When Rosember López Samayoa was diagnosed with HIV in 1995, he traveled the costly distance to Mexico City to receive affordable treatment. He then returned to this lackluster border city that hugs Guatemala and shut himself inside his house, ashamed to reveal the death prophecy a doctor had delivered.
But after 11 months Mr. López emerged – still alive, and with a commitment to help people in his hometown who could be vulnerable to HIV, or who, like him, are unable to access good and inexpensive local medical care.
The former accountant founded a nonprofit organization, Una Mano Amigo en la Lucha Contra /SIDA, or A Hand Friend in the Fight Against AIDS, in 2000. He began to recruit participants for sexual health and rights workshops.
Over the past 13 years, though, as Una Mano Amigo has expanded its reach across the southern portion of the Mexican state of Chiapas, the population the organization serves has also shifted.
Tapachula has always served as a migration hub, as Central American migrants cross the Guatemala border with ease into Mexico, the largest migration transit frontier in the world, according to the International Organization of Migration. But the population arriving now looks different.
“Before what was more visible was the contrast between straight men and women, and we would see more straight men arriving,” López says as he drives around Tapachula’s rain-slicked downtown one recent afternoon. He has spent the day leading a workshop nearby with a group of 14 sex workers, mostly single mothers who send money home to their children in Guatemala.
“Now what we’re seeing is a migration of people who are gay and trans[gender]. They come to us because they have HIV, and in their countries they couldn’t access the health care so they had to leave, but more than anything they are leaving because of violence.”
López remains the only one in Tapachula, and along southern Mexico – backed by his team of eight at Una Mano Amigo – that is specifically addressing the acute risks that migrants who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) face as they pass through or try to stay in Mexico.
They provide LGBT migrants with information about applying for refugee status in Mexico, and advocate for their rights in migration shelters and migration detention centers.
“They are the only ones doing it, and more importantly, they do it well,” said Rafael Zavala, the head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in Tapachula. “Rosember has gained acceptance among people in the local government here, who are listening to him.”
More than 700 murders of gay and transgender people across the country were documented from 1995 through 2009 by leading civil society watchdog organizations in Mexico. Assassinations of male and transgender sex workers are common in Tapachula, López says, though they are frequently reported as crimes of passion in the local media.
“It’s more difficult for this population. There is violence against migrants, and there is violence against LGBT people, so this population experiences double the discrimination,” Mr. Zavala explains.
Locating people who dually identify as LGBT and as migrants can be tricky for López and his team. On one July evening, his co-worker Gonzalo Ernesto Cue Rasgado, accompanied by a visitor, cut through the city’s turning streets and popped into brightly lit, tucked away bars.
Everyone said they were from Tapachula, even one slight and young-looking bartender, who Cue remarked had a curious accent, as though from another country.
The open office of Una Mano Amigo offers a space for transgender, female, and male sex workers, including migrants, who stop by regularly for afternoon educational workshops.
López has also established the organization as a rare source of employment for people living with HIV.
“In the physical, spiritual, and psychological sense, what he has done is really just create a safe place for people to express themselves,” says Mr. Cue, a coordinator with the organization who works with male sex workers.
López is also trying to impart these ideas to outside facilities, working with state-run detention centers to consider the particular needs of LGBT migrants, as well as networking with church-run migration shelters, which are often at a loss with how to register and house someone who identifies as transgender.
It’s an ongoing challenge, López explains. In 2012, for five months, he personally covered all the operating costs.
“There is still a lot of taboo and discrimination here if you are gay or trans, and so the institutions of government don’t touch these issues – in schools, in the detention centers – they don’t know what it means,” López says.
“We’re working to change this. But the issue of sexual diversity in Chiapas is very new, and this takes time.”