Gay and Transgender Migrants Face Staggering Violence in Mexico

LGBTQ people endure a treacherous journey on the way to a better life.
Julio Campo, a gay migrant from El Salvador, at the restaurant where he now works in Tapachula. (Amy Lieberman)

Tapachula, Mexico -- Julio Campo kept to himself during his three-night stay last month in a resting house for migrants, but a few cold, lingering stares made him uneasy.

"I felt like a joke, like I was immediately disliked," explained Campo, 30, a migrant from El Salvador who is gay. "It was just very uncomfortable and I wanted to get out quickly."

The fear that Campo felt in the migrant shelter is manifesting into a unique challenge for church officials who run Mexico's scattered, free stopovers for migrants. Faced with increasingly higher numbers of arriving gay male and transgender female migrants, some shelters are starting to separately house people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT).

"We're seeing more and more transgender migrants and it's difficult for the migrant houses because they don't know where to place them," said Leticia Gutierrez Valderrama, executive secretary of the Pastoral de Movilidad Humana, a humanitarian branch of the Catholic Church that runs 66 migrant shelters. "The women say 'No, he is a man, I don't want him here,' and the men say, 'We don't want to be staying with a woman.'"

But the risks for transgender migrants, in particular, are greater than just the discrimination they face. Nearly 36 percent of transgender people who stayed in a migrant shelter in Mexico reported experiencing some form of violence, according to a 2013 study of 862 migrants conducted by the Mexican National Institute of Public Health. Meanwhile, 57 percent of transgender migrants who did not stay in a shelter reported violence.

The prevalence of violence among this particular group - which accounted for roughly 3 percent of all migrants - surpassed that of women, another vulnerable population. About 27 percent of female migrants who stayed in a shelter reported experiencing violence, but the rate rose to 35 percent for those who did not stop in shelters. The rates were much lower for men -- in that group, 20 percent who stayed in shelters, and 21.3 who did not, reported violence.

The capacity to protect transgender - as well as gay - migrants in shelters appears limited, despite the fledgling efforts to create safe zones.

"The shelters and the state are not prepared to accommodate trans and gay migrants," said Rosember Lopez Samayoa, the director of an HIV-prevention nonprofit organization, Una Mano Amiga en la Lucha Contra SIDA, or A Friendly Hand in the Fight Against AIDS, based in Tapachula, a small city just north of the porous Guatemala border. "If a man arrives dressed like a woman, it can become a huge scandal for them and they really won't know how to register them or treat them."

Lopez's organization is the only known group along the border that works directly with gay and transgender migrants, who often use Tapachula as a launching pad to stop and work until they have enough money to continue on to the U.S., or, more often these days, to a larger city in Mexico.

Presented by

Amy Lieberman

is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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