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7 min

Refugees: So near and yet so far

Queer & trans applicants face similar threats but separate struggles

In Toronto being trans and being queer are clearly two different, if potentially overlapping, experiences. But the distinctions between queer and trans become less meaningful in places where homophobia is more prevalent.

“For 20 years back home I’ve been facing discrimination from society, even my own family,” says Mexican-born Leonardo Zuniga, who is currently seeking refugee status in Canada. “I’m kind of an effeminate person, so even if I was pretending not to be gay, it’s not something I was able to do… to stay in the closet.”

It is queers who push gender roles, above and beyond loving people of the same gender, who are more likely to be the targets of discrimination and violence.

“The roles that we apply to gender is the basis of homophobia,” says immigration lawyer and activist El-Farouk Khaki. “Women and men who are queer and who violate those gender norms are the ones that are the most victimized.”

Khaki, whose immigration practice focusses on queer, trans and HIV-positive people fleeing persecution and women fleeing violence, has been filing refugee claims for more than 12 years. Through his experience he has concluded that trans people are often less able to escape persecution than other queers.

“A gay man or a lesbian woman or someone who is bisexual can pass [as straight] in many cases whereas trans people have a harder time passing for their chosen genders.”

Shadmith Manzo, also from Mexico, came to Canada because she was afraid of what would happen if she came out as trans.

“I tried to hide [being trans],” says Manzo, “but you cannot hide it very well and then you have people threatening you, trying to blackmail you, even sometimes close people, and then you have to be careful of everybody and then eventually it governs your life.

“For me at a certain point I developed a lot of anxiety and a lot of problems. I reached a point where I realized my life in Mexico was practically drowning my existence.”

At the time that she left Mexico Manzo says that there were incidents of trans people being murdered, their bodies found on the outskirts of the city. People would make fun of them, she says, “And say, ‘Oh, this happened because it was a homosexual.'”

Zuniga agrees that in Mexico there is the dominant thinking that victims of homophobic or transphobic violence have somehow brought it upon themselves.

“Police say, ‘Oh, it’s just a passionate crime,'” says Zuniga. “Because this person was homosexual it was like it was something that he or she deserved.”

On Thu, Jul 12 Zuniga will present a forum on the realities of life for queer and trans people in Mexico. The event, to be held at the 519 Community Centre, will include information taken from the recently published Homo-fobia: Odio, Crimen y Justicia (Homophobia: Hate, Crime And Justice) by Fernando del Collado, which documents the more than 1,000 queer and trans people who were killed or went missing in Mexico from 1995 to 2005.

“I called this event Invisible Struggle because I’m going to try to talk about all these thousands of people murdered,” says Zuniga. “There’s injustice for all these people.”

The forum will also touch on the struggles that refugees face when they come to Canada.

“I’ll try to raise awareness of queer refugees in Canada who are struggling on a daily basis with the [immigration and refugee] system,” says Zuniga, who is currently waiting on the outcome of an application to let him stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Zuniga has already been denied refugee status once. His first claim was on the basis of persecution due to sexual orientation, which was complicated by the fact that he was on the run from an abusive boyfriend.

“The situation with ex-boyfriend forced me to leave,” says Zuniga. “It was really hard. My life was in danger and I was completely alone, isolated, all by myself. I wasn’t able to ask my family for help because I wasn’t sure how they’d react. There is in Mexico the machismo culture and the Catholic religion and my family was very religious. I felt that I had no choice [but to leave].”

But at an immigration hearing in May 2006, Zuniga’s first refugee claim was denied. “[The Immigration And Refugee Board member] reported he had not found well-established fear. That I wasn’t a person in need of protection.

“[He said] ‘Mexico City has 25 million people so your ex-boyfriend will not find you there. It’s a very open city right now… so you won’t face discrimination there.'”

The trouble with proving persecution is something that Manzo is also familiar with. In 1994 Manzo claimed refugee status in Canada on the basis of persecution related to gender identity. But her claim was rejected. On Aug 12, 1998, less than a week after she married her partner, Crystal Manzo Chavez, Shadmith was taken from her apartment and detained at a facility in Malton.

“The only reason I came here was to a have a right for living a life for who I am and then you go to this journey where all of a sudden, you are misunderstood…. You are treated like a criminal,” she says, describing her detainment. “You feel like it’s so unbelievably unfair and [you feel] isolated and misunderstood. It’s a very anguished and very painful time. It was very dehumanizing in many ways because you are treated like a product, not an individual. You are treated like a number, not like a person.”

Manzo appealed to the federal court offering evidence supporting her claims of persecution in Mexico. But a risk assessment officer determined that while transsexuals were discriminated against, they were not persecuted. After 17 days in detention, Manzo was deported back to Mexico. She was eventually granted landed immigrant status on the basis of her relationship with her partner.

Part of what complicates the process of claiming refugee status in Canada as a Mexican is that the country is in the process of becoming more accepting of sexual diversity — at least in theory.

In November 2006 civil unions in Mexico City were legalized, allowing same-sex couples to register their relationships and providing them with inheritance rights and other benefits normally given to spouses. Earlier this year David Sanchez Camacho of the Democratic Revolution Party planned to submit a bill amending Mexico’s constitution to include the rights of transsexuals, and to change civil laws to ensure that they can change their names and genders.

“Even a few months ago there was passed into different states civil unions of same-sex couples,” says Zuniga. “But that’s paper. I don’t need papers in my life. I need reality.”

although trans and other queer refugees face many similarities in their struggles to be allowed to stay in Canada, their particular challenges once here are unique.

“Issues around gender and sex are very different to issues around sexuality,” says Rachna Contractor, the coordinator of Among Friends, a three-year program to improve access to services for queer and trans immigrants and refugees in Toronto. “It’s two different communities. They get lumped together for obvious reasons, but someone’s gender identity is not the same as their sexual identity.”

Contractor says there exists a level of transphobia within Toronto’s queer scene. “I think that the queer community is a place where there’s a lot of internalized homophobia, but [also] a lot of transphobia, a lot of sexism. There’s a lot of racism, there’s a lot of classism.

“I think what happens in communities that are marginalized is that it’s almost like, ‘Here’s my piece of the pie and you can’t come in and I’m not going to share it with you’…. It’s almost like your power is on the backs of others so sometimes the queer community doesn’t want to look at the trans people, the gender piece because, ‘No, we’ve already gotten our power, now why do we want to take on your issue?'”

Khaki agrees that there is transphobia among queers, as well as homophobia among trans people.

“I think that many gay and lesbian people don’t understand what makes a person transsexual,” says Khaki. “They can understand not fitting into a gender norm and maybe it’s a discomfort that most gay and lesbian people have with the visibility of somebody who is trans…. One would hope that your own experience of exclusion or disadvantage would make you more sensitive to others, but I think that human experience tells you otherwise.”

In addition to possible discrimination within the queer scene, trans people face unique difficulties around accessibility to hormones, treatments and surgeries, says Suhail Abual Sameed, coordinator for Newcomer/Immigrant Youth Project. Sex reassignment surgery was removed from Ontario’s health coverage in 1998.

It can also be a challenge to find trans-positive employers, he adds. “To find employers that are friendly enough to youth or to immigrants or to refugees is one thing. To find one that is friendly enough to trans people who are all these things, we can’t even imagine how difficult that is or how problematic.”

But for both queer and trans refugees there is the process of navigating the refugee system and the possibility of being taken advantage of along the way.

“They often don’t know that there’s a process which allows them to apply on the basis of sexuality. They wait for a while and that affects their cases. If they do know the process they look for a lawyer because they don’t have connections and they often stumble onto really bad lawyers who take advantage of them and that’s a very common situation.”

Because of their lack of resources and support systems, refugees, particularly young ones, may do things that put their health at risk, says Abual Sameed.

“Lots of them meet older people within the community who sometimes take advantage of them and they go and do things to them sexually that are unsafe and, even though it’s not safe, they will jeopardize that and compromise that safety for the sake of making a connection to somebody and making a new friend or thinking that this person might help them.”

So then with all of the hardships and upheaval that queer and trans refugees face, is it worth it? Zuniga and Manzo certainly think so.

“Many people say, ‘Why not lie? You have a much better life if you just lie,'” says Manzo. “But again, could you live without yourself? Could you just cover an existence without being you?”

“I love my country but if I can’t be free, if I can’t be Leonardo in Mexico it doesn’t make sense to me,” says Zuniga. “I want to be without fear of persecution, without fear that my life will be in danger.”