It wasn’t the first caravan of desperate Central American refugees that made its way to the US border, but the late 2018 march was the first with a visible LGBT+ presence. Facing discrimination from their fellow migrants, some 80 LGBT+ people had banded together for support and protection. Soon after they were the first to reach the US-Mexico frontier in Tijuana, seven couples from among them held a group wedding.
Many of the refugees were from Honduras where violence and impunity are endemic for large swathes of the population. Homophobia aggravates the levels of violence, as two 2017 reports, one by Amnesty International and the other by Human Rights Watch, make clear. “In a couple of years in the neighbourhood I lived in, four transgender people and three gay men were murdered,” explains Jose Cortes who now lives in San Diego, California. “I knew I had to get out.”
In a country of just over nine million people, more than 300 LGBT+ people have died violently over the past decade, according to the lesbian network CATTRACHAS. Half were gay men and almost a third transgender people. “Fear of reprisals mean that is likely that many more cases go unreported,” adds CATTRACHAS coordinator, Indyra Mendoza. These deaths make Honduras among the world’s seven most dangerous countries to be LGBT+.
The murders in Latin America’s second poorest country skyrocketed after 2009, when democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya was ousted during a constitutional crisis. From an average of two murders a year prior to 2009, the rate spiked to 31, according to CATTRACHAS research.
Since Zelaya’s expulsion, LGBT+ organisations have played a critical role in the effort to restore democracy. CATTRACHAS and some 13 other LGBT+ rights organisations have repeatedly marched to demand fair elections and citizen participation in drawing up a new constitution. This visibility has turned LGBT+ activists into targets of repression, prompting the United Nations to pressure the Honduran government to protect LGBT+ rights activists from persistent surveillance, harassment, arbitrary detentions, assaults, robberies, theft, threats and sexual assault.
René Martínez Izaguirre was one of these activists. President of the Comunidad Gay de San Pedro Sula (Gay Community of San Pedro Sula), René worked for many years as an advocate for sexual minorities and human rights more generally at the Centros de Alcance in what is one of the world’s most dangerous cities. He was murdered in June 2016 at the age of 40.
The hatred that Honduran LGBT+ people face often begins at home. Almost all the asylum seekers and refugees from Honduras interviewed by Amnesty International are survivors of sexual and gender-based assault. “My father is a machista (male chauvinist) and abused me because I’m gay,” says Jose Cortes. “When I was 13, I went to live with my aunt, but she was a single mother with four children, and so I left to live on my own when I was 16. It wasn’t safe for me there anyway because her sons had become involved with gangs.”
Gang violence has contributed to Honduras having one of the highest murder rates in the world. Most gang members are young men under 16 with lives profoundly scarred by violence. Once they are forced to, or see no alternative but to, join a gang, their only way out is death. This subculture is ruled by a highly sexist code of conduct, and as extortion and blackmail are the gang’s bread and butter, they often perceive LGBT+ people as easy targets.
The problems LGBT+ people face with gangs are exacerbated by what they suffer at the hands of the police. “The police constitute the primary perpetrator of violations of the rights of the LGBT+ community,” the Coalition Against Impunity, an alliance of 29 Honduran NGOs, reported to the Index on Censorship, denouncing a “police policy of frequent threats, arbitrary arrests, harassment, sexual abuse, discrimination, torture and cruel or degrading treatment”. The police routinely extort money from trans women who engage in sex work.
The brutality and impunity carry into the courts as well. 95 percent of the crimes against LGBT+ people go unpunished according to the Honduran state’s human rights agency.
Of 225 violent deaths between 2008 to 2015 reported by CATTRACHAS, only 13 resulted in a conviction.
The combination of this rampant abuse is to fuel LGBT+ migration. All those interviewed by Amnesty emphasised the violence they suffered at the hands of gangs, the police and their families. Honduras has one of the highest number of LGBT+ people in the world seeking asylum in the US according to the non-profit Immigration Equality. And the numbers are growing.
To get to the US or Canada, first LGBT+ migrants have to cross Mexico. In migration detention centres there, Mexico’s Citizens’ Council of the National Migration Institute (INM) discovered that often LGBT+ people “suffered discrimination, sexual harassment and even aggression from other detainees or the centre staff”.
In many cases, the situation doesn’t improve even when migrants arrive in the US. In May 2018, a 33 year-old transgender Honduran woman, Roxsana Hernandez, died in US immigration and customs enforcement (ICE) custody at a New Mexico hospital. An autopsy later showed that she had signs of being beaten.
“Conditions are especially dangerous for transgender people,” explains Immigration Equality’s Spencer Tilger. “About a third of the people we work with who are fleeing from Honduras identify as transgender.”
Ironically, Honduras is a signatory to the Equal Rights Coalition, the first intergovernmental coalition devoted to defending LGBT+ people worldwide. Soon after a November 2018 conference in Vancouver, the Canadian government committed approximately US$750,000 funding over five years to assist victims of gender-based violence in Honduras. “This is a very positive initiative,” says Doug Kerr, of the Dignity Initiative, a coalition of over 20 Canadian LGBT+ human rights organisations, “but there is a lot more work to do to counteract the global backlash against sexual and gender minority rights from evangelicals and far right forces.”
Inside Honduras, LGBT+ people and the organisations that represent them continue to defend LGBT+ rights despite their daunting circumstances.
In Honduras’ 2017 elections, Rihanna Ferrera Sánchez, an activist in the Cozumel Trans Association, ran as a candidate for national deputy for a centre-left party. Although she didn’t win a seat, her bravery in putting herself forward is undeniable. After all, in 2012, five days after gay journalist Erick Martínez Ávila announced he would be a candidate for deputy, he was found tortured and murdered. “I want to run for office again,” Rihanna said in a phone interview from Honduras’ capital Tegucigalpa. “It is one way to work to win access to our fundamental rights as citizens. There must be no more impunity and no more corruption in our country.”