IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'We are invisible': Discrimination and risks multiply for Indigenous LGBTQ in Mexico

"There are many Indigenous people who flee their communities because of their sexual orientation,” says sociologist Jorge Mercado Mondragón.
A woman walks past a rainbow flag hung on the outside of a tent offering free HIV testing, part of events to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, in the Alameda park in central Mexico City on May 17, 2018.
A woman walks past a rainbow flag to mark International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, in the Alameda park in central Mexico City on May 17, 2018.Rebecca Blackwell / file

MEXICO CITY — Wilter Gómez was 12 years old when his stepfather took him from his hometown in Gracias a Dios, Honduras, to the jungle. After walking for hours on remote trails, the man began to beat him repeatedly. 

"He wanted me to disappear," Gómez said bitterly. His stepfather threw him and left him in a ditch full of water, but the intense pain from the beatings caused Gómez to wake up, saving him from drowning. He never returned to his Gracias a Dios home.

“My only sin was being who I am, a gay person. My people are very discriminated against because we don't speak Spanish well, and we only live off the sea and the mountains. But inside, among the Indigenous people, there is a lot of machismo. It's like living a curse because they cut us, they beat us, that's why I had to leave,” said Gómez, 22, speaking from a shelter in Tijuana, Mexico, in the country he now calls home.

Yet there are dangers in his adopted home. In 2020, at least 79 LGBTQ people were killed in Mexico, about 6.5 per month, according to Letra S, Sida, Cultura y Vida Cotidiana, a civil organization dedicated to the defense of LGBTQ people that has been registering cases since 1998.

The most recent report by Letra S states that in the last five years there have been 459 violent deaths of LGBTQ people, although the 2020 figures show a 32 percent decrease compared to 2019, when 117 were registered.

“What state governments did not achieve, the pandemic did. But locking ourselves in our homes and not going to recreational places is by no means an option,” said Alejandro Brito, executive director of the organization. "It is very likely that the figures will skyrocket as activities in the country are re-established."

LGBTQ Mexicans like Gómez say they are battling multiple layers of discrimination, in many cases facing greater danger in their own Indigenous communities.

Jorge Mercado Mondragón, a sociologist and academic at the Autonomous Metropolitan University, has studied the internal migration of the LGBTQ population in Mexico and said that the moment a young Indigenous person "dares to manifest their diverse sexuality," it begins a process of aggression, large and small, which often mark the family and culminate with the departure of young people from their hometowns.

“Forced internal displacement not only occurs due to generalized violence, natural disasters or religious conflicts, it also responds to discrimination on the basis of gender identity. There are many Indigenous people who flee their communities because of their sexual orientation,” Mercado Mondragón said.  

Gómez lived on the streets of Tegucigalpa for several years until 2019, when the house he shared with some friends was broken into and one of them was killed. That was the trigger to walk out of his country and cross the borders to Mexico where, in his words, he has not had much luck. He said he's been exploited in various jobs, he's been drugged and abused, and fell into a deep depression. He spent several months in a psychiatric institution last year.

“When they put me in the hospital, I was dying inside. Sometimes this country is very scary,” Gómez said.

Official crime and violence figures do not differentiate victims according to characteristics such as sexual orientation and gender identity, which makes it difficult to make the problem visible. Prosecutors have not incorporated these variables into their records, and LGBTQ victims of homicidal violence are included in other categories such as robbery, assault and simple homicide, among others.

Of the 32 states of Mexico, only 14 consider hate crimes due to "sexual orientation" as an aggravating factor to the crime of qualified homicide, but the Mexican Federal Criminal Code still does not include it, nor does it mention the term "gender identity."

"Minority within a minority"

For Marven, an Indigenous trans woman who recently unsuccessfully ran as a candidate for Mexico City's Congress, the vulnerability of the sexually diverse community is a fundamental political issue. When she was a child, her father beat her incessantly for her gender identity and family members made fun of her.

In the case of the Indigenous, she said they're a minority within a minority. "Inclusion is not seen. I got into politics to fight for our health,” said Marven, better known as “Lady Tacos de Canasta." She gained great popularity in 2019 when she appeared in a Netflix documentary that showed her selling tacos from her bicycle, dressed in colorful traditional dresses and her braided headdresses.

“Mexico has to change. It is not possible that one has to get used to living with that hatred and mistreatment," Marven said. "I have tough skin, like a crocodile, because if you don't they'll destroy you."

A recent scandal illustrates the uphill fight for the rights of sexual diversity in politics. LGBTQ groups have denounced that 18 male candidates for office registered as trans women in the state of Tlaxcala to circumvent the conditions of sexual parity imposed by election laws.

Despite the crudeness of the maneuver, it's not the first time that it has happened. In 2018, 17 men posed as trans women to meet gender quotas in Oaxaca, but the electoral authorities managed to suspend those candidacies. 

In Mexico, racism and discrimination have been widely documented. The most recent National Survey on Discrimination by the National Council to Prevent Discrimination (Conapred), reveals that 40.3 percent of the Indigenous population say they have faced discrimination.

Almost 27 percent of people said they have faced physical aggression in school due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. In addition, 9 percent said they have suffered some kind of abuse or sexual violence by those in their own community, including school and family.

“This data is brutal," said César Flores Mancilla, from Conapred. "The population was asked if the environment of hostility and discrimination that comes with assuming their sexual orientation and gender identity has led to suicidal ideas, and the response was positive in 73 percent of trans men, 58 percent of trans women, 51 percent of bisexual women, 48 percent of bisexual men, 43 percent of gay men and 42 percent of lesbian women."

Compounding discrimination

In these investigations, the term “accumulation of disadvantages” is often used to describe the structural discrimination that people suffer based on their identity. An Indigenous woman may experience discrimination accessing education, health and other public services, but if they also belong to the LGBTQ community, those disadvantages increase.

“The issue of being Indigenous and being women puts us in a guardianship role all the time," said Yadira López Velasco, a Zapotec poet and sociologist. "They have always told us that we are incomplete beings, that as Indigenous we need the tutelage of the state, that as women we need the tutelage of a man and, in that sense, we are invisible. Furthermore, it is not believed anywhere that an Indigenous woman can feel desire and love for another woman."

López is part of the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Women, one of the groups fighting for the rights of Indigenous people in Mexico, where 25 million identify as Indigenous and more than 7 million speak an Indigenous language. 

Several experts pointed out that there was an awareness of gender fluidity in Indigenous ancestral traditions. The patriarchal machismo and gender discrimination rooted in many Indigenous communities today — a determining factor in the physical and psychological abuse of LGBTQ people — is often seen as an inheritance from the colonization process.

“Before the conquest we had a greater permissiveness to be and to show ourselves — the Indigenous cosmogony had to do with this idea that the masculine and the feminine were intertwined, there was no distinction," said Gloria Careaga Pérez, a scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico and founder of the National Observatory of Hate Crimes against LGBT people. "The conquest came to impose a religion and already delegitimized a series of things that used to be part of daily life."

Deadly violence in Veracruz

For several years, the Mexican state of Veracruz has been considered the deadliest entity for LGBTQ people in the country. Letra S registered 27 murders in that state during 2020 and, so far in 2021, the observatory has recorded six murders and one disappearance.

The region has also been singled out for the cruelty of the attacks against people from the LGBTQ community. Alaska Contreras Ponce, a 25-year-old trans woman and beauty queen, was tortured to death in 2018. Miguel Ángel Medina, 21, was stoned in a pantheon in 2019; Jesusa Ventura Reyes, 35, was beheaded and her head was left in an ice chest in front of the city hall of Fortín de las Flores, a city in Veracruz, in 2019. Getsemaní Santos Luna, a trans woman, was shot in February.

"The authorities always say that they are crimes of passion, or that they were related to drug trafficking, but they do not investigate, they do not make expert opinions," said Jazz Bustamante, a trans woman and political candidate in Veracruz.

Bustamante, who is part of the civil association Soy Humano, said more than 40 percent of LGBTQ people who are killed in the region end up in mass graves because the authorities only give their remains to blood relatives.

“Many are from other states such as Guerrero, Oaxaca, Tabasco, and they leave those regions because of the abuses they suffer. They do sex work, because they don't let us study or practice professions, they have no other option," Bustamante said. "So they cut ties with their family and we cannot bury them because no one comes to claim them."

Sofía Sánchez García, a 25-year-old trans woman, had to leave Papantla, her Indigenous town in Veracruz due to extreme violence against the LGBTQ community and the lack of work and academic opportunities.

“I had to leave there because there is no branch of work for someone like myself. People do not understand that you were born with a name and an identity different from how you see yourself. That's why I had to leave my studies, and now I dedicate myself to sex work,” Sánchez said with a hint of sadness.

The psychological abuse she suffered throughout her life has taken a toll, Sánchez said, because "strange thoughts enter her." 

"You have to fight depression because the mind betrays you many times," she asserts.

A place in the world

They are overflowing silhouettes, shades of lights and characters that unfold. Pedro Miranda's photographs are suggestive, not precise. They seem like something out of a dream. In a world obsessed with sharpness and brightness, Miranda opts for the mist, for the dreamlike universe and the textures that turn his work into an experience.

Plastic artist Pedro Miranda who is also an LGBTQ indigenous person.
Plastic artist Pedro Miranda who is an LGBTQ indigenous person.Courtesy Pedro Miranda

"Sometimes my friends joke with me, because they say that I am part of the minority, of the minority, of the minority," he said with a laugh, looking up at the sky. Miranda is a blind plastic artist and an LGBTQ Indigenous person, but he says that none of that defines him.

“I think the most important thing is to know where you are in the world. The fact of being Indigenous does not detract from me. On the contrary, it adds to me because I am from a region that has survived a great number of terrible things,” said Miranda, who says he is aware that he is privileged by being part of the artistic community.

“It's supposedly a more open world, and I understand that it is. Although they have come to accuse me of overexploiting my Indigenous image, can you believe it?” he said, laughing.

This year Miranda did the Perfect Disabled Handbook, a project of in-depth interviews with other creators who share their experiences living with various types of disabilities.

“You don't have to look at your limitations, even if that is difficult. There are things worth dying for, worth losing privileges for, and that is knowing who you are, living by your own personality, and that includes sexual orientation," he said. "That is why you came into the world."

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

Follow NBC Latino on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.