In the early hours of a humid morning in March 2017, Alexandra Acevedo made her way to the railroad tracks that skirt the edge of Tenosique, a border town in the southern Mexican state of Tabasco. The sun wouldn’t come up for a few more hours, but the gravel path was already crowded with immigrants. Most of them were from Honduras like her, and all of them were trying to board the cargo train known as La Bestia, or The Beast, which they hoped to ride to the US border.
While Alexandra waited at the station, three masked men emerged from the darkness and dragged her to a hidden corner behind the platform, where they robbed, beat, and raped her. It was the worst attack she’d suffered in the months since leaving Honduras, but certainly not the first. When the assault ended, she gathered herself, and limped up the slope to a migrant shelter called La 72. Founded by Franciscan monks in 2011, La 72 was the first shelter in Mexico to open a dormitory exclusively for LGBTQ migrants like Alexandra; it was also the place where, as Alexandra tells it now, her new life as an openly trans woman began.
I first met Alexandra, whose name I’ve changed so as not to affect her current legal status as an asylum applicant, about two months later on a stifling afternoon in May. She sat straight in a plastic chair, ankles crossed, on a narrow balcony looking out over the cluster of brightly painted houses and palm-thatch umbrellas that constitute La 72. Enclosed by low walls in an open field studded with mango trees, the shelter feels very much like the oasis that it is (in the LGBTQ dormitory, populated by young men and women living freely for the first time, it can also feel, rather disconcertingly, like summer camp). Alexandra’s posture was upright, almost prim, her makeup carefully, but inexpertly, applied. “I’ve survived so many things, so many injuries, nearly dying. But even though I’m trans, God never allowed me to feel far from him,” she told me, dabbing beads of sweat from her brow and upper lip. “Here I’m a happy person,” she said, mustering a smile. “I’m protected.”
For people like Alexandra, protection does not exist back home. Driven from their families by long-standing prejudices made stronger by the waxing power of the evangelical church, queer Hondurans are systematically refused access to work and housing, leaving them exposed to extortion, assault, and forced recruitment by the gangs that have all but controlled the country for the better part of a decade. According to Cattrachas, an organization that gathers what are widely considered the country’s most comprehensive data on violent crimes against the LGBTQ community, 34 queer people were killed in Honduras in 2017. Only nine of those crimes came to court. Fewer still yielded convictions. Honduras is arguably the most dangerous country on earth to be queer.
Alexandra grew up in the small city of Santa Bárbara in western Honduras, not far from the notoriously violent regional capital of San Pedro Sula. She first came out to her family—as gay, not trans—at the age of 12. That was 2009, the same year as the military coup that sent crime soaring. “My mother, come what may, she accepted me, but my father, he threatened to kill me with a machete when he found out,” she told me. Though a friend took her in, Alexandra still faced threats from neighbors and gang members, called mareros, throughout her adolescence. Whenever she passed her father on the street—which was often; Santa Barbara has a population of only about 40,000—he would verbally abuse her, spit on her, and sometimes even publicly beat her.