Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 3.5.2009


Safe for Now
Gay Ecuadorean flees from persecution
Story & Photo By Deanna Uutela

When President Barack Obama stepped into office on January 20, he brought with him a lot of promises: promises of more jobs, an improved educational system and health care for every American. But it is Obama’s promise to fight for civil rights in America and abroad that has the entire world watching. 

For Luis Fernando Mancheno of Ecuador, the America that Obama envisions is a place he’d risk a lot for — if it meant he could live safely as an out gay man.

Mancheno, 23, is an exchange student at Willamette University in Salem. A mix of intelligence and wonder has earned him a slew of friends and admirers who are charmed by his eagerness to experience everything Oregon has to offer, not to mention his obsession with the Harry Potter novels. But this good-natured young man at the top of his class has dealt with so much pain and oppression in his life.

“I am afraid of being subjected to torture in my home country. My family and authorities have threatened my physical and psychological integrity and even my life,” Mancheno says. “I want to live in the U.S. because it is a community that is founded on individualism, and I am able to live an openly gay life here.”

Despite the fact that many states and countries in Africa, Europe, North America and South America include sexual orientation as a protected category in their constitutions, homophobia is still prevalent worldwide. Mancheno was born and raised in Quito, Ecuador, and says he has suffered extreme physical and mental abuse from his family, some community members, religious leaders and even officers of the law because of his sexual orientation.

“One night I was in the park with my boyfriend, and a police officer came up to us and threatened to take us to jail. He told me that what we were doing was wrong, and that basically he was going to lie and say we were performing sexual acts, which in Ecuador means two years in prison. I ended up having to bribe him with money in order to keep him from taking us to jail and calling my parents,” Mancheno says.

What happened to Mancheno that day in the park is not an isolated case. According to the 2007 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, while the Ecuadorian government generally respected the human rights of its citizens, violence against women, indigenous people, Afro-Ecuadorians and homosexuals continued to be a problem. The report states that police officers often subjected gays and lesbians, transsexuals and transvestites to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and routinely arrested gay men and transvestites in public areas.

“We continue to see alarming rates of violence, discrimination and stigma towards LGBT people throughout the world, even in some countries where the government appears to have taken steps to safeguard the basic rights of LGBT people, such as Ecuador, which includes an anti-discrimination clause in its constitution,” says Victoria Neilson, the legal director for Immigration Equality in New York. “This does not mean that what happens in real life has changed. We still hear from people every day who have been abused or threatened by the police force which is supposed to protect them.”

Mancheno can’t imagine going back to a life of fear and confinement, so he’s seeking asylum in the U.S. If he’s approved for asylum, he will get a work permit that is good for one year. After one year, he can apply for a green card, which will give him residence status, and after five years of being a resident he will have the opportunity to become a citizen. He will not be allowed to return to Ecuador for at least six years. 

He says that the reality of not being able to see his two little sisters and grandparents, who have always supported him, makes his decision to apply for amnesty the most difficult choice he has ever had to make.

“Not seeing my family for so long is the part that really breaks my heart,” Mancheno says. “It is especially hard not seeing my sisters and grandparents. My grandparents are getting old, and I think about how horrible it would be if they passed away and I wasn’t even there to share the last years of their life.”

Though he is close to his grandparents and siblings, Mancheno has had a tumultuous relationship with his parents. He grew up in a conservative Christian household. As kids, he and his siblings had to attend church every Sunday and Wednesday. He remembers being attracted to other guys at church and the extreme guilt he felt over this.

“I remember one night in one of our youth group meetings we were talking about polygamy and sexual disorders. The pastor started making fun of a gay couple that came into church looking for spiritual advice,” he says. “The pastor said, ‘I was not going to let them come in the temple. They are filthy.’ That night I felt dirty for having thoughts about other boys and I remember crying all night long, and I thought there was something really wrong with me.”

When he got older his feelings towards the same sex did not go away, and he had to keep all of his relationships secret. When he finally did come out to his parents, he had no clue how much worse his life would become. He suffered physical and mental abuse at home for months, and then his father decided that the only way to save his son was to force him to undergo “treatment” by a pastor and a licensed psychologist.

The goal of the treatment was to make Mancheno become sexually attracted to women and to torture the gay out of him, he says. He was forced to watch pornography, and in what he calls one of the most traumatic moments of his life, the pastor tried to coerce him into having sex with a prostitute.

The Ecuadorian newspaper El Universo recently exposed a network of 140 rehab centers in Ecuador that promise to cure homosexuality. In the article entitled “Prayer and seclusion to ‘cure’ gays,” reporters Maria Alejandra Torres and Marjorie Ortiz interviewed a 22-year-old transgendered woman named Chiqui. 

She told the paper, “My father paid $1,000 to have me locked up in a clinic because he wanted me to change. Four men practically kidnapped me on the street. They locked myself and three other homosexuals in a room so small that we could only stand. When I tried to escape, they hit me until they broke my nose. They’d ask if I was a man or a woman, they’d take our pants down, they’d throw water between our legs and would put live cables to shock us with electricity.”

Most of the clinics deny any wrongdoing, but others are up front about their desire to change gay men and lesbians. Evangelical leader Balerico Estacio told the reporters, “Their bodies are invaded by demons. The natural self does not understand them, even if it’s psychological. Nothing can be done for them if it’s not from God’s spirit.”

Victoria Neilson believes that in many countries around the world the LGBT rights movement is literally decades behind where it is in the U.S., and she thinks that religion plays a big part in this.

“It does often seem that the more religion is entwined with government, the more likely that homophobia will exist, whether the country is fundamentalist Muslim or conservative Catholic. There are exceptions, though, like Catholic Spain, who is a real leader on LGBT rights, and secular Cuba, who has a very bad record,” says Neilson.

Rebecca Flynn, the regional director for Basic Rights Oregon in Eugene, says that the bad things done to LGBT people in other countries do not represent how the Latin American community as a whole thinks or feels.

“The Latino community here in Eugene and the surrounding areas have always been so supportive of the LGBT community. They understand that it is important for marginal communities to work together,” Flynn says.

Mancheno filed for asylum last month, and he also met with the asylum officer who will decide his case. Since 1994, U.S. immigration law has recognized persecution on account of sexual orientation as grounds for asylum. Transgender individuals and HIV-positive individuals have also won asylum cases. An asylum seeker must prove that he or she has suffered past persecution and/or has a well-founded fear of future persecution, which means harm has to have been inflicted either directly by the government or by other individuals whom the government can not or will not control.

According to Calla Devlin, director of communications at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), Mancheno is not unique in his fight to gain asylum. The NCLR won asylum for 10 people last year. Their clients come from countries all over the world. Currently, NCLR has pending cases for gay men from Pakistan and Egypt, and asylum was recently granted for a transgendered Guatemalan woman and a lesbian from Mexico.

But not every case the NCLR takes has a happy ending. A gay man from Zimbabwe was denied asylum for the second time a while back. The Zimbabwe man, known as W.K., was imprisoned as a teenager for being gay and suffered harassment and abuse from local authorities and neighbors, including being shot with an electric wire. Robert Mugabe, the current president of Zimbabwe, is one of the most notoriously anti-gay leaders in the world. He has called lesbians and gay men “worse than dogs and pigs” and promised that he will do “everything he can” to eliminate them from Zimbabwean society. An immigration judge denied W.K.’s petition for asylum and ordered him removed to Zimbabwe on March 23, 2006.

LGBT asylum trends in the United States are closely linked with the domestic political, social and legal climate surrounding gays and lesbians, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. So where the U.S. is in terms of LGBT rights at the time makes a big difference to whether or not the asylum case is approved, which basically translates to: The U.S. president plays a large part in whether these types of cases are approved.

Mancheno’s lawyer Gwynne Skinner thinks he has a strong case. “He has suffered persecution from his family and the police, and cases similar to his have been approved in the past,” says Skinner, who is an assistant professor of clinical law at Willamette University.

Mancheno should find out in a couple of months whether his request for asylum has been approved. Until that time, he is trying to put all of his energy and focus into school and enjoy the time he has in Oregon. He has taken a trip to the Oregon Coast, the desert in Eastern Oregon and Crater Lake, and for the first ever he got to experience snow and the phenomenon that we call the Eugene Celebration. He loves Oregon and says he would be lucky to call this state his home, but a piece of him will forever be linked to the rich culture, generous people and exotic landscapes in Ecuador.

“I just wish that more people in my home country, especially religious leaders, and all over the world would stop thinking that people who are gay are going to hell or are bad people,” Mancheno says. “Legislation can change because it is fashionable to be more progressive, but it will still take a couple of decades for people to understand that ‘all men/women are born equal,’” he adds.

“If I get asylum, I will be glad to call Obama my president, but I still feel that we can’t always rely on our president to implement change. It is up to community members to make big changes with small steps.”