For one trans asylum seeker in Maine, Pride month is a time of reflection
In his lawyer's office in downtown Portland, a man named Caleb pulled up a chair to a plain conference room table.
Caleb is not his real name. He asked that we use a pseudonym to protect his identity as his asylum claim is ongoing.
Caleb is 40 years old and has lived in Maine for the last several years. But he said the struggles that forced him to flee his home country began many years ago as a child growing up in in rural Honduras.
Speaking Spanish through an interpreter, Caleb said he was assigned female at birth, but always knew that he was a boy.
"So when I was younger, my family will pressure me," he said. "Saying, 'You are a girl, you're supposed to play with girl toys, you're supposed to like dolls and all those things, you are a girl.' Because of all these things as I was growing up, I learned that I should just hide, if you will."
In the late 1990s, after finishing high school, Caleb said he moved to a larger city and eventually started dating a woman. But they had to keep their relationship a secret, even as they were raising children together.
Caleb said he feared becoming a target of anti-LGBTQ violence. To protect his young son when the two of them were out in public together, Caleb came up with a safety plan disguised as a game.
"I will tell him, 'Look, if somebody were to stop me, what you have to do is just run and hide,'" he said. "That is the game."
One day, about four years ago, Caleb said he was walking down the street when a man he recognized as a prominent gang member — carrying a military style gun — pushed past him. Caleb stumbled and fell to the ground, and said the man told him to get out of town.
"And so that's what he told me, 'If you don't go away, I'm going to kill you,'" he said.
A couple weeks later, Caleb said he was so afraid that he or his children would be targeted by the gang that he boarded a bus for Guatemala, beginning the roughly 2,000-mile trek to the U.S. southern border. Caleb said the most difficult part was saying goodbye to his kids, but that by leaving, he hoped to protect them from the violence that had been directed at him.
It's a fear that drives many in the LGBTQ communities of Central America to flee.
"That's probably the most acute problem, the most immediate reason why people leave," said Cristian González Cabrera, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. He said the desire to leave is a near universal theme across the roughly 150 interviews he has conducted with LGBTQ people in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
"Mainly because, you know, they don't see a future for themselves in these countries, the violence and the discrimination is just too much to bear," he said.
Cabrera said while anti-LGBTQ discrimination and violence is not unique to Central America, the people he has interviewed all say the risk calculation is clear.
"There's violence in the U.S. as well," Cabrera said. "But to them, you know, that violence is nothing compared to what where they're coming from."
That was the calculation that Caleb made in leaving Honduras. But the journey to the U.S. was fraught with peril.
Without any money, he said he hopped freight trains through Mexico, going days without food.
At one point, in northern Mexico, he said the group he was traveling with was kidnapped by a cartel and held for ransom.
After crossing into the U.S., he was placed in an immigration detention facility in Arizona for nearly three months.
Eventually, he made his way to Maine, where he said he has finally been able to begin rebuilding his life — finding community, receiving legal support and getting hormone therapy to continue his transition.
"The truth is, as soon as I moved here, I began to live the life I wanted to live ever since I was a boy," he said.
But there are no guarantees. If his asylum case is rejected, he could face deportation, and he’s keeping a wary eye on the wave of state-level laws restricting the rights of transgender people across the country.
Still, he said since arriving in Maine he has been able to do things he'd never dreamed of before, such as marching in his first Pride parade.
"I felt like when you fall in love, you feel butterflies in your stomach. That's how I felt. And that gave me such adrenaline. Something that I had never felt before," he said.
He said he marched carrying two flags: the Honduran national banner, and the trans flag.
"And that to me is Pride," he said. "I was a survivor. And I can't lift the flag where I come from in Honduras. So I can do it here. And I can do both, I can lift both flags."
He said he wants to lift those flags for the LGBTQ community still fighting to survive in Honduras. And, as he builds a new life in Maine, hopes to one day be able to hug the family he left behind.
Language interpretation service for this story was provided by Aquiles Avalos, with House of Languages.