LGBTI refugees often face a long road to safety. But for a gay man and a transwoman from Venezuela, building new lives in their host countries represented a ‘rebirth.’
For Valentinna Rangel, finding safety in Chile allowed her to become on the outside what she had always felt on the inside. After decades of seeing herself as a woman in a man’s body, the 27-year-old completed the process of transformation, which began when she fled the economic and political crisis in her native Venezuela, by transitioning from male to female.
“I think it would have been impossible to make the transition in Venezuela,” she said, adding that in Venezuela, transgender people can face insults, violence and even worse from their fellow Venezuelans and even their own family members.
Fleeing home to escape persecution, conflict or war is fraught for most refugees and asylum-seekers, and the LGBTI community faces risks.
Same-sex relations are criminalized in more than 70 countries and punishable by death in some. And even in countries where same-sex relations are not criminalized, LGBTI people may find themselves persecuted for their sexual orientation, gender identities or other sexual characteristics and forced to flee. That type of persecution may allow victims to qualify for refugee status, but the sad truth is that LGBTI people sometimes face similar threats in their country of asylum. That makes the journey to safety particularly risky for gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex refugees and asylum-seekers.
“For the first time, I feel valued for who I am.”
For LGBTI people like Valentinna, finding a place of relative safety can feel like a rebirth.
Valentinna said she never identified as a man. When, as a teenager growing up in Venezuela’s north-western oil capital of Maracaibo, Valentinna heard about the possibility of transitioning, she was sure that was what she wanted to do. She read everything she could find about the procedure, but “it was all negative, like the fact that the life expectancy for trans people was age 35, or that the community was still associated with prostitution and marginality,” she said.
“I didn’t want that sort of label,” she said. In order to stay safe, she opted to remain her birth gender as she pursued a career in advertising.
The situation in Venezuela deteriorated steadily. Inflation spiralled, food and medicines became scarce, blackouts proliferated and violence grew rampant. In 2014, Valentinna’s brother was murdered. Shortly after, her best friend succumbed to cancer after she was unable to access potentially life-saving treatment. In 2016, Valentinna packed her bags and bought a one-way ticket to Chile, joining the ranks of the now more than 5 million Venezuelans living outside the country amid the ongoing crisis.
In her new home in the Chilean capital, Santiago, Valentinna was finally able to make the transition she had dreamed of for so long. Following hormone treatments, she was hired – as a woman – at a prestigious advertising firm, where she has received support from her supervisor and other colleagues.
“For the first time, I feel valued for who I am,” she said. “I feel that my colleagues listen to my ideas, and that they pay attention to my intelligence, not my gender identity.”
In Latin America, same-sex marriage is legal in around half a dozen countries. Still, the region remains among the most lethal places on earth for LGBTI people, with homophobic and transphobic murders a tragic reality throughout most of the region.
“I was afraid of being beaten,” he said, adding that his mother and siblings, who had always accepted his sexual orientation, were also afraid for him. Elvis cultivated a “straight appearance,” hiding his true sexual orientation from all but his trusted inner circle of family and friends.
Elvis could not stand to see his family sink into hunger and despair as food prices in Venezuela soared and as rampant inflation devoured their buying power. Determined to help them, he set out for Brazil in 2018.
“She told me I could do great things in my life if I believed that things would get better.”
Initially, he struggled to support himself in Boa Vista, the capital of the remote northern Brazilian state of Roraima, which is the main port of entry for Venezuelans fleeing to the country. Without a job, he was unable to find a place to live and had no choice but to sleep on the streets. There, he was sexually abused.
“I was ready to end my own life,” he recalled.
One day, Elvis was picking through the trash, searching for something to eat, when a staffer with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, came to his assistance, securing him a spot in a specialized shelter that serves LGBTI refugees and migrants. At the time, Elvis weighed just 35 kilos.
“Perhaps if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Elvis. “She looked me in the eye and told me not to give up. She told me I could do great things in my life if I believed that things would get better. And that’s what I’ve done.”
UNHCR is committed to protecting the rights of LGBTI refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as supporting networks and coalitions that help those uprooted from their homes. In Chile, the agency and a partner organization are reaching out to the LGBTI community ensure gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex refugees and asylum-seekers can access medical care and other vital services. Working with its partners in Brazil, UNHCR helps to ensure LGBTI people who have been forcibly displaced have access to healthcare, job training and placement services and to make sure they do not face discrimination.
Elvis’ encounter with the UNHCR staff person marked the start of a new chapter in his life. After recuperating in the shelter in Boa Vista, he was moved to the capital, Brasília, as part of the Brazilian government’s so-called “interiorization” program, which relocates Venezuelans from rural Roraima to states where they can better integrate with the local community and more easily find work.
Now, Elvis works at a medical diagnostics clinic and has been admitted to the prestigious University of Brasília.
“I’m not embarrassed to tell people that I lived on the streets and searched the garbage for food,” he said. “I’m not going to give up because I’ve gotten a second chance at life.”
Originally published on UNHCR on 17 May 2020