Transgender Latinas Find a Refuge in Queens

Two years ago, smugglers buried a woman named Joselyn in Matamoros, a Mexican border city that attracts immigrants waiting to cross into the United States. Several men encased her body in dirt, covered her face with leaves and told her to wait until Border Patrol agents had disappeared to dig herself out.

For Joselyn, who is transgender, the process of being buried alive was nothing new. Growing up in Guatemala, she had suffocated beneath a barrage of insults and physical attacks from her family, her neighbors and her peers, she said. And with Mexican gangs moving south, violence against gays and transgender people was becoming more frequent. So at 19, Joselyn set off on an 18-day journey to the United States and eventually made it to New York City.

She spent 10 months alone. “I isolated myself from everyone,” Joselyn, who asked that her last name not be used because she is here illegally, said in Spanish. “I said, ‘What’s the point? If my mama didn’t even love me, why should I seek help?’”

But this summer, she met another transgender Latina who encouraged her to join a support group started by the AIDS Center of Queens County. “I felt like a bird when someone opens its cage and it can fly,” she said.

Since 2008, a growing number of transgender Latinas have gathered in Queens every Friday night, discussing challenges unfamiliar to many New Yorkers: Where do I buy female hormones without a prescription? How do I avoid the police when reporting a drug overdose? Who can help me find a lawyer familiar with asylum petitions?

Conducted in Spanish, the sessions are aimed at those who have emigrated, most illegally, from Latin American countries where violence toward gay and transgender people is common. The group provides participants with concrete knowledge and life skills. But above all, it is a refuge that helps build self-esteem and unites a community.

The group meets in a tiny conference room in Jackson Heights. On a recent Friday, the space was filled and the group’s facilitator, Cecilia Gentili, stood in front as Deyanira Santamaria told the story of a man she loved who scalded her with boiling water. She still bears the scars.

When she finished, other participants surged toward Ms. Santamaria, stroking her hair and squeezing her shoulders. “From that love you’ve lost,” Ms. Gentili told her, “you now have the love of all of us.”

While nearly all members identify as transgender women, the group is as diverse as any community in New York: A few participants are exploring a new identity and look like men. Others are distinctly female and are taking hormones and injecting silicone in their hips and breasts to alter their shape.

What they have in common is that being transgender and an immigrant has made a steady paycheck and a stable home difficult to achieve.

“First of all, it’s hard to find a job because you’re trans,” Ms. Gentili said. “Second of all, it’s hard to find a job because you’re illegal. Third of all, it’s hard to find a job because maybe you don’t speak English.”

To make money, some have worked as prostitutes; to cope with stress, several began doing drugs. They have had to find ways to finance their gender transitions, which can include costly surgeries and silicone and hormone injections purchased in back rooms along Roosevelt Avenue.

But Joselyn has no desire to go back home. In Jutiapa, Guatemala, she worked at a carwash. After work one night, several men assaulted her because, she said, they knew she was transgender. A two-inch gash on her right hand reminds her of the attack.

While most countries do not track the killings of transgender people, the Trans Murder Monitoring Project attempts to tally the deaths by compiling news reports. According to the project, about 80 percent of the 806 homicides of transgender people reported since 2008 occurred in Central and South America.

Experts offer a variety of explanations, including homophobia, rising gang violence, broad impunity for perpetrators and a general mistrust of the police in many Latin American countries. “These numbers only touch the surface” of the problem, said Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. “Only the most high-profile cases are counted.”

When Dennis Camacho, who works for the AIDS Center of Queens County, created the transgender support group, he did not intend to force anyone to stop using drugs or leave behind prostitution. Instead, he aimed to create a space where people could discuss their lives openly.

“It’s up to the individual if she wants to stop,” he said. “If they do, we help them figure out where they want to go.”

And during the group’s four years, several members have applied for and been granted political asylum and have found jobs.

In Argentina, Ms. Gentili lived a dual life, as a man during the day and a woman at night, in an era before her country became a model for its progressive policies toward lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people.

When she arrived in New York in 2000, she discovered heroin and crack cocaine, and plunged into a downward spiral that led to multiple arrests and, eventually, a deportation order. “When I got into supervision my supervisor told me, ‘Are you going to wait to just be deported?’” Ms. Gentili said. “I didn’t even know I could get asylum.” She was granted asylum in 2011.

Besides the AIDS Center of Queens County, she has a part-time job at the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS. The support group, Ms. Gentili said, was instrumental in her transformation.

Inspired by the group, Joselyn has also begun to apply for asylum.

At one meeting, she sat in the middle of the room wearing dark sunglasses. When she lowered them, she uncovered a bloodied, blackened left eye. Red scratches covered her chest. She had been beaten, she said, by a client who had come to her for sex. Joselyn did not go to the police. Like many of the other women, she feared deportation, assumed that violence against her would be ignored, and believed that the police would treat her like a criminal instead of a victim.

In many ways, her life is just as dangerous as it was in Guatemala. But if asylum is granted, all that could change. Armed with papers, she can find a job, learn English, maybe open the bar she often dreams about. In Guatemala, “the people in your family begin to cut you out, like you have a contagious disease,” she said. “They don’t love you or even see you.”

In the transgender group here, “one can speak, one can express themselves, one can explain how they feel,” Joselyn said. “Generally other people won’t understand. But we understand each other. We’re in the same situation, understand?”

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