(Editor’s note: Ken Williams met the Rev. Judith K. Hanlon, pastor of Hadwen Park Church and a founding member of the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, at the Compass to Compassion consultation in New York. Hanlon, based in Worchester, Mass., shared this compelling story by Juan, as told at a church conference last year in San Diego. Juan’s story puts a human face on LGBT asylum issues. SDGLN is using an alias for the person who is telling his personal story to ensure his confidentiality and to protect family members who live in El Salvador.)
My name is Juan and I was born in 1976 in San Salvador, El Salvador. My life growing up was horrible. I was sexually, physically and verbally abused my entire life due to my sexual orientation.
My mother worked as a maid. She was raped by her employer. When she got pregnant, she had to leave her job and go live with her parents. For that reason, I do not believe that my mother ever loved me.
I finally met my father in 2005. Publically, in his presence, I was called a faggot by neighbor boys. He turned to me with disgust and asked, “Is this true?” I said yes, and he said, “I don’t want a f***ing faggot for a son. Pretend I never met you.”
That was the last time I saw my father.
Enduring endless abuse
My mother was an alcoholic and beat me constantly. She was embarrassed because the neighbor children called me a faggot.
She would beat me with her hands or with her belt. Sometimes she would hit me on the head or on the back. Sometimes she would grab pieces of wood to hit me on the legs with them.
Other times, she would tell me to take off my shoes and socks and make me stand out in the hot sun barefoot. She would tell me that she was going this so I would not walk and behave like a faggot. She told me to walk like a man. I was a child. The pain was unbearable.
Next to my grandparents’ home was my aunt’s home and her three sons. They physically abused me my entire growing up years. Their father told them that I was a faggot and that meant that they could torture me whenever they wanted to. I was so alone. I spent most of the time reading old newspapers.
My grandparents weren’t very tender to me, either. On several occasions my grandmother asked me why I behaved like a faggot. I never answered here because I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, just being myself.
Abandoned by his mother
My mother was so embarrassed and angry that finally, when I was 13, she just left. She left me and my two younger sisters to be raised by my grandparents. One day she was there and the next day she wasn’t. We didn’t hear from her for many years.
For money, I carried water because no one had running water in their homes. It was my grandmother’s business, but I did the work. The water source was about 10 minutes from my home.
A man named Jose from our neighborhood told me he would pay for my service, but the day that I went to deliver the first bucket he made me take it inside his house. He then pushed me against a wall holding a knife and raped me.
Remembering brings back terrible memories. (At this point in his speech in San Diego, Juan breaks down and cries, sits down for a moment to compose himself, before mustering up the courage to continue his story)
This man abused me sexually for the next three to four years. When I worked for my grandmother, he would be right behind me. The abuse was so much that I started to refuse my grandmother and she would beat me. I was terrified of leaving my home so I let her beat me. It stopped when the man moved away.
Bullied at school and university
When I started high school, I had to live through another nightmare. I was terrible at sports and the machista teacher had it in for me in physical education class. I flunked a test and shouted in front of the kids, “You f***ing faggot, you are useless.” The other students were brutal to me, too.
From high school I went to the university but I was terribly abused there. Students told me to leave because they didn’t want faggots there.
So I left the university and looked for work. I found a job at a bank. Things seemed better, I was earning money and I was determined to make something of myself.
But there was a security guard who would constantly make sexual comments to me like, “I am going to make you mine.” I never reported him; I didn’t want to lose my job.
One day, the security guard pushed me into a bathroom staff with a gun in his hand. Once again, I was raped. I remember the horror as he ran the gun up and down my face. I know that I couldn’t speak to my boss because I knew she was homophobic. Eventually I transferred and the torment stopped.
At the new bank branch, I met another gay man and it was through him that I met other gay people. We were all afraid of being mistreated and raped because we were gay. As sad as it was to hear their stories, I knew I wasn’t alone.
I met my first boyfriend, Ricky. Then he began to hit me. I ended my relationship with him. I really wanted to be loved by somebody but I didn’t want this kind of love. I realized if somebody loved me, they didn’t have to hit me.
I continued to go to gay bars. I also went back to school. Even though it was hard to work and study, in 2003 I graduated with my degree in business administration.
My life continued enduring verbal abuses, stares and always living in fear. In June 2009, I was able to buy a little home. I was so proud of this achievement as it is not easy, in my country, to buy a home.
The worst thing happens
Just when I thought I could finally survive, the worst event in my life happened. In September 2009, a friend and I headed to a gay club in a remote area around 11:30 pm. The police stopped us. There were three officers in the car.
That night, for no particular reason, I was tortured yet again. I can still remember that policeman as he beat and raped me, saying “be a man, you f***ing faggot, be a man!”
I was terribly beaten with his club and can still remember the pain. My body hurt all over. My face, my stomach and my anus hurt terribly. I can still hear the other policemen who were watching, laughing and jeering. The pain was like none other I had ever experienced.
I went to the hospital. I didn’t report to work for days. When I did go back to work, I quit my job. I was too terrified to step out of my house.
I finally decided that I would report what happened. I decided that someone had to stop this abuse and I would be brave and the first to report what happened. When I did, the police officer who took the report, laughed in my face.
I left shaken, but felt proud that I had tried to help change things in El Salvador. However, the very next day, the policeman who raped me came to my door. “Open up!” he said. “We already know who you are and we are going to kill you!”
I was told then by the only organization in El Salvador run by William Hernandez that helps gay people, that my only solution was to leave the country. So I did. I left behind my job, my home, my belongings, my studies. Two friends helped me get out.
Fleeing to America
I came to California and stayed with some relatives, but soon, after realizing that I was gay, they began to abuse me, too. They finally kicked me out, and I was homeless.
Finally, on the Internet, I found the website of the LGBT Asylum Support Task Force. I sent a desperate email for help. In the subject line it only said, AYUDA.
I had no consistent computer access and no phone. Pastor Judy Hanlon (a founding member of the task force, which is based in Worchester, Mass.) told me that she and Sean Martin tried to keep tabs on me and worried constantly that I had been killed when I didn’t answer emails. Then I would get to a computer and send them another email asking them for help.
Finding help in Riverside, Cal.
So, Pastor Judy found a United Church of Christ church in Riverside, Calif., and sent Pastor Jane Quad a cell phone to give me. She sent an email to me with the address of the church and the times that Rev. Jane could talk to me. I was finally able to talk to someone who spoke Spanish in the Lutheran Social Service office in Worchester. They helped me find NCLR in San Francisco where they help LGBT asylum seekers.
While I was homeless in Riverside, Pastor Judy used the Internet and found churches that are open to LGBT people to find a home for me in San Francisco. Friends of hers from San Francisco came to Riverside and picked me up because with my expired visa, I was afraid to even get on a bus. They drove through the night so that they wouldn’t miss work, picked me up and drove me back to San Francisco. Some were gay but some were straight. They were members of Alcoholics Anonymous and they always help people in need.
They dropped me off at the house of Kim and her partner, Susan. I have been living with them since February 2010. They are truly amazing people. They have helped me all this time and asked nothing in return. The task force sent me checks from Worchester for travel and food.
Given political asylum
I received political asylum the day before I met Pastor Judy in person in San Diego where we told this story to some people from the United Church of Christ at a national gathering. Both of us hugged and cried really loud in the Marriott hotel in San Diego. We danced around and screamed!
I know that I cannot go back to El Salvador. It would only be a matter of time before I would be killed. As a gay man, I cannot hide who I am and what I am.
Now, even though I am alone in this country, I feel a freedom that I never felt before. I can got out and meet other gays and I can be sure everything will be fine. I have a job. I am dating. Things are getting better. Now I can tell you: LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL.
How to help
LGBT Asylum Support Task Force, based in Worcester, Mass., provides financial and social support to LGBT persons seeking political asylum in the United States, while educating people about the treatment of LGBT persons worldwide in an effort to make it safe for all people. The task force welcomes charitable contributions for their life-saving work, which is resourced and/or supported in part by Lutheran Social Services, the E. Rhodes & Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and other sources. Financial gifts can be mailed to: Hadwen Park Church, LGBT Fund, 6 Clover St., Worcester, MA 01603. To contact the Rev. Judith K. Hanlon, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.