Fernanda Pineda para Amnistía Internacional

Between invisibility and discrimination: Venezuelan LGBTIQ+ refugees in Colombia and Peru

For most of his life, Marco has suffered from social anxiety. He does not like large groups and therefore has got used to using headphones as a strategy for dealing with the overcrowded world around him. This has allowed him to avoid hearing much of what is said about him, but at some point he does have to connect with reality. “When I take off my headphones and I begin to pay attention, I realise how indiscreet people are. They look you up and down, scanning you as if you were some kind of weirdo,” he says.

Marco is a 28-year-old trans man who has been living in Lima for four years. He came to Peru from Caracas in search of better living conditions as the social, economic and political deterioration of his country made it unsustainable to stay there. As of May 2022, the mass displacement crisis from Venezuela has led to more than six million refugees around the world, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The reasons for fleeing are manifold: lack of safety, violence, the constant threat to human rights and the lack of food and medicine. As an only child, Marco took responsibility for helping his parents, but he no longer had any options in his country. He didn’t think twice when his boss closed the café where he worked, saying that he was going to Peru with his family and that maybe they could make the journey together. Marco imagined that it was not going to be easy to start from scratch, but he quickly realised that opportunities for Venezuelan LGBTIQ+ refugees are even more restricted and doors close more easily. “There is always someone who says something horrible, or if I talk and my accent comes out they say, “go back to your own country” or they won’t let you through or they ignore you,” he says. “And it really hurts me because sometimes I want to go and buy something and there are several people there but they don’t serve me, even if I’m saying, “excuse me, please.” They don’t look at me, they ignore me and sometimes I try not to let it affect me but being invisible right in front of people is not nice, especially when you need to communicate something.”

The discrimination adds up, is interlinked, and leads to LGBTIQ+ people who arrive from Venezuela to countries such as Colombia and Peru suffering a constant denial of their rights. And although the initialism LGBTIQ+ is used to refer to people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and sexual characteristics, this does not mean that they are a homogeneous group. On the contrary, each of these letters contains within it a variety of experiences which are combined with social class, skin colour or migration status. In addition, gender expression, which forms part of these diverse identities, plays a very important role in how each person is treated by society as attitudes, clothing, gestures etc. are considered conventionally masculine or feminine and anyone who does not conform with those is viewed with suspicion.

A Venezuelan trans woman in Colombia in April 2022. (Fernanda Pineda for Amnesty International)

According to research by organizations such as Caribe Afirmativo in Colombia or Presente in Peru, the segregation experienced by these people is the result of the intersection between their refugee status and their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, or diverse sexual characteristics. Marco, who has not had hormone treatment or surgery, believes that his appearance – outside the norm – is used to discriminate against him. “People basically see me as a butch woman. They don’t like it because it looks bad to them. They are looking for people to be either women or men and it is as though I don’t fit into either of those categories. And then if I also say that I am Venezuelan, well… you don’t know how difficult it is.

People basically see me as a butch woman. They don’t like it because it looks bad to them. They are looking for people to be either women or men and it is as though I don’t fit into either of those categories. And then if I also say that I am Venezuelan, well… you don’t know how difficult it is.

Marco

Marco believes that the worst discrimination that he has experienced is due to being trans, although that is alongside the ever-present xenophobia. “If I were biologically male, I’m sure I would have a lot more opportunities despite being a migrant. I can’t even say that I’ll go to the supermarket to carry some sacks of potatoes. People look at me and laugh at me, regardless of whether I can carry them. The issue is that I’m not the person they want me to be.”

No rights, no dignified life

Colombia and Peru are the main destination countries for people fleeing Venezuela in need of international protection, with approximately 1.8 and 1.3 million people respectively, according to the inter-agency platform R4V. For LGBTIQ+ people, who in addition come from historically marginalized groups, these two countries represent an attainable destination.

Both Colombia and Peru have ratified different international treaties that oblige them to guarantee the human rights of all people without discrimination of any kind, including due to nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity. Nevertheless, the entrenched machismo in these societies, the xenophobia, and the violence based on prejudice against sexual and gender diversity create a hostile and unsafe environment.

According to Colombia Diversa, there is significant legal protection in this country for the LGBTIQ+ population, but the greatest barrier lies in its actual implementation, particularly for refugees. For example, although the new migration regularization programme, known as the Temporary Statute of Protection for Venezuelan Migrants, allows trans people to obtain documents that reflect their gender identity, in order to obtain this documentation in practice trans people must go through extra procedures that generate additional costs and therefore limit effective access to this documentation. Fundación Karisma has raised concerns about the elements within the process that threaten “the principles of non-discrimination and inclusion that identification systems must comply with in order to support respect for human rights,” particularly barriers to access to the right to legal recognition of this population.

Rey Gonzales, a trans man, poses with his cis gender wife in Cúcuta, Colombia in April 2022. (Fernanda Pineda for Amnesty International)

In addition, both the experience of LGBTIQ+ people and refugees in Colombia cannot be separated from the armed conflict, especially in border areas where the risk of trafficking and increased violence affect those whose gender expression is diverse and different from conventional binary norms in a differentiated way. Crossing the border via “trochas” (irregular border crossings) is a seemingly better option for many trans people facing the possibility of being mocked or violated at official border crossing points, Caribe Afirmativo warns. They therefore travel without documentation, putting them in situations of greater risk and generating further obstacles in access to regularization.

In Peru, as highlighted in the report by the NGO Presente, the rights of LGBTIQ+ people that are most affected are access to international protection and migration regularization, healthcare, housing and dignified working conditions. Furthermore, in this country equal marriage and the right to legal recognition of trans identity are still pending approval. “If I don’t adapt to this situation in which I find myself, including calling into question my own identity, I will not be able to survive,” says Pía Bravo, director at Presente, in reference to strategies involving hiding one’s diverse identity and gender expression as much as possible in situations of risk or increased discrimination.

A major barrier for Venezuelans in Colombia and Peru is access to healthcare. The social security systems have intrinsic deficiencies in terms of effective and timely access for the national population, which is exacerbated for those who do not have a regular migration status or cannot afford private services. In the case of the Venezuelan LGBTIQ+ population, the most documented barriers coincide with the inability to register in the healthcare system which particularly affects those living with chronic illnesses, including HIV. The denial of this right puts their lives at risk when faced with a lack of timely care.

Alixe, a trans woman refugee in Peru, is proof of this. For her, the barriers are interlinked and range from the costs of procedures for obtaining documentation and registering with the system to direct discrimination from healthcare staff. “For someone like me,” she says, “obtaining these regularization permits is very difficult. It is an odyssey to find work, then obtain the documents and then that document turns out to be useless.” When she finally has access to a medical examination, the shortcomings and stigmatization worsen the experience. Alixe has had HIV tests performed on her without her consent and has received misdiagnoses because doctors have decided not to have physical contact with her.

We have friends with poisoned bodies, people who die of heart attacks because they get blood clots from self-medicating, trans friends who have problems in their uterus due to testosterone use

Alixe

When it comes to hormone treatment, for example, trans migrants do not have adequate medical support. For four years Alixe has not been able to see an endocrinologist and has not been able to check her silicone implants. This is the reason why trans people resort to unsafe processes, she says:  “we have friends with poisoned bodies, people who die of heart attacks because they get blood clots from self-medicating, trans friends who have problems in their uterus due to testosterone use.” In Colombia, Caribe Afirmativo has also confirmed that the obstacles in accessing guided medical treatment for the trans population leads to unsafe and even lethal body transformation procedures.

‘When it is obvious that you are different, everything is more difficult’ 

“It all depends on the way you look,” says Augusto, a 27-year-old non-binary person from Venezuela living in Bogotá, when talking about the way in which an LGBTIQ+ person is treated according to the way they present in public. Gender expression was mentioned by all LGBTIQ+ people consulted as a differentiator in everyday interactions with the local population. This varies from person to person and the gender expression they have chosen to construct. For Alixe, a trans woman in Peru, cisgender lesbian or gay people, including trans men, are less visible socially because their transition is less noticeable and they can live with less stigma initially, although she clarifies that this ends when they have to present an identification document that does not correspond to their gender identity. “Trans people are always accused of usurping someone else’s identity and when they realise that we are trans, that’s when the abuse begins,” says Alixe.

Augusto says that they have not experienced any violence but have experienced discrimination. They know of attacks against trans women and are afraid. When they were younger, as a gay man in Maracaibo, they didn’t think much of it, but since living in Colombia and experimenting with other forms of dress, such as wearing skirts, they never go out unaccompanied.

For Vanessa, a queer non-binary person based in Lima, the way they look and their accent mark the relationships with the people they interact with. They avoided talking in public during the first year in Peru because they didn’t want to be identified as a Venezuelan. Xenophobia can appear at any time, so they are grateful to have built up a circle of trusted feminist friends and colleagues who welcome them.

A Venezuelan trans woman in Colombia in April 2022. (Fernanda Pineda for Amnesty International)

People with diverse gender expressions are not the only ones who experience discrimination. Lesbian and gay people, who in many cases are less visible from this perspective, face rejection when looking for housing as same-sex couples or do not have their children recognized as a result of a relationship that is not legal in Venezuela and therefore not in Colombia or Peru either. Similarly, some shelters run by religious institutions are places of revictimization for LGBTIQ+ people, according to the organizations consulted.

After facing multiple barriers to having a dignified life, some trans people decide to stop the process and de-transition, especially while they try to achieve economic stability. “Some trans women have had to go back to masculine gender expression in order to not experience so much violence in terms of migration and social integration. We have cases of people who want to stop their hormone treatment, not because there is no normative protection framework, but because of the amount of violence against them,” explains Giovanni Molinares, researcher at Caribe Afirmativo. This “return to the closet” has also been identified in Peru, as noted in the aforementioned report by the NGO Presente.

Negotiating their public identity in order to overcome situations of risk or discrimination is something that many LGBTIQ+ refugees experience. Marco acknowledges this with pain, “Sometimes I prefer to disrespect myself and say yes, yes, when they see ‘female’ on my documents and look at me strangely, in case they lay a hand on me or take me… I wouldn’t be able to cope with a situation of violence such as those that some of my trans friends have experienced with harassment and police violence. I don’t think I would survive an attack. I am not psychologically prepared to face that.”

Obstacles to reporting

For trans women sex workers, like Priscilla, who has lived in Cúcuta for five years, the violence in this border city exposes her to territorial fights, threats and physical attacks by Colombians and Venezuelans. These disputes leave them in a situation of tremendous vulnerability, where impunity is the norm. “They kill you and no one knows about it and no one heard about it,” she says.

In these cases there is no option to file a report, due to fear of the authorities or simply the fact that dealing with bureaucracy means using time they don’t have. Mistrust in the authorities, especially the police, is based on the different forms of violence that they face, particularly trans women. Although Priscilla believes in the saying “turn a deaf ear to ignorant words”, she admits that the insults hurt her. “Sometimes I try to act tough, but no, when you then start hearing the words, it does affect you mentally a little bit.”

Venezuelans adopt strategies to avoid these encounters in destination countries, including obtaining a regularized migration status, but this is not an absolute guarantee against discrimination or violence. Fear of xenophobia leads them to adopt passive attitudes towards abuses of authority.

Sometimes I try to act tough, but no, when you then start hearing the words, it does affect you mentally a little bit

Priscilla

Augusto grew up believing that it is better to avoid contact with public security forces out of fear of arbitrariness; but even so, in Venezuela they always protested for their rights, but stopped doing so in Colombia. They say that a few weeks ago a police officer stopped them and, after hearing their accent, took their phone from them to check if it was stolen. “They can’t do that, I mean, in Venezuela it is illegal, but what can I do if I am Venezuelan, an immigrant? They took my phone and I didn’t say anything.

Between January 2020 and May 2021, the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office handled cases for 88 Venezuelans with diverse gender identities, including dozens of cases of discrimination against sex workers, police abuse and institutional violence. The report calls for the implementation of a gender perspective in the investigations of the Prosecutor’s Office into cases of violence due to prejudice – something that has been lacking so far.

Leaving in search of freedom and a chosen family

Several LGBTIQ+ Venezuelans reported that the discrimination and persecution that they faced in their countries, along with the search for freedom to develop their life plans as diverse people has also driven them to settle in other countries.

Molinares believes that young people leave Venezuela because their partners have already done so or are in the process of doing so and therefore they can free themselves from family pressures. “When they begin to speak out from this place of sexual diversity, they want to leave this closed, often repressive, family circle. The fastest and cheapest option is to go overland to Colombia where they already have a network of people,” he says.

A Venezuelan trans woman in Colombia in April 2022. (Fernanda Pineda for Amnesty International)

For his part, Marco is aware that Peru is a machista country and that violence due to prejudice against trans people like him is a reality. But despite this, on arriving to Lima he wanted to give himself the opportunity that he never did in Venezuela due to fear. “Here, as I am alone, I’ve had to gather the courage to embrace my gender expression, my orientation and the diversity in me,” he says. Some friends in his country have been brave enough to come out of the closet, but he took this step when fleeing from Venezuela.

Now that he is a father, Marco is thinking about his new family. His partner has a young child, therefore as a father and mother the couple do all that they can to make sure that the child is not exposed to the precarious situation. This has become more difficult since the pandemic that disrupted everything.

The idea of leaving again is on his mind. But returning to Venezuela is never mentioned as an option. When he was a teenager, Marco loved the Argentine singer Gustavo Cerati and is therefore curious about that country, but he thinks that in fact Uruguay would be a “more peaceful” destination. Some friends have told him that the society there is more progressive and tolerant of differences and he knows, now more than ever, that this is an indispensable factor for a dignified life.

The country of his dreams, however, is Iceland. “If I were to move to a very far away country then it would be Iceland. I think that it is small and isolated enough for someone like me.”

Laura Vásquez Roa, the author of this feature, is an anthropologist and independent Colombian journalist who collaborated with Amnesty International for this research.