chief of staff of the Senate Human Rights Committee and a longtime LGBT activist, had been invited to the president’s residence on May 17 for what she was told was a “consultation” on LGBT rights measures, timed to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia. She was, she told BuzzFeed News, caught totally off guard when “we realized the whole world of [LGBT] activists were there, [and] there was press — it was a mega-meeting.”

She first realized the president would make a big announcement when she overheard one aide say to another, “Did you bring the initiative?”

Peña Nieto proceeded to announce a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar states from prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying.

Though the Supreme Court had already ruled such laws were unconstitutionally discriminatory, the technicalities of Mexico’s legal system meant that couples had to bring a new lawsuit every time they wanted to marry in most states. Peña Nieto hoped his proposal would immediately allow same-sex couples to marry throughout all of Mexico by simply going to a registrar, just like opposite-sex couples.

Many LGBT activists were overjoyed at the president’s backing, but some recognized that it also created a serious problem. There was no truly national LGBT organization like the US’s Human Rights Campaign that could lobby congress, run a media strategy, and organize to get the proposal passed. Most LGBT rights groups worked on the local level, and infighting had frustrated broader collaboration. Even the push for nationwide marriage equality never required them to develop political savvy — it largely rested on litigation spearheaded by a single lawyer.

To fill the vacuum, LGBT activists turned to WhatsApp, where Victor Espíndola, an activist and political consultant who had worked on the president’s social media team, had put together a group the afternoon of the announcement. There, the collaboration between activists was more collegial than ever before. It would ultimately produce a new national organization called the Movement for Equality in Mexico, which launched a Facebook page on May 24.

The president’s team “probably thought it would be easy,” but it was an “error in calculation and judgement,” Espíndola told BuzzFeed News during a recent interview. The LGBT activists were essentially starting from zero, and, Espíndola said, supporters of the president’s proposal quickly realized they were outmatched.

“Can we compete with the [National Front for the Family]?,” Espindola asked. “No — they’re well-organized, they have the pulpit in their favor.”

The leaders behind the National Front for the Family were already planning their first salvo while Espíndola was still building his contact list.

Front leaders say they were on the phone within hours of the president’s announcement, and met face-to-face within days. The organizing committee included Juan Dabdoub, of a small group known as ConFamilia and author of the citizens' initiative to block marriage equality, which had been submitted to the Senate two months earlier. It also included leaders of the two largest groups that helped gather signatures for the initiative: Consuela Mendoza of the National Parents Union — a group that has fought restrictions on church participation in politics and to provide alternatives to secular public education — and Mario Romo of the Family Network, an umbrella organization whose local affiliates range from addiction programs to emergency pregnancy centers to groups that promote abstinence.

They met in person on Friday, May 20, and held their first press conference announcing they would unite under the banner of the National Front for the Family on May 24, and they were looking abroad for ways to step up their game. One example was a recent movement in Colombia, said Dabdoub, where conservatives had mobilized against a new sex education curriculum to be rolled out under the country’s education minister, who is a lesbian.

The Front was also getting some coaching and support from CitizenGo, a kind of conservative MoveOn.org that began in Spain and expanded to Latin America three years ago, including a staffer in Mexico and a list of 500,000 members in the country. (CitizenGo also includes Brian Brown of the US-based National Organization for Marriage and World Congress of Families on its board; he was in Mexico City for the Sept. 24 march.)

The Front had a lot to learn and quickly, CitizenGo’s Latin America Director Luis Losada told BuzzFeed News.

“They didn’t have the capacity before,” Losada said. “They tried their best … but they were not so efficient.”

But the timing of the president’s announcement made it obvious to the leaders what they had to do next. There would be elections in 12 states and Mexico City on June 5 — less than three weeks after the president’s marriage equality announcement — and the president’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was already in serious trouble thanks to corruption scandals, widespread violence, and the president’s low approval ratings.

So they set out to frame the vote as a referendum on marriage equality. Through small protests organized in partnership with CitizenGo and campaigns on social media, they targeted PRI candidates to demand they reject the president’s proposal or face a “punishment vote.”

“We needed an instrument so that they’d take [this issue] into account,” said the Front’s Rodrigo Iván Cortés. “On this basis, we’re going to ask people not to vote for the PRI in the states … [and] the people responded.”

The June 5 vote was a disaster for the PRI, which lost governorships in seven states, including four where it had never lost an election. National polls showed no evidence of an overwhelming tide against marriage equality — pollsters find the public evenly split or largely in favor of marriage equality. But the Front proclaimed victory, and got help from key voices to spin the vote as a rebuke of same-sex marriage.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City called the results a “deserved punishment vote” for a “destructive and immoral” proposal in its official publication, Desde La Fe. Former PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida called the marriage equality proposal a “decisive, fundamental” factor in the party’s loss and blasted the president for not consulting party leaders before rolling it out.

By the time Congress returned for the legislative session beginning in September, the leaders of the president’s own party declared his marriage equality proposal dead in the water.

The PRI leader in the Senate said he was putting it “in the freezer,” an expression that meant Congress would set it aside without ever giving it a vote. He said it was because party members were divided on the issue, but it was clear party members wanted to distance themselves from the president, whose approval ratings had fallen to 23 percent following his deeply unpopular invitation to meet with Donald Trump. Elections are looming in 2018, and the party looks doomed unless it can show that the next PRI president’s term will be very different than this one.

Since then, a few lawmakers with left-leaning parties have introduced their own versions of the marriage equality proposal in the hopes of getting the issue onto the legislative calendar, but their supporters privately admit Congress is unlikely to take action on any of these proposals this year.

With the president’s marriage equality initiative stalled, it was time for the National Front for the Family to press their advantage. Congress had never acted on the citizens' initiative to amend the constitution against marriage equality, either, and now they had a chance to mobilize to put it on lawmakers’ agendas.

“Society woke up, and the people felt they could achieve something,” said Dabdoub, whose citizens' initiative was still lying in wait in the Senate. Now, he said, “we’re ready to show our faces."

The Sept. 24 march in Mexico City was a sort of coming-out party for the National Front for the Family.

As marchers streamed toward Mexico City’s Angel of Independence, the group distributed a press release declaring the Front was a “permanent” movement. The group laid out its demands in a “manifesto” published in several national papers the next day, which included a call on lawmakers to “protect … the institution of marriage between a man and a woman” in the constitution by enacting Dabdoub’s citizens' initiative.

The statement was a declaration of war from an organization that believed it had proved itself a credible political threat. They also were increasingly professional and, apparently, well-funded.

Press materials from the march identified the Front’s lead press contact as Pablo Mier y Terán, president of a PR firm called Mier y Terán and Associates, whose past clients include Mexico’s state oil company Pemex and the National Action Party. Another press contact is Ruben Rebolledo, communications director for a Front member organization — whose LinkedIn profile, though, says he is also a director of media relations at Mier y Terán — who has previously worked for major mining corporations and luxury brands.

Neither Mier y Terán nor Rebolledo would discuss the Front’s budget, but there there are clues that they are well funded. One is the fact that their firm managed a media command center on march day out of three conference rooms in the Sheraton complete with buffet, one of Mexico City’s premier business-district hotels.

The speed with which their movement mobilized has prompted allegations that there are much bigger forces behind them. The press in both Spain and Mexico have buzzed with rumors that the front is manipulated by El Yunque, a shadowy secret Catholic network with fascist leanings said to have had senior Mexican politicians as members, but no concrete direct evidence of a link with Front leaders has been reported.

There are clearer ties, however, between the Front and other conservative religious factions. The Sept. 24 march was branded as a joint effort between the Front and an organization called the National Christian Union for the Family (“Christian” in Mexico is usually meant to refer to evangelical denominations), which has a Facebook page that lists its official website as a broken link with a URL hosted by the Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ. The Mier y Terán agency also lists past clients as multiple educational institutions affiliated with Opus Dei, a Catholic order known for promoting doctrinaire church teaching in public policy.

Several of the country’s Catholic bishops have been unusually outspoken in support of the marches, and LGBT activists have filed legal complaints against several archdioceses arguing that this violates Mexico’s strict laws against church involvement in politics. (Another LGBT group was widely condemned by other activists when it retaliated against the church by releasing the names of senior priests they claim have had same-sex relationships.)

“We’re going to regret it,” José Raúl Vera López, the liberal Catholic Bishop of Saltillo, told BuzzFeed News. “The backbone of these marches comes from a very closed faction … with fascist — even Nazi — tendencies. It is very sensitive what we’re doing.”

The anti–marriage equality forces are not entirely united, however; Front leaders told BuzzFeed News that some evangelical groups have wanted to fight marriage equality through their own initiatives. In early September, a separate citizens' initiative to ban same-sex marriage was submitted with 400,000 signatures to the House of Deputies with support of a small political party seen as drawing its core support from evangelical Christians, the Social Encounter Party. (Social Encounter Party members did not respond to interview requests from BuzzFeed News.)

But even as marriage equality opponents are more visible than ever before, LGBT rights supporters are confident their efforts will ultimately come for nothing.

For one thing, they’d need two-thirds of both houses of Congress to amend the constitution to outlaw marriage equality, and so far no major political party has shown an interest in taking up the cause. And although the rules of citizens’ initiatives technically require Congress to formally consider the anti–marriage equality amendments, lawmakers and congressional aides who support marriage equality say they are confident they can quietly be buried in committee.

There is no sign that Mexico’s marriage equality backlash will ever be as strong as the one that defined the politics of the United States for more than 20 years. Unlike the US, where there is a long history of conservative religious political activism, Mexican politics has historically frowned on religious political participation — priests were not even allowed to vote until the 1990s.

There’s also no political party that clearly benefits from the issue the way the Republicans did in the US. The most likely candidate to lead the charge to roll back marriage equality would be the National Action Party. The last PAN president, Felipe Calderón, unsuccessfully fought all the way to Mexico’s Supreme Court to block the country’s first marriage equality ordinance, enacted in Mexico City in 2009. But now full marriage equality is a reality in one-third of the country’s states, and the politics have changed a lot since then. One of the PAN’s leading contenders for the 2018 presidential nomination is Calderón’s wife, Margarita Zavala, who tweeted on the day President Peña Nieto endorsed the marriage equality amendment, “For a Mexico [that is] more inclusive, without prejudice, and #WithoutHomophobia.”

And the US movement surged before the Supreme Court had decided whether marriage was a right for same-sex couples; Mexico’s Supreme Court could not have been more clear that same-sex couples have a right to marry. The court almost seemed to taunt the Front in the week surrounding the march, releasing three more rulings on Wednesday that “reiterated the unconstitutionality of ... [state laws] that circumscribe the institutions of matrimony and cohabitation to a union of a woman and a man” concerning couples in three different states. And the day before the march brought a nine-to-one decision by the full court in an adoption case that held states cannot discriminate against gay couples, even indirectly.

But ConFamilia’s Dabdoub said they’ve only just begun to fight to overrule them by amending the constitution.

“Here it is obvious that we are the immense majority of the country,” said Dabdoub during the Mexico City march. “If [politicians] vote against the citizens' initiative … we’re going to vote against them.”

Mexico's Quiet Marriage Equality Revolution

“Outside of Mexico, and even inside of Mexico, these advances are not widely known ... but it is irreversible,” the lawyer who started the wave of cases now sweeping the country told BuzzFeed News.

Last updated on March 4, 2015, at 6:51 p.m. ET

Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 26, 2015, at 10:04 a.m. ET

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

The LGBT Kids Who Flee Their Countries — And Their Families — For The U.S.

Some of the thousands of Central American children trying to get to the United States are seeking a love and acceptance they can't get at home.

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.

Copyright © 2020 J. Lester Feder
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