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"We too are

"We too are


Gay Latinos are crossing the border from Mexico in search of a better life and a place where they can be themselves. But when they get here they're not always finding the American dream.

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time like any other couple: They walk their dogs in the afternoon, they go out for dinner on Fridays, and they see at least one movie every weekend. And they like to vacation at theme parks such as Six Flags Magic Mountain and Disneyland because they both love roller coasters. "In short, we do the 'married couple' thing a lot," says Manuel, 39, who is working on his second graduate degree, an MFA in playwriting, at Arizona State University.

But Manuel and Gonzalez, who have been together for eight years, also live with moments of panic. Gonzalez, 32, is an undocumented immigrant. Fourteen years ago he walked across the border from Mexico in hopes of finding a job and helping his family back home. He found his way to San Diego, where other Mexican immigrants called him joto, meaning "faggot" in Spanish, and mariposa, the Spanish word for "butterfly," another pejorative reference to gay men.

Conditions for gay men were much worse back home, however, and Gonzalez lives in constant fear of deportation. Even today, routine traffic stops can be terrifying. "Trust me: We always live in fear," says Manuel, also born in Mexico but now a U.S. citizen.

As Congress debates proposals to limit illegal entry into the United States and to punish undocumented immigrants, Latino immigrants and their supporters have been rallying in the streets. And Gonzalez and other gay immigrants fear they are being left out. For them, the struggle is twofold: They need to gain support from lawmakers and officials who have the power to give them residency and also gain support from Latino and immigrant communities where homosexuality is still taboo.

"For the social-justice Latino rights organizations, it's not an issue they've been taking up," says Oscar De La O, president and CEO of Bienestar Human Services, California's largest Latino nonprofit HIV-related health services agency. "For them, it complicates their overall work. For us, you cannot separate your ethnic-racial makeup from your sexual orientation."

Andres Duque, director of Mano a Mano, a network of Latino LGBT organizations in New York City, says he is seeing a "wait and see" attitude among many undocumented LGBT Latino immigrants who would like to become U.S. citizens. "Some are too afraid, considering recent immigration crackdowns, to even think about approaching the government at this moment," says Duque.

"Robert Ortiz," an undocumented immigrant who asked that his real name be withheld for fear of deportation, fled his native Guatemala when he was 18. "Being gay in Guatemala, you can't tell everyone," says Ortiz. "People are very discriminated against. You can't trust other people. I don't see myself going back to live there; it would be dangerous."

Indeed, gay men in Guatemala are being killed as part of what a U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship, and Immigration Services report described in 1998 as "social cleansing." Police there often harass and arbitrarily detain gay men, the report said.

When Ortiz came to the United States he was able to be more out, and he found a community of gay people. But that didn't help him gain legal status as an immigrant. In his efforts to get U.S. residency, Ortiz says he has been scammed and rejected. He became a seminarian in the Roman Catholic Church, but he was forced to leave after he refused to be sent to Mexico. "For me, that would be going backward," he says.

Then he married a lesbian who promised him citizenship but ended up blackmailing him. They divorced last year. And he paid a police officer who claimed to have friends in the Social Security Administration and U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. "That was such a lie," says Ortiz, who lives in suburban Los Angeles. "I've paid so much money to people because they promised me help, but nothing ever happens."

Historically, U.S. immigration policy has favored family reunification, bringing together parents and children, husbands and wives. Ortiz got into a relationship with a U.S. citizen three years ago, but that gets him nothing because U.S. immigration policy does not recognize same-sex partnerships, including same-sex marriages performed in Massachusetts. "Unlike Hispanic or Latino heterosexual couples, where if they marry someone who is a U.S. citizen they can become a U.S. citizen, binational Hispanic same-sex couples face all of these threats to their families, including the inability to marry and become U.S. citizens if their spouse already happens to be a citizen," notes Jason Cianciotto, research director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute.

"Manco Leguia," an undocumented immigrant who asked that his real name be withheld, arrived in Miami from Peru in May 2000 using a fake visa. Authorities took away his travel documents, including his legitimate Peruvian passport, but let him stay. He took a bus to New York City, where, unlike in his native country, he found a gay support system. Then he met his partner of two years, "Will West."

After West moved to Arizona, Leguia began visiting him periodically. On his fourth trip, instead of flying to Phoenix, Leguia flew to Tucson International Airport, where border patrol agents arrested him. "When he was detained, because we're not married, I'm nothing," West says. "The only way I was able to see him was when his cousin flew in from New York and I drove her [to the detention facility], they let me go in with her."

West paid $6,000 in bond for Leguia to be freed. The men have hired an attorney who is seeking political asylum for Leguia because he fears for his life if he were to return to Peru. To win asylum, immigrants like Leguia must prove a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. In 1994 then-attorney general Janet Reno decided that sexual orientation could be considered membership in a social group and that people who were persecuted because of their sexual orientation qualified for political asylum. That decision came just four years after the federal government repealed a decades-old ban on gay and lesbian immigrants that dated back to a time when homosexuality was considered a mental disorder.

Leguia was not abused while in detention, but LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants are still "extremely vulnerable in immigration detention facilities," says Sarah Sohn, a legal fellow with Immigration Equality, a grassroots organization that represents lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive immigrants. "It's been documented that they are the subject of discrimination, sometimes actual physical abuse, at the hands of both corrections officers and other detainees," she says.

It's particularly bad for transgender detainees, adds Sohn, because no standard or regulation addresses how to protect them. The Krome Service Processing Center, a Miami-Dade County immigration detention facility in Florida, initially couldn't decide where to place Christina Madrazo, a transsexual Mexican immigrant, while her asylum request was being considered in May 2000. Madrazo was finally placed in a glass-walled isolation room near a women's dormitory, where she said Lemar Smith, a male guard, raped her twice. In 2001, Smith accepted a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to lesser charges of sexual abuse of a detainee and received a sentence of eight months in prison. The federal government later paid $95,000 to Madrazo to settle her civil lawsuit.

And transgender immigrants are also finding their marriages aren't honored by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Take husband Jiffy Javellana and wife Donita Ganzon. Ganzon, a Filipina male-to-female transsexual who completed sex-reassignment surgery in 1981, became a U.S. citizen in 1987. But in 2004 the federal government refused to issue Filipino immigrant Javellana a green card despite his 2001 marriage to Ganzon. The government cited the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Javellana faces possible deportation.

Recently, gay Latino immigrants have been getting support from U.S. gay rights groups, which during the recent congressional debates have been issuing press releases and organizing protests. Indeed, when any minorities, including immigrants, are attacked or used as scapegoats by an unhappy electorate, gay leaders should stand up, says Herb Sosa, president of Unity Coalition, a Latino LGBT group in Florida. "Discrimination is discrimination," he says. "If I'm discriminated against, who is next, and what is next?"

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