Many LGBTI refugees from Central America are now waiting for asylum and work permits in the United States after fleeing their home countries. Maybelline Rivas is one of them.
Rivas, currently living in Washington, D.C., is from El Salvador. When she was a child, her school expelled her for wearing makeup and "acting too feminine." Her mother also kicked her out of the house as punishment and rejection.
“At age 11, I was already defined and on hormones. I was already a trans woman,” she told NBC News.
After Rivas' mother deprived her of a home, Rivas turned to sex work for a livelihood. Life took a turn for the better when Rivas met an older trans woman who introduced her to a local LGBTI organization in El Salvador called Aspidh Arcoiris, of which she at last became the director.
A wave of transphobic violence swept El Salvador in 2015, leading to the murder of Francela Mendez, a respected trans activist. As the head of Aspidh Arcoiris at the time, Rivas organized a die-in in front of the Office of the Attorney General together with other organizations to demand a thorough investigation of the crime.
In the same year, Rivas’ older brother, Marvin Ovidio Rivas, was murdered by gang members for standing by Rivas and shielding her from violence. It put an end to Maybelline’s hope to lead the fight for trans rights in her country.
“My family was very afraid. My mom told me that she preferred that I leave and go somewhere far away, rather than to see me get murdered like my brother. And that’s what motivated me to leave the country,” Rivas said.
In 2015, Rivas boarded a plane and left El Salvador. During her first months in Washington D.C., Rivas was homeless. But because of her prior work experience working as a director for an LGBTI organization, Rivas was hired to lead a sex education program for Latinx members of the LGBTI community.
“I think that if Maybelline had not left the country, something would have happened to her,” said Paty Hernandez, Latinx services manager at Casa Ruby, an LGBTI homeless shelter. “We were very confrontational when it came to injustices.”
Ava Benach, an immigration lawyer now handling Rivas’ asylum case, said that trans women from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico can make the case for why they qualify for asylum.
“The violence and oppression and danger and persecution these women face—and the trans men, for that matter— is enormous,” Benach said. “I would say that almost any trans individual who has fled those countries has a certain claim. Maybelline is a little more interesting, in a way, because she was a serious activist for trans rights, which is a tremendously courageous thing to do in a country like El Salvador.”
According to a 2013 report published jointly by El Salvador’s Office of Human Rights, 52.5 percent of percent of trans women living in El Salvador have received death threats due to transphobia or extortion by gang members who try to extract rent payments from trans sex workers.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that at least seven transgender people were killed in El Salvador since the beginning of this year. However, Rivas suspects the toll to be much higher for the entire country as violence against trans women in gang-dominated rural towns often go unseen.
“All of us trans women who are here in this country are the survivors and the warriors, because we left our country with all of our dreams thwarted,” Rivas said. “And now we’ve come here to achieve them.”