After a gang member held him at gunpoint inside his home, the 24-year-old gay man knew he had to flee El Salvador to survive. He had been beaten and harassed repeatedly on the streets by gang members. Eventually, they warned, they would kill him.
It took two attempts to get across the U.S.-Mexican border, but in 2006, he was smuggled into Arizona and made his way to Washington, where his brother lived.
As the District takes significant steps to advance the rights of LGBT residents, the youths who pass through the Wanda Alston House — named after an LGBT leader and mayoral adviser who was killed in 2005 — tell of the vulnerability the community still faces.
“Finally, I can have my real life, exactly how I am,” he thought.
Valerie Villalta, now 30, found that new life as a transgender woman and, in the process, won a kind of protection she didn’t even know was possible for someone like her: asylum.
Asylum, which allows an immigrant to live and work in the country legally, is more commonly associated with immigrants who have been persecuted in their home countries — or who might be in the future — because of their politics, race, religion or ethnicity. But Villalta learned that it also can apply to gay and transgender immigrants who have been tortured because of their sexuality.
Since winning her asylum case in 2009 with the help of the Whitman-Walker Health clinic in the District, Villalta has dedicated much of her life to providing guidance to gay and transgender Latino immigrants who find themselves in a foreign land with little or no knowledge of the language, the culture or the services that can help them find peace with who they really are.
She volunteers with a health education program for gay and transgender youths called Empoderate, or “Empower yourself” — the same program that helped her find her way. The youth center is just a few blocks from its umbrella organization, La Clinica del Pueblo, a bilingual community health center in Columbia Heights.
“When you try to help other people, you feel good,” Villalta said recently, sitting in the center’s coral pink Girls Meeting Room. A drawing of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon hangs above her head. “Soy mujer trans (I’m a transgender woman),” it says.
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