Shelters in Two Cities: an Activist’s Story

I learned how it feels to be able to walk in the streets and not feel fear.

At the age of 16, Raúl Caporal had to escape from his home because his family wanted to send him to conversion therapy in order to make him straight. Now, Raúl is the president of a shelter for LGBTQ+ people in Mexico City and changes the lives of those who, like him, have to flee their home or country because they are queer.

Now that with June, pride month has started, LGBTQ+ people get more visibility again. In the Netherlands there are a lot of organisations and events supporting LGBTQ+ issues but in other countries this is often not self-evident. Mexico is one of these countries, their laws concerning queer people seem more liberal than they are in reality. Raúl gives us more insight into his personal experiences as a mexican LGBTQ+ activist.

Raúl sitting at the canals in Utrecht

Raúl Caporal is a 31 year old from Mexico who identifies as queer. He shares his story while sitting by a canal in Utrecht. While he is talking, he frequently expresses gratitude for the Dutch spring that is finally letting the sun warmly reflect on the water.

Raúl arrived in Utrecht in March as part of the Shelter City program, an initiative that offers safe spaces for human rights activists from all over the world to recharge and learn useful tools for their activism work. 

Raúl, speaking a mixture of Spanish and English, explains how refreshing his stay in the Netherlands has felt. While pointing at the rainbow zebra crossing near Utrecht Centraal, he confesses that he was never able in his life to walk freely in a city, without fearing for his life, until he arrived here. In fact, the main reasons why he had to leave Mexico for a couple of months were the constant death threats he was receiving and their impacts on his mental health. 

In addition to that, less than a year ago, strangers broke into his apartment in Mexico City, supposedly to intimidate him to stop his work for LGBTQ+ people. Luckily, he was not at home at the time of the incident. He recalls feeling fear after the break in, but also a mixture of courage and anger which, instead of slowing him down, empowered him to continue his work.

Raúl became aware of the challenges of simply existing as a LGBTQ+ person in Mexico from a very young age. He had to escape his home at the age of 16 because, after coming out to his family as queer, he was overwhelmed by fear as his own parents wanted to bring him to conversion therapy. 

Conversion therapy is a dangerous practice aimed at changing the sexuality or gender of LGBTQ+ people through psychological and physical interventions. Raúl explains that this practice does not lead to a change in sexuality or gender identity. Instead, it solely provokes trauma and irreversible physical and psychological consequences which are extremely damaging for LGBTQ+ youth. Conversion therapy is still legal in some Mexican states and, even when it’s illegal, the law is of punitive kind, meaning that the only possible consequence is sending the violators to jail. Most LGBTQ+ people do not report their families when they choose to bring their kids to conversion therapy because it’s hard to send your own parents to jail. 

“Well, I left my home at 16 years old because I was rejected there. It took many years to get where I am today, when I can say that I have a good relationship with my family. But this was only accomplished after I achieved my own independence. There is something very important that I need to address: there is such a thing as robbed teenage years or robbed childhood. I call it like this because there is a lot of LGBT or queer youth, like me, who had to learn to grow up very rapidly after having to leave our homes at a very young age. This has been very tough and it made me face many risky situations and a lot of violence.”

Raúl found himself in a similar situation and, when his parents decided that he would have to go through conversion therapy, he ran away from home. When thinking about this part of his life, Raúl looks very serious and states that he feels robbed of his youth. Once he left home, he had to learn to grow very fast and had to become independent prematurely. He explains that it took him 10 years before he was able to talk to his parents again, only once he was able to completely achieve his autonomy and independence. Raúl’s family now recognises all of him, including his sexuality. 

In the 10 years before he was able to reconnect with his family, Raúl worked in a lot of different fields and, at the same time, started to build his own safety network. At the age of 21 years old he finally encountered some organisations which brought him closer to the world of activism.

Raúl has two tattoos on his arm relating directly to his activism work and Casa Frida. He got the tattoo “I am because we are” in 2018, when he did not feel alone anymore. The second tattoo is the logo of the Refugio Casa Frida that he drew together with two other activists in 2021.

The Refugio Casa Frida was founded in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is named after a friend of Raúl. Frida was a trans woman and human rights activist who died in 2020 not only because she had cancer but also because she lived in extreme poverty. When the pandemic started, Raúl collaborated with human rights organisations to open a shelter. They already wanted to open a space for LGBTQ+ people before the pandemic, but when it started they knew that the covid crisis would affect those vulnerable groups even more than others. Raúl explains that he is sad and frustrated about Frida’s death but that it also empowered him to do more to help LGBTQ+ people especially youth, refugees and poor people to honour his friend.

The shelter welcomes LGBTQ+ refugees, sexual workers who are being exploited and HIV+ people and offers security, protection, support for mental and physical health and legal assistance. Casa Frida also works closely with the guest’s families. They primarily try to reconcile guests and their families and to debunk conservative myths around LGBTQ+ people.

Around 45% of guests of Casa Frida are LGBTQ+ refugees from South America who went to Mexico to survive but discover that their rights are not respected there either. Often the guests have to be taken to the hospital as soon as they arrive due to physical or mental health issues. Some of them even died before getting to the hospital. 

The shelter is in the Iztapalapa neighbourhood in Mexico City, an historically discriminated area because of the amount of poor people that live there. It is the only shelter with the objective of social and economic reintegration.

The shelter can host 22 people at a time and they usually stay for about three months. 80% of the guests go back to society safely afterwards. So far, Casa Frida has hosted 340 people, mostly 18-20 year olds that were kicked out of their homes by family members. Raúl explains that the youth is still financially dependent on their families that hate them and that makes them vulnerable. As a result they get into bed circles, have to live on the street and get exploited. Casa Frida only offers shelter to people older than 18 because it is illegal to shelter minors but they also provide help for people that would rather live on the streets than in the shelter.

There is a lot of ignorance among the families that reject their kids but, with a lot of effort put into the process, in some cases the guests can go back to their families. These families even at times become partners of Casa Frida. Raúl says that it is beautiful when that happens and that he is proud of seeing that the concept of Casa Frida is working.

The people working at Casa Frida are firstly professionals and then activists, Raúl emphasises. It is their job to support the guests and other LGBTQ+ people and offer solidarity. 

The biggest challenges the shelter has to face are funding and safety. It is difficult to find more safe spaces and they get no support from the Mexican government. Luckily they have a lot of international partners such as the Dutch government or companies like HP, Nike and Shake Shack. Furthermore, they get donations from individuals through the website.

Throughout the interview Raúl emphasises the need for more Casa Fridas. When he gets back to Mexico, he is going to visit Chiapas, a province in the south of Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala. He is planning on opening another Casa Frida there to further support LGBTQ+ refugees from South America.

Instagram post of Refugio Casa Frida. Raúl standing next to the Dutch ambassador.

Mexico does have some laws to protect LGBTQ+ people, but in reality these are barely enforced. The Mexican government treats LGBTQ+ people with hate, Raúl emphasises. “They are very conservative and don’t like the fact that safe spaces exist.” This hostility especially affects LGBTQ+ youth, who do not know where to go when their families turn against them. They suffer a lot of violence in school, causing them to abandon their education. Due to a lack of schooling they then struggle to find jobs.

The situation is slightly better in Mexico City. A lot of queer people move here to escape the violence of the rest of the country.This is especially common among trans women. They feel safer in the capital than they do in other areas. Yet, they risk being sexually exploited or getting involved in narco-trafficking.

Mental health issues for LGBTQ+ people are not addressed in Mexico. The suicidal rates among queer people are much higher than those of the average population. “It’s dangerous to be who we are,” Raúl shares. “The only way to survive is to become part of a community.”

My mental health wasn’t good. And neither was my personal safety. And [Shelter City] has been very helpful because now I’m much more stable and stronger so I can go back to Mexico with new energy and do many more things.

The Dutch government is a partner of Casa Frida and invited Raúl to come to the Netherlands as a part of the Shelter City program.

Shelter City is a global movement that stands side by side with human rights defenders who are at risk. They work together with cities, who offer a safe place to stay for activists so that they can take a break from their work. The goal is to offer support and re-energize human rights defenders. Shelter City celebrates its tenth anniversary as an initiative this year. The Hague was the first Shelter City and by now they host activists in 20 additional cities in the Netherlands, as well as Georgia, Tanzania, Benin, Costa Rica, Nepal, and the United Kingdom.

Aisha North in the Justice & Peace office in the Hague

During their stay, activists participate in a tailor made program. “Some want to attend classes at a university and for others resting and following yoga classes is the best option,” Aisha North, communications officer at Shelter City, explains. For Raúl, this meant attending classes at Utrecht University and having a chance to meet fellow human rights defenders. “I feel less alone now. I feel more stable, stronger and more energised,” he shares. He also values his new knowledge on digital security, personal security and advocacy.

“Shelter City meant finding peace for myself, making new friends and becoming part of a new community,” Raúl mentions.

Charlie Fonda, Elisa Heithoff & Famke Langedijk

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