The heartbreak, grief and anger is overwhelming. Fifty people murdered by someone who hated LGBT people more than he loved his own son. On Sunday morning in Orlando, Florida, young people, mostly Latinx (“Latinx” is a term that is meant to include the male, female and gender non-conforming; it is meant to eliminate the default male bias of “Latino,” which, grammatically was meant to serve the same purpose) were celebrating their lives at Pulse Orlando. It was LGBT pride and the sense of strength and love of the community was shredded by a maniac with a long history of violence toward women and gays and a passing relationship with radical Islamic fundamentalism. Fifty lives ended in terror.
This was not the random violence of Virginia Tech, Newtown, Boston, or Aurora. Rather, it is violence targeted specifically at LGBT people, on Latin night with trans performers headlining. The killer meant to send a message to LGBT people: you are not human, you deserve to die.
We have heard this story so many times. We have an active asylum practice at Benach Collopy. Many of these clients are LGBT people from around the world. We had so many of these cases and such a demand that we created a position for a law student to work with us and Whitman Walker Health to prepare, file, monitor and win asylum claims for transgender people. Most of the clients are from Central America and tell stories of physical and sexual abuse from their childhood, violence and humiliation from families, schools, and the police and of dead lovers and friends. We tell that that you are safe here; you can be yourselves here and our laws and our people will protect you.
Recently, I had the opportunity to hear from Mauro Montoya, the first legal director at Whitman Walker Health. His position was created to respond to the HIV crisis. Gay men needed legal help to write wills, to get health care, to defend themselves from losing their jobs and their health care due to illness. When Mauro discussed what he remembered most from those days in the 1980s, he said “I never got used to all my clients dying.” Afterwards, the BC family reflected on Mauro’s experience. The nature of the legal program at Whitman Walker has changed. It is more immigrant heavy and now has a happy ending. We win asylum for people. We win them protection from persecution in their home countries. Unlike Mauro, we see a rebirth and not the death of our clients. We see people grow their wings and be who they were supposed to be. All weekend I saw photos of clients and former clients celebrating Pride in DC. And for all the stories of heartbreak and violence abroad and in ICE detention, it is a great way to practice law.
But after Orlando, I worry about what the future holds for them in America. Will they be celebrating life only to be gunned down by a loser in a death cult? Will they struggle and suffer to achieve freedom and self-expression only to be cut down for being who they are? What good is asylum if the assassin’s bullet is shot in Tegucigalpa, San Salvador or Orlando?
I don’t have any answers right now. We will continue to work on these cases and fight for our clients’ rights to live in peace and freedom, while at the same time doing all we can to make sure that that peace and freedom is found here in America.