Transgender immigrants who fled Latin America still face uncertainty in the US

Trans immigrants who left Latin America still face mistreatment in the U.S.

March 19, 2022, 11:17 AM

Paloma Vazquez envisioned a new start in Houston. After immigrating from Honduras to escape transphobic violence just six months prior, the 29-year-old was ready to move into her new apartment. Her dream was abruptly cut short after she was shot and killed in that very apartment on Feb. 26, 2022.

Police are still searching for a suspect.

Vazquez is one of the many cases of LGBTQ+ individuals in Latin America who felt endangered in their home countries and immigrated to America for a better life. However, a new life free from transphobic discrimination and violence is not always a certainty in the U.S.

"There's a saying that goes that trans people fight to get to the U.S. because in the U.S., they harass you, but in our country, they kill you. Unfortunately, that's also starting to become a reality here in America," Vazquez's friend, Gia Pacheco, told ABC News.

Pacheco, Valentin Terrazas and Tayze Duarte met Vazquez through an organization called the La Organización Latina de Trans en Texas. OLTT fights for the civil and human rights of not only transgender Latino immigrants, but the Latino LGBTQ+ community in general.

"[Vazquez] was starting to become a very active member here in the community," Pacheco said.

Suyapa Portillo, associate professor of Chicano-Latino transnational studies at Pitzer College, says there's a wave of anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in Central American countries --- and particularly prominent in Honduras.

"A period of authoritarian rule just ended in Honduras, and a new president has come in, but being transgender means that there's very little acceptance in society, very few laws and policies that actually protect the life of transgender people in Central America, particularly in Honduras," Portillo said.

It is especially hard for the transgender community because it is not as easy for them to "pass" in society as it is for cisgender people, says Portillo.

"For transgender folks, it's like you're always sort of coming out of the closet, if you will, because of your body's transformation and so that puts them in peril," she said. "So there's no acceptance. There's no protection from hate crimes."

Health care for people of all ages in the transgender community is also limited in parts of Latin America. Duarte, who is from Brazil, said transgender health care has come a long way in that country.

"Sixteen years ago, we didn't have anything approved, and now we do. We have doctors, we have specialized hospitals in our country," Duarte said.

In other Latin American countries, sex reassignment procedures such as hormone therapy and surgeries are nonexistent. Transgender people often result to getting hormone treatment in the streets, according to Portillo.

"As far as Latin America, people come [to the United States] or they'll bring their kids to have that medical care that can be provided for them the safe and correct way." Terrazas said.

However, with new bills being proposed in states such as Texas, Arizona, Indiana, Florida and Idaho, transgender youth may not be able to access this treatment either. Arkansas was the first state to ban gender-affirming care for trans youth last year.

In February, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott directed the state's Department of Family and Protective Services to investigate reports of gender-affirming care as "child abuse." A new bill in Alabama called the Vulnerable Child Protection Act would also ban gender-affirming care for transgender youth in the entire state.

PHOTO: People hold a rally in support of transgender kids at the capitol in St. Paul, Minn., March 6, 2022.
People hold a rally in support of transgender kids at the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minn., March 6, 2022.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Pacheco says that people in the U.S. will still try to get their treatment in some way even if it is made illegal.

"Just because you make it illegal doesn't mean it's going to stop existing. There's already talk of some parents trying to get drugs from the black market, just because they don't want to see their child go through the pain of not having the medication they need," Pacheco said.

Violence against the transgender community has significantly increased in the U.S. as well. The Human Rights Campaign estimated that at least 47 transgender and gender non-conforming individuals were killed in 2021, making 2021 the deadliest year on record since they began tracking fatal violence against transgender people in 2013.

"The transgender murders are so much more brutal. It's terrible, it is a hate crime. It's not just a crime. It's a hate crime," Duarte said.

Despite the uncertainty of safety and protection, trans people still strive to make a better life for themselves and advocate for their community. Transgender rights in Latin America are slowly improving.

PHOTO: Demonstrators gather on the steps to the State Capitol to speak against transgender-related legislation bills being considered in the Texas Senate and Texas House, May 20, 2021 in Austin, Texas.
Demonstrators gather on the steps to the State Capitol to speak against transgender-related legislation bills being considered in the Texas Senate and Texas House, May 20, 2021 in Austin, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP, FILE

For instance, several countries including Argentina, El Salvador, Uruguay, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile now allow for gender identity to be changed in their citizens' personal documents. Countries like Brazil, Argentina, Costa Rica and Uruguay allow for sex reassignment procedures. However, most of these laws exclude transgender youth.

In Honduras, the LGBTQ+ activist group Cattrachas filed a case 12 years after the murder of Vicky Hernandez, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Honduras has to protect trans life and allow gender identity to be a reality.

Yet, there is still more to be done. Trans people everywhere are fighting constantly to be seen as equals both for themselves and for the youth.

"The reason I fight and the reason I want to be vocal about what's going on is for them, because I want to make sure that they grow up in a safe place where they can be themselves," Terrazas said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that Paloma Vazquez was murdered on Feb. 26, 2022, not 2021.

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