An Odyssey to Asylum

Melissa Castillo-Garsow, Gay City, Dec. 30

Argentinean María Belén Correa, a transgendered woman, did not originally intend to make her home in the United States. Nevertheless, in a groundbreaking decision that transgendered people hail as an important precedent, the U.S. has granted Correa, 31, a Queens resident, political asylum, based on the grounds that, because of her gender change, she faces life-threatening oppression in her native country.

Correa’s path to a life in America was marked by tragedy around her and threats against her own life.

In February 2000, Correa’s friend and fellow transgender rights activist Vanessa Lorena Ledesma died at the hands of the Buenos Aires police five days after she was arrested. In the wake of that loss, Correa, a co-founder of the Association of Transvestite, Transsexual and Transgender Argentineans (ATTTA), the first organization of its type in that nation, decided to stay and continue fighting for legal rights for transgendered people.

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This December 8, Correa became one of only a handful of transgendered people who have been granted political asylum in the U.S. She is the first transgendered woman from Argentina. While the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS)—formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service—does not keep such statistics, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) estimates that in the past 10 years, 250 transgendered people, most of them from Latin America, have sought asylum, with 45 winning refuge in the U.S.

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Precedents exist, however, for gay and lesbians persecuted because of their sexual orientation. In a 1990 case, in which evidence of persecution of homosexuals by the Cuban government was presented, the Board of Immigration Appeals established sexual orientation as a “particular social group.” Four years later, Janet Reno, who was then the attorney general, ruled that other gays and lesbians seeking asylum could rely on the case as a precedent.

When Geovonni Hernandez-Montiel, a gay Mexican who was born biologically male, but says he began to dress and behave as a female at age 12, applied for asylum, he was denied because the immigration judge did not find that his female self-identification was fundamental to his identity. Hernadez-Montiel appealed, and eventually won a landmark decision made by the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in August of 2000 establishing that, “as a matter of law that gay men with female sexual identities in Mexico constituted a ‘particular social group’ and that Geovanni is a member of that group. His female sexual identity is immutable because it is inherent in his identity; in any event he should not be required to change it.”

The Ninth Circuit made the same decision again this year, in the case of Luis Reyes-Reyes, a gay man from El Salvador who identifies as a female.

More importantly, the court redefined this catch-all category to “one united by a voluntary association, including a former association, or by an innate characteristic that is so fundamental to the identities or consciences of its members that members either cannot or should not be required to change it,” a finding that clearly included transgender identities like those of Hernandez-Montiel and Reyes-Reyes.

“Sexual orientation and sexual identity are immutable; they are so fundamental to one’s identity that a person should not be required to abandon them,” the Hernandez-Montiel ruling stated.

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