On the pink corridor - LGBTQI+ in Honduras
On the pink corridor - LGBTQI+ in Honduras
How trans women in Honduras are helping their sisters in prison. Frauke Decoodt reports from Tegucigalpa.
A trans sex worker takes to the streets of Tegucigalpa Credit: Frauke Decoodt
Brithany and Nicolle live in Honduras, one of the worst places to be trans women. At least 111 transgender people have been killed since 2009. They both spent time in a prison with about 7,000 male prisoners. When I listened to their stories of their lives in prison and on the outside, it was clear that there is always a possibility of violence.
Life on the streets
I first met Nicolle in 2018, not long after her release from prison, at the offices of Arcoiris. Arcoiris is an organization defending LGBTQI+ rights. Today, she looks different, with her hair in braids, in high heels and make-up. She now speaks in a whisper, because in November 2019 someone stabbed her in the throat. Other trans women I met at Arcoiris have since been killed, like Bessy in July 2019, or have run away, like Paola. Paola escaped to Europe in January 2020 after someone tried to kill her. They are killed or attacked for sex work or because they are activists talking about crimes against their community.
When I first met Nicolle, she said she would never do sex work but now it is necessary for her. ‘I hate it!’ she says. ‘Sometimes I earn almost nothing, but I need to pay rent and buy food.’ She made better money before going to prison when she sold drugs for a street gang. Gangs often force trans women to work for them. Nicolle soon got arrested for possession of marijuana. The police beat her for many hours when they were driving her around. Later they sent her to Tamara Prison for three years. She was 24 years old.
Nicolle is not an exception. Honduras is a conservative Christian country where many think machismo is a good thing. This explains the discrimination and violence against the LGBTQI+ community. Many trans people cannot find ‘normal’ work and their families reject them. Then crime and sex work are the only possibilities for many trans women, and prison is sometimes the next step. ‘There are so many things in this trans life that started with transphobia and homophobia,’ says Nicolle.
But it is not every trans person’s story. Brithany has the support of a loving family and chose sex work because she wanted to. ‘I tried it to see what it was like,’ she says. ‘I put an advertisement on the internet.’ She didn’t do much sex work but it changed her life. ‘This is why I went to prison. My underage neighbour also did some sex work. She asked me if I could help her with placing an advertisement. I did, and got 10 years in prison.’
Nicolle takes a break on the terrace of the Arcoiris office. Credit: Frauke Decoodt
Five years later, Brithany is 28 and out of prison on parole. She must return to prison at weekends.
We meet at Arcoiris. She looks like the girl next door, dressed plainly with little make-up. She is sure that she can get me inside the prison to see life on the LGBTQI+ corridor. The director has helped her before. Nicolle wants to come with me to bring some necessary things for the girls there. Brithany and Nicolle say how important visits from Arcoiris were for them when they were in prison. ‘It made us feel like somebody cared. It stopped it being boring,’ Nicolle says. Since her release from prison, she has only managed to go four times.
A few days later we stand in front of the prison gates with three bags full of things like toothpaste, toilet paper, soap, condoms, beans, and rice. The don’t pay for the terrible prison meals but ‘everything costs money inside,’ says Nicolle. ‘Many trans women don’t have families that visit them so they do sex work inside prison to make some money. They get paid less than on the streets.’ After the first three years in prison Brithany started doing some sex work. Nicolle chose a boyfriend and he helped her. ‘Many of us got HIV in prison,’ says Nicolle. ‘But you have to be really ill for them to take you to the health service.’ It is no surprise that the health service doesn’t give hormone treatments. ‘Somebody inside sells it to us,’ Brithany says.
Identity lost and found
It’s a long wait at the entrance gates with our bags full of things. Prison guards and armed military police look at Brithany and Nicolle. Nobody gets in because the director is in a meeting, maybe about what they will say the following day about stopping all visits due to Covid-19.
After two hours and a long security check, we get in. Both Nicolle and Brithany remember how they were terrified when they first came inside Tamara Prison. Nicolle started her prison term in December 2014, seven months before Brithany. They took them to the LGBTQI+ corridor with prisoners and guards shouting at them. The corridor is about 1.5 metres wide and 15 metres long, with small cells that sleep two in a bunk bed - this is something of a privilege in a prison with about 7,000 prisoners in a space intended for 1,700. During her time Brithany had the corridor painted pink, hung up a rainbow flag, and asked for a television. The pink corridor is in a block called La Isla (The Island) with corridors for prisoners with mental and physical disabilities, for very ill prisoners, and for ‘the gays’, the one name for all of the LGBTQI+ corridor.
On the girls’ first day in La Isla they cut off their hair. Other ways of losing their identity were that they could not wear women’s clothes on visiting days and they had to take showers alongside men. What was even worse for the girls is that the prisoners make these rules, and that another trans woman cut their hair. She was the LGTBQI+ corridor’s co-ordinator. ‘She enjoyed humiliating us,’ Nicolle remembers. ‘She once beat someone so badly, they moved her to a maximum security facility.’ Nicolle, and then Brithany, became the next co-ordinators.
Brithany and Nicolle on the way to Tamara Prison. Credit: Frauke Decoodt
Twenty against thousands
Guards do not go inside Honduran prisons very often. They leave prisoners to organise themselves. This means the gangs are in control. These gangs force all the co-ordinators to help them. They make sure the prisoners follow the many rules. Prisoners must respect the power of the co-ordinators; they check fights and riots. In 2019, 57 inmates died during prison riots in Honduras. LGBTQI+ prisoners feel very afraid. ‘During a riot anybody can come and kill you,’ Nicolle says. ‘Imagine the fear we feel all of the time, 20 of us against thousands of prisoners.’ When Nicolle was a co-ordinator, she told the prisoners of her corridor to keep quiet. ‘If one of us makes problems, all of us pay.’
This is why none of the women in the pink corridor make complaints about the prison to me. They talk in general about not much freedom, and not many resources or visits, and how they hope they will not make the same mistakes again. They say nothing about the discrimination and violence. Nicolle says, ‘In prison, no-one talks freely.’ One thing the girls often repeat seems important, ‘We’re all prisoners here. If we respect, we get respect.’
The lead co-ordinator took me on a tour of the prison and said, ‘If they behave, we look after them, and we punish those that abuse them.’ Fear, and living in an overcrowded prison, makes prisoners obey; making trouble for the LGBTQI+ prisoners would cause problems. This leaves trans women some freedom. ‘As co-ordinator, I was able to get them to let us grow our hair, wear more feminine clothes, and get hormone treatment,’ Nicolle says. But there were problems after Brithany left. The pink corridor had two cis-male co-ordinators and things were worse.
Effect of Covid-19
It’s three in the afternoon, time to go. Soon the guards will lock the buildings. We still have two hours on buses, back to the streets of Tegucigalpa. ‘It’s crazy to say, but outside we often feel more vulnerable,’ Nicolle says. ‘In prison the gangs control us but they also somehow support and protect us.’
Nicolle has no confidence in the State to protect LGBTQI+ prisoners. The State often discriminates and is violent against the LGBTQI+ community. Reporting abuses is useless and even dangerous in a country where 95 per cent of the murders of LGBTQI+ people are not solved. Covid-19 brings more problems. There are no visits but there was a big outbreak in Tamara. Many prisoners died, hundreds are infected but healthcare is not good.
‘I am very worried about the girls inside,’ says Nicolle. ‘It’s impossible to know how they are.’
But she is also worried about herself. Like so many others she could not go out to work since 16 March with Covid-19 . One trans woman tried to go out and she was killed. But Brithany is quite happy. She enjoys being with her family and making plans for the future. ‘I lost five years of my life in prison. I want to study, maybe start a beauty salon.’ Both women have one dream: starting a support network for trans persons in prisons. ‘I know what it feels like,’ says Brithany. ‘The need for love, family, and resources. I will support them.’
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(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)