From El Salvador to Batavia: LGBTI Issues and Ingrid’s Story

The erasure and mistreatment of LGBTI individuals in ICE detention centers is a pervasive issue that must be further addressed. When asked in 2016 how many LGBTI identifying individuals there were in ICE detention centers, officials reported that they were not aware of the number of queer detainees, nor the conditions in which they are held. ICE has repeatedly failed to acknowledge the existence of this community, consequently resulting in gross human rights’ abuses. A 2016 report by the “International Detention Coalition” underscores the heightened vulnerability experienced by transgender women in detention as they are “15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general prison population.” When placed in male detention facilities, this number of assaults rises dramatically. Despite the open publication of such information, ICE continues to imprison queer detainees in facilities that do not match their gender expression, to implement solitary confinement, and to ignore the blatant abuses of this group. 

 

When attempting to understand more about the experiences of LGBTI individuals in detention, one perspective that is important to consider is American philosopher Judith Butler’s ideas of vulnerability. Butler’s argument is that every single person is vulnerable, but the exploitation of someone’s vulnerabilities varies between people. This is a critical viewpoint to have in mind because, of the reports that do examine LGBTI detainee experiences, some of them, including the International Detention Coalition report, describe the vulnerabilities of LGBTI detainees in a way that inadvertently portrays these people as weak and helpless. This becomes apparent when the report states, “although not explicitly mentioned in the IDC Core Position, LGBTI persons are particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect in detention environments.”. Such word choice  gives vulnerability a negative connotation, and associates it with an increased risk of abuse and exploitation. By contrast, Butler argues that all humans are inherently vulnerable, and it is the institutional abuse of this vulnerability present in all of us that leads to violence. When one uses Butler’s ideas of common vulnerability, people like LGBTI detainees who were once repressed by societal belittling can be seen as agents. In the words of Butler, “when a vulnerability is recognized, that recognition has the power to change the meaning and structure of the vulnerability itself.” When we work to embrace vulnerability, we work towards a more inclusive society. 

 

LGBTI detainees are not inherently more at risk for abuse because of their identity: they are more at risk for abuse because there can be guards and other detainees that are transphobic and homophobic. This lack of acceptance of LGBTI identities is the reason why people are harmed. The IDC report even demonstrated this when it said, “a majority of male detainees feel that their own virility is questioned or threatened by the mere presence of LGBTI persons, demonstrating acute homophobia and transphobia within places of detention." In addition, LGBTI detainees are also the ones that get punished, rather than their abusers, because many detention facilities will place LGBTI detainees in solitary confinement “for their own protection” from transphobic and homophobic abuse. 

 

There is no denying the fact that members of the LGBTI community in detention face cruel and unjust mistreatment from fellow detainees and the detention guards. Because of this abuse alone, there needs to be justice and power given to these detainees; the fact that detention facilities don’t properly report these LGBTI-based exploitations furthers the emphasis for the need for change. Through our Free Ingrid campaign, we hope to increase awareness of LGBTI mistreatment in a manner that amplifies LGBTI voices. 

 

As the country of El Salvador continues to be ravaged by poverty and violence, there has been a sharp increase in asylum applications to the United States, notably between 2014 and 2018. The United States has recognized this, and increased border apprehensions as ICE attempts to swiftly deport undocumented migrants. The US only recognizes a mere 18.2% of Salvadorans who cross the border as eligible for possible legal status. This country knowingly places such migrants at the mercy of Salvadoran gangs who prey on vulnerable deportees that lack any form of protection from their own government. Often times, deportees who are forced to return to El Salvador are victims of sexual violence, murder, or torture at the hands of gangs. 

The fact that despite this knowledge, many people placed in ICE detention centers voluntarily choose to be deported rather than spend any more time locked away points to the atrocity that is ICE detention. Ailsa Winton’s article, “‘I’ve got to go somewhere’: Queer Displacement in Northern Central America and Southern Mexico” underscores the desperate need of LGBTI people to escape abuse in Central America by highlighting the dangers faced by individuals in such countries. For example, Jessica, a Salvadoran trans woman, laments, “If you stand still, they kill you.” Gangs threatened Jessica by telling her “‘you played with God, you piece of garbage, just look at you, you’re going to die.’” Jessica, like other LGBTI people in El Salvador, was forced to flee or face murder. The surge of violence against LGBTI people forces mobility as they fight to survive. 

 

We had the opportunity to interview Ingrid about her experiences in El Salvador as well as being LGBTI in the Batavia detention center. One of our classmates, Gabriella Mino, interviewed her in Spanish and translated the transcript into English for us. We tried to stay as true to Ingrid's words as possible. Chandra Mohanty mentions in her Under Western Eyes essay that it is problematic to speak for the people you are trying to advocate for. That is why we decided that we should not insert our commentary into the interview, and it’s better if Ingrid speaks for herself. In addition, it would have been ideal if we could use Ingrid’s voice in the audio clips, but the zoom recording of the interview was hard to hear, so the Spanish versions of Ingrid responses are read aloud by our classmate Victoria Correa. 

 

Text: What pronouns do you use? 

Text: “La dama, de usted, como sea. Como señorita.” 

Text: “The lady, of formal you, whichever one. As a lady.”

Text: “Is it okay if we ask you about being LGBTI back at home?” We are going to leave it open ended. “What struggles did you face being LGBTI in El Salvador?

Audio: “Te voy hacer sincera, eso es muy complicado en mi país. En mi país tú tienes que esconder porque si no te escondes, te matan, te torturan, todo eso. Incluso, aquí nadie sabe todavía que yo soy lesbiana, a las únicas que yo le tuve confianza que le dije fue a tu profesora y a ustedes que lo saben. Xiomara si más o menos, ya un poco le comenté. Nadie más sabe.”

Text: I am going to be sincere with you, that is very complicated in my country. In my country, you need to hide because if you do not hide, they kill you, they torture you, all things like that. Here, no one knows yet that I am lesbian, the only people that I trusted to tell was your professor and you all know. Xiomara kind of, I told her a bit. No one else knows.

Text: In El Salvador, does someone else know?

Audio: “Solamente lo sabe mi hermana Abigail, lo sabe también mi hermana Dora Alicia, ellas saben que si a mí me gustan las muchachas. 

Si, mis hermanos siempre han sospechado, pero nunca me han dado a color, nunca. Ellos nada más sospechan, mis hermanos y mis hermanos mayores siempre ellos me han amenazado, me han dicho que el día que se den cuenta que yo soy lesbiana, me decían que me iban a echar a la calle. Entonces, que me iban a quitar el apellido, que me iban a sacar de la herencia. A las únicas que le tuve confianza y le dije, que fue la primera que se dio cuenta fue Dora Alicia y después fue Abigail. Abigail siempre lo supo, cuando yo le dije me dijo, “Yo siempre lo supe, pero tú siempre lo negabas.” Dora Alicia me dijo, “Yo quiero que seas feliz, te tienes que cuidar de mis hermanos.” Es muy difícil la verdad.”

Text: Only my sister Abigail and my sister Dora Alicia also know, they know that I like women. 

Yes, my brothers have always suspected but I never revealed to them that I was lesbian, never. They only suspected and my brothers and older brothers have always threatened me, they have told me that the day they find out I am lesbian, they would tell me that they would throw me out the house. That they would take away my last name, that they would take me out the inheritance papers. The only people I trusted in and told, Dora Alicia which was the first to figure it out and then Abigail. Abigail always knew, when I told her she told me, “I always knew it, but you always denied it.” Dora Alicia told me, “I want you to be happy, you need to take care of yourself from my brothers.” It is truly very difficult. 

 

Text: In the streets did people suspect you were not straight?

Audio: “Si sospechaban, pero nunca pudieron hacer algo contra mi así tan, lastimarme tan fuerte, porque como nunca me di a color. Una novia que yo tuve, la tuve como a ocho horas de donde yo vivía. Me decían muchas cosas, sospechaban, pero nunca me di a color. Incluso siempre me han dicho “el hombre de la casa.” Me sentía orgullosa, pero por la otra parte me estaba destrozando por dentro, incluso todavía.”

Text: Yes, they suspected, but they were never able to do something too bad, too hurtful to me because I never revealed I was lesbian. A girlfriend that I had, she lived eight hours away from where I lived. People would tell me a lot of things, they suspected but I never revealed I was lesbian. They have always told me “the man of the house.” I would feel proud but at the same time it was destroying me on the inside, even now. 

 

Text: How do you feel like your sexual orientation/gender identity impacts how you are free to move in the detention center? Do you feel like you have to be careful with who you are in a room with in order to avoid making anyone uncomfortable?

Audio: “La verdad si, de hecho, me tengo que cuidar con todo, porque, te voy hacer sincera, aquí incluso hay una persona que le dijo a los oficiales que estaba siendo acosada por mí. Y sinceramente, yo tengo casi dos años de estar aquí en esta detención, y nunca he faltado al respeto. Tú me respetas, yo te respeto. Tú me das tu amistad, es amistad. Y en mi país igual, nunca he hecho una cosa así. Tengo mis treinta años y nunca acosado a nadie. Como le dije a una persona, eso es algo estúpido, o sea como va a decir que está siendo acosada, no estoy haciendo nada. El hecho que sea lesbiana no significa que todas las mujeres me gusten. Pero, sinceramente, aquí tengo que andar siempre con Xiomara. Yo me baño con Xiomara porque es una señora de respeto. Entonces yo le digo a ella que “Yo me tengo que bañar contigo para no tener malos entendidos. “Hoy en la mañana, por ejemplo, allí en la mañana estaba la muchacha que dice que se siente acosada por mí. Mira, yo me estaba orinando, yo me estaba orinando porque no podía entrar al baño porque ella estaba en el baño. Es una frustración grande la verdad. Por eso, mejor no digo mi sexualidad.”

Text: To be honest, yes, in fact, I have to be careful with everything, because, I am going to be honest with you, here there is a person that told the officials that they were being harassed by me. And sincerely, I have been here for almost two years in this detention, and I have never been disrespectful. You respect me, I respect you. You give me your friendship, friendship it is. And the same in my country, I have never done a thing like that. I am thirty years old and I have never harassed anyone. Like I told someone, that is stupid, how is she going to say that she is being harassed, I am not doing anything. The fact that I am lesbian does not mean that I like all women. But, sincerely, here I have to always be with Xiomara. I shower with Xiomara because she is a respectful woman. So, I tell her, “I have to shower with you in order to not have misunderstandings.” Today in the morning for example, there in the morning there was the woman that says she feels harassed by me. Look, I was urinating myself, I was urinating myself because I could not enter the bathroom because she was in the bathroom. It is a big frustration to be honest. That is why, it is best to not say my sexuality.

 

Text: Do the women in the center suspect?

Text: “Si, sospechan porque ven mi cuerpo y todo, o sea sospechan.”

Text: Yes, they suspect because they see my body and everything, so they suspect.

 

Text: So because of your body, the way you speak, the way you do your work they suspect?) 

Text: “Exacto, si"

Text: Exactly, yes.

Audio: “Yo soy de las personas que me gusta hacer atenta, yo siempre he sido así. Si tú necesitas ayuda, yo te hecho la mano, yo te ayudo. Y a veces la gente mal entiende las cosas, piensan que lo hacen por tener algo, no, claro que no. Por eso prefiero estar sola, con la única que yo me llevo un poco es con Xiomara porque es una señora de respeto. Pero de ahí con nadie más.”

Text: I am one of those people that like to be attentive, I have always been like that. If you need help, I give you a hand, I will help you. And sometimes the people misunderstand things, they think that I do it to get something out of it, no, of course not. That is why i prefer to be alone, with the only person I am around with a bit is with Xiomara because she is a respectful woman. With no one else.

 

Text: So you are always with Xiomara and she helps you with going to the bathroom, or how?

Text:  “Si, vamos a bañarnos juntas para que así le digo, “Yo te tengo de testigo si pasa algo.” 

Text: Yes, we shower together so in that way, I tell her, “I have you as my witness if something happens.

 

Text: How are the bathrooms? Are there different showers?

Text: “Es uno solo (to shower), hay te desnudas en frente de todas. Yo me baño en una esquina y ella se baña en otra esquina.”

Text: It is just one shower, there you undress yourself in front of everyone. I shower in one corner and she showers in the other corner.

 

Text: Are you treated any differently by the guards because of your LGBTI identity? Do they expect anything different from you?

Audio: “Si cuando vine, hacerme preguntas, yo les decía que sí. A veces les decía que no y a veces que si porque no me ponían traductor. Entonces cuando una muchacha, una mexicana, me ayudo con la traducción, yo le dije que “si, si soy lesbiana.” Entonces pusieron en el papel. Y en la otra vez, como a los tres meses, me hicieron otra vez la pregunta, pero me pusieron otro traductor, yo dije que no. Me estoy cuidando. Ellos no saben (if she actually is lesbian). Incluso, cuando yo recién llegué aquí, yo no sabía nada, a mí me dijeron tres personas, me preguntaron si yo era lesbiana y yo me puse nerviosa. Y yo le dije que no y él me dijo “No, te preguntamos porque nosotros tenemos tres años de estar aquí.” Yo les dije, “la verdad si soy lesbiana.” Y ellos me dijeron, “Te recomendamos que no digas eres lesbiana porque si dices, si tú hablas que eres lesbiana, te van a mandar inmediatamente para tu país.” Yo me asuste. Entonces me puse a llorar y les dije “No, yo no puedo regresar a mi país.” Ellos me dijeron, “Te recomendamos que no digas nada.” Yo dije, “No voy a decir.” Entonces, yo me salve.” 

Text: Yes, when I came and they asked me, I would tell them yes. Sometimes I would say no and sometimes I would say yes because they would not give me a translator. When a Mexican woman helped me with the translation, I told them that “yes I am lesbian.” So, they wrote that down on paper. And the other time, I told them no. I am taking care of myself. They do not know (if she is actually lesbian). When I recently arrived here, I did not know anything, three people told me, they asked me if I was lesbian and I got nervous. And said no and he told me, “No, we are asking because we have been here for three years.” And I told them, “the truth is yes, I am lesbian.” And they told me, “We recommend that you do not say you are lesbian because if you say so, if you say you are lesbian, they will send you to your country immediately.” I got scared. So I cried and I told them, “No, i cannot return to my country.” They told me, “We recommend that you do not say anything.” I said, “I will not say.” So I saved myself. 

 

Text: And the guards treat you differently? How do they treat you for suspecting that you might be lesbian?

Text: “Pues mira, hay oficiales que me miran que soy como macho, bien fuerte, la verdad, me discriminan por eso.”

Text: Look, there are officials that look at me like I am macho, really strong, they discriminate me for that. 

 

Getting Involved

 

By talking to Professor Juffer and her students, Ingrid has gained a community and a group of people who truly care about what happens to her. In our class talks with her, she has told us how much this has helped her emotional well-being and encouraged her to share her story. Because detention centers are closed to visitors due to Covid-19, it is important to get involved in other ways. The Queer Detainee Empowerment Project has a penpal program to match people in detention centers to outside people. By volunteering with this program, you can help provide connection and emotional support to someone in detention, much like we have tried to do for Ingrid. To get involved, visit this link.

 

If you are a Cornell student and would like to get involved to help migrants in another way, joining Justice for Migrant Families is a great way to get involved, meet with other people who want to help people in detention, and even speak to people in detention themselves. Click here for more information on JFMF.

 

If you are a Cornell student and would like to learn more about or get involved with LGBTQ issues, you can join Haven, which is the LGBTQ+ student union at Cornell. This organization does education, outreach, and service and can be a great way to get involved if this is something that interests or affects you. To learn more, visit: https://www.havencornell.com/ 

 

Further Resources

Raising Awareness Through Social Media Activism

 

Social Media activism allows for the quick and effective spread of information between people from different parts of the world and from varying walks of life. While certain social media platforms are predominantly used by particular age groups or socio-economic groups, these sites work as a way of communication between people that would not otherwise interact. As the Covid-19 epidemic has proven, we have all become reliant on the internet for social interaction including school, work, happy-hours, and gym classes. Virtually is the only safe way to connect. While sitting on our couches, we have access to spreading awareness at our fingertips. Additionally, as shown by the Twitter hashtag #RefugeesWelcome, that was prevalent in 2015, social media allows for refugees to communicate their stories. Here, with the hashtag #FreeIngrid, we hope to make a similar difference and grant Ingrid the asylum she deserves.

 

We urge you to repost the following photos on your social media accounts to spread awareness for Ingrid and other detainees. While we agree with recent politics which emphasize that “social media is a means, not an end”, we also understand the importance of spreading awareness. Stories of detainees, in general, are already virtually inaccessible as detention centers are in isolated locations, making it difficult for lawyers, family members, and volunteers to visit the detainees. Here, we seek to share parts of Ingrid’s story, in her own words, to help her have the chance to make her narrative known. 

 

By Daniella Portnoy, Eliza Brewster, Sky Lingo, Nina Brinker, Vienna O’Brien, and Victoria Correa

*Audio prerecorded by Victoria Correa for better sound quality

Image by Elyssa Fahndrich