After a gang member held him at gunpoint inside his home, the 24-year-old gay man knew he had to flee El Salvador to survive. He had been beaten and harassed repeatedly on the streets by gang members. Eventually, they warned, they would kill him.
It took two attempts to get across the U.S.-Mexican border, but in 2006, he was smuggled into Arizona and made his way to Washington, where his brother lived.
“Finally, I can have my real life, exactly how I am,” he thought.
Valerie Villalta, now 30, found that new life as a transgender woman and, in the process, won a kind of protection she didn’t even know was possible for someone like her: asylum.
Asylum, which allows an immigrant to live and work in the country legally, is more commonly associated with immigrants who have been persecuted in their home countries — or who might be in the future — because of their politics, race, religion or ethnicity. But Villalta learned that it also can apply to gay and transgender immigrants who have been tortured because of their sexuality.
Since winning her asylum case in 2009 with the help of the Whitman-Walker Health clinic in the District, Villalta has dedicated much of her life to providing guidance to gay and transgender Latino immigrants who find themselves in a foreign land with little or no knowledge of the language, the culture or the services that can help them find peace with who they really are.
She volunteers with a health education program for gay and transgender youths called Empoderate, or “Empower yourself” — the same program that helped her find her way. The youth center is just a few blocks from its umbrella organization, La Clinica del Pueblo, a bilingual community health center in Columbia Heights.
“When you try to help other people, you feel good,” Villalta said recently, sitting in the center’s coral pink Girls Meeting Room. A drawing of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon hangs above her head. “Soy mujer trans (I’m a transgender woman),” it says.
In many ways, Villalta is that butterfly.
At least twice a week when Villalta was growing up, the boy’s father and brothers beat him with a belt or branch for looking effeminate and playing with dolls. Before the age of 12, Villalta was raped by older neighborhood boys, she said.
The abuse continued, and after high school, Villalta left the family’s small home town for San Salvador, the nation’s capital. The young man let his hair grow and began wearing makeup and women’s clothes. Villalta also enrolled in a two-year culinary arts program.
But the school was in a notoriously dangerous area ruled by members of the gang MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha. During an asylum hearing, Villalta recalled carrying a cooking knife for self-defense as gang members shouted gay slurs and robbed, beat and threatened to kill Villalta.
There was good reason to be fearful. An openly gay co-worker was fatally shot by gang members, and a friend who was a transgender prostitute was killed by gangs.
Villalta arrived in Washington unable to speak English and without legal documents to work. And Villalta was kicked out of a brother’s apartment for being gay.
A friend from the street introduced Villalta to La Clinica del Pueblo, the District’s largest Latino-focused HIV/AIDS services provider. There, Villalta found a safe space to become the woman she believes she was meant to be. Villalta legally changed her name last year.
In 2009, the staff at Empoderate referred Villalta to Whitman-Walker Health to obtain prescription drugs to begin the physical transition to womanhood. There, Villalta also learned that she might be eligible to apply for asylum.
Like Villalta, many immigrants who have suffered because of their sexual orientation don’t know that asylum is an option, said Anna Priddy, a staff attorney at the clinic.
More than 60 transgender people have been counseled about asylum issues at the health center in the past four years. Many of the immigrants are afraid to open up about their sexuality when they arrive, which can make obtaining legal status more challenging, Priddy said.
Typically, asylum applications have to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security within a year of entering the United States. But most of Priddy’s clients have had to seek an exception.
A dozen of the cases, including Villalta’s, have been successful, making them eligible to apply for permanent residency and U.S. citizenship, Priddy said.
Villalta has become an admired leader among young transgender and gay Latinos in the city, said Empoderate’s youth program manager, Manuel Ramirez.
“Transitioning requires a lot of courage,” Ramirez said. “It’s easier to please society.” In many Central and South American countries, there is a strong “machismo” culture and clearly defined male and female roles, he said.
Almost every multicolored wall of the youth center is decorated with photos of Villalta, a striking, model-like figure. She is shown dressed in costumes made of condoms for an HIV/AIDS awareness event and wearing a sparkling crown after being elected “Miss Empowerment” by her peers in 2009.
She gets calls in the middle of the night from young people seeking consolation after finding out that they’re HIV positive, and she takes the lead in demonstrating how to safely inject hormones during workshops at the center.
Villalta also has helped connect the Latino immigrants at the center to Washington’s broader transgender community, a tightknit group that has mobilized in recent months to draw attention to violence against transgender women. Since the summer, at least 20 transgender women have been attacked in the District, said Jason Terry, a volunteer from the DC Trans Coalition, a grass-roots community organization.
In a memo released Dec. 6, President Obama denounced violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people around the world. He commanded U.S. government agencies to step up efforts to protect victims of such violence, particularly those seeking asylum.
These days, Villalta works as a chef at the renowned French-American fusion restaurant Central Michel Richard, on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where she can be found dishing up carefully prepared hanger steaks, walnut-crusted salmon and more.
“I feel happy when people say, ‘Oh, my goodness, that was so delicious,’ ” Villalta said.
The bedroom she sublets near Howard University is adorned with pictures of her boyfriend of three years and the Barbies she wasn’t allowed to have when she was a boy. There are rows of carefully aligned Mary Kay cosmetics and two miniature American flags. The only indication of her previous life is an 81 / 2-by-11 photo of Villalta as a 24-year-old gay man in 2006, a month before leaving El Salvador.
“It’s very important to me to have something to show how much I change, how I was then and how I am now,” she said.