This Pride month, it is important to highlight the unique challenges that queer displaced people face. Often, queer people are forced to flee their homes due to discrimination and persecution linked to their LGBTQ+ identities. LGBTQ+ migrants, are usually exposed to higher levels of violence and discrimination than heterosexual and cisgender migrants while on the move or in host countries. These issues are acutely relevant in Latin and Central America, which has some of the highest levels of violence against LGBTQ+ individuals in the world. Between 2014 and 2020, 3,514 LGBTQ+ individuals were murdered, and 1,401 of these killings were considered hate crimes. Of these acts of violence, 89% occur in Colombia, Mexico, and Honduras, some of the largest hubs of migration in the region.
As LGBTQ+ people are on the move, trans women experience violence and discrimination at staggeringly higher rates than other queer groups. In a 2021 study, transgender women—especially displaced ones—experienced higher levels of physical and sexual violence than cisgender women. Moreover, trans women in Latin and Central America face a life expectancy of just 35 years and are overwhelmingly the victim demographic for hate crimes in the region, making up the majority of LGBTQ+ murders in several countries. While still a relatively unexplored topic, the available testimonial and statistical data indicates that trans migrant women are an especially vulnerable group.
As their gender expression garners unwanted attention and harassment, many trans women present as male and deny their true identities. Reina, a trans woman migrating to Mexico, stated, “when I entered through Talismán [on the Mexico-Guatemala border] I had to enter as a man… It hurt a little, but I had to do it, I wanted my passport signed so I could get my papers and stay.” This highlights a second problem that many trans people face, a discrepancy between an individual’s gender identity and the gender written on their identification documents. The discrepancy makes it more difficult for trans women to find employment, complicates their ability to obtain a legal status, bars them from receiving health services, and causes authorities to question their identity. By not allowing trans people to align their gender expression and documentation, states tacitly perpetuate and invariably maintain stigma and prejudice toward trans individuals.
Additionally, displaced trans women are at heightened risk of sexual abuse and violence by both civilian and state actors. Karen, a Peruvian trans woman who migrated to Argentina, said that she was raped by several police officers in their vehicle when they detained her because of her lack of documentation. Stephanie Nicole, a Guatemalan trans woman migrating to the United States, said “Immigration caught us and, in order to free us, they forced us to have sex with them,” adding “we had no other alternative because we did not want to return to Honduras.” Furthermore, days later, Stephanie Nicole was raped by civilians who “hit [her] several times with rocks and then forced [her] to take off [her] clothes.” These are not isolated incidents: a 2017 study of 45 trans women seeking asylum in Mexico revealed that 97% of them had been sexually assaulted by either civilian or state actors.
Finally, many trans women cannot find formal employment and are forced into sex work as a means of survival. Stacy Velásquez, a trans woman who migrated to Guatemala, said “I did sex work out of necessity” and “they’d prefer to have me as a client than as a neighbor.” As a 2019 study pointed out, over 55.2% of migrant trans women from Latin and Central America engaged in sex work, compared to 30.9% of cis women and 23.5% of cis men.
To address the risks and challenges trans women face, there are several actions policymakers and the international humanitarian community can take. First, a lack of data and information stifles any progress that can be made to improve the current situation for trans migrant women in Latin and Central America. We need more data to understand the scope of issues trans women specifically face.
Second, perpetrators of violence—both sexual and physical—must be charged and prosecuted for their crimes against trans women. Impunity perpetuates and even incentivizes crimes against migrant trans women, as those who carry out these crimes are not held to account.
Finally, and most important, more resources must be given to displaced trans women when providing services and crafting policies related to LGBTQ+ people. As trans women face specific challenges, so too must the responses be specific. The best way to do this is through support for on-the-ground organizations, such as REDLACTRANS and Refugio Casa Frida, which are led by LGBTQ+ people and are dedicated to migrant trans women. These organizations provide trans migrant women with services and support, such as free housing, and simultaneously foster awareness and research about their uniquely difficult circumstances. Refugees International advocates for the support of local LGBTQ+ led organizations because they are integral to the survival of displaced queer people.
COVER PHOTO: Aerial view of demonstrators carrying the transgender flag during the 2022 pride parade in San Salvador. Photo by Camilo Freedman/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.