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As Latin Nations Treat Gays Better, Asylum Is Elusive

As the gay rights movement progresses in Latin American countries, homosexual Mexicans struggle to prove asylum in the United States is warranted.

It was not until the 1990s that sexual orientation was even considered a reason for political asylum. But in 1994, then-Attorney General Janet Reno issued an order allowing homosexuals to gain asylum if they could demonstrate that they faced persecution because of their sexual orientation. Many of the early applicants came from Latin America, with its conservative, strongly Catholic, macho culture. They were men such as Fernando Legy, an unemployed 26-year-old seeking asylum in San Diego.

While growing up in the state of Mexicali, Legy said he was raped by male friends of a brother-in-law. By the time he was a teenager, Legy and his boyfriend were often arrested by police who demanded money or insisted they perform sex acts on men in the jail, he said.

"It was like a show to them," he said. When an employer gave him a random blood test and discovered he had HIV, Legy lost his job. At one point, he was so depressed that he tried to drink a mix of toxic chemicals. But the bitter brew burned his mouth.

"I kind of hide here in the United States because the men who raped me have made threats," he said, noting that two are involved in drug trafficking. "I'm afraid to go back."

Between 1995 and 2006, about 1,200 Mexicans were killed because of their sexual orientation, according to estimates by the Mexican gay rights group Letra S. Two years ago, after Mexico City enacted same-sex civil union laws, many -- including U.S. immigration and asylum officials -- expected life to improve for Mexico's gay community, said Alejandro Brito, editor of the Letra S magazine.

"Instead, this has provoked aggressions by some in the society and especially some police," he said. "It would be a terrible shame to close this door to asylum."

Stigma and a lack of education have complicated prevention efforts, health workers say. At the private Mexico City hospital where Martin Martinez Sanchez works, patients and employees are routinely screened for HIV without their permission, he said.

"If they test positive, they are not admitted," said Martinez, who has not told his employer that he is gay. A friend was fired because he contracted HIV.

Discrimination, or in many cases low self-esteem, leads many gay Mexicans to take health risks.

"They have sexual encounters in clandestine areas, and in parts of the city that are just horrible and dangerous," he said. "Later they go home and have unprotected sex with their wives. Many gays feel they have to have a wife for appearances."

Said Saavedra: "They can be fired from their job. It is not right, but we know it happens."

That is what happened to Alejandro Torres.

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