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When opening your home & heart to a transgender asylum seeker is not enough

When opening your home & heart to a transgender asylum seeker is not enough.
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After spending months in confinement at Otay Mesa Detention Center, Emilia, a transgender woman from Guatemala, was undoubtedly thrilled to be out of prison. People who met her after her release said she never stopped smiling.

Being locked up and forced to live, eat, sleep and shower with hundreds of men is cruel, dangerous and humiliating. But trans women seeking asylum in the United States endure the bullying, sexual remarks, and intimidation by inmates. They persist in the face of constant misgendering and contempt by prison guards. Trans women put up with all the degradation because they hope to walk out of detention someday into the arms of a compassionate and understanding sponsor.

Most transgender women who request asylum do not have the support of their biological families. So unlike cis asylum seekers who have relatives in the U.S., trans women languish in detention because there are no relatives willing to help them. Emilia had to rely on the generosity and compassion of strangers. When a gay man from the Los Angeles area stepped forward to sponsor her, she jumped at the opportunity. Now she could fight for asylum outside of detention and begin living as her authentic self.

Her sponsor, Jeffery, was willing to feed, house and transport her to ICE appointments and make sure she was there for her court dates. But he also had a concern.

He said he didn’t want anyone to bully her, so he bought her male clothes so that she could present as a man. Being gay, Jeffery probably knew about discrimination. And he understood that trans people, particularly trans women who did not pass as cis women, are most at risk of being emotionally or even physically abused.

From his perspective, he was just trying to shelter her. And possibly he wanted to protect himself as well. If she didn’t want to dress as a man she could just say no. Emilia agreed to present as a man.

Jeffery failed to recognize that the power dynamics between asylum seekers and sponsors are totally one-sided. Sponsors should realize that they hold all the cards. Asylum seekers may comply simply out of fear that they might lose their freedom. When people are in a vulnerable position, they will comply.

For example, trans icon Marsha P. Johnson was sometimes seen in men’s clothing, which has led some historians to describe her as a gay man who performed drag.

But Marsha’s gay roomate asked her to dress as a man when coming to and leaving their New Jersey apartment.  Marsha didn’t pass as a cis woman and her roommate was afraid that he might lose his apartment if people became suspicious.  He was the leaseholder and he took her in when she was living on the streets. She complied because she wanted a safe place to live, the same as Emilia.

I am a trans woman. When my wife and I came forward to sponsor a transgender woman in the fall of 2018, we went through a vetting process through Santa Fe Dreamers, an immigrant rights organization located in New Mexico. Santa Fe Dreamers finds sponsors for trans women incarcerated at Cibola Detention Center in New Mexico.

We filled out forms that included questions relating to trans acceptance. We were interviewed by phone about our understanding of trans issues. We also received a phone call from ICE to make sure we had the resources to house, feed and transport the asylum seeker. Last January, following all the vetting, we became official sponsors.

Unlike New Mexico, there is no organization finding and vetting sponsors for the trans women at Otay Mesa. Jeffrey’s heart was in the right place, but his discomfort with Emilia’s gender identity demonstrated that he was uncomfortable with the stares and remarks people make around trans women. Not all cis people have this problem, but those who do may increase the trauma of the people they’re trying to help.

We need transgender people to volunteer as sponsors. This is our issue. These are our people. I know that many trans folk are not in a position to step up, but there are trans people with money and resources to help. If you want to help, private message me through Facebook or email me at meredith.vezina@gmail.com.