Torture of a Transsexual

In a landmark case, Amanda DuValle, allegedly brutalized in Nicaragua because she is a transsexual, escaped deportation from the U.S. by invoking the U.N. Convention Against Torture. But if she won, why is she still in jail?

As the plane gently descends over a shimmering lake surrounded by a lush, grassy landscape, Amanda DuValle stares out the window at a serene but hauntingly familiar view of Nicaragua. It's 1996, and a decade since Amanda has been home; touchdown at the Managua airport is now only a few moments away.

As the passengers disembark the plane, a flight attendant hands one of four waiting Nicaraguan immigration officers a packet from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and points out Amanda, who is wearing a low-cut yellow blouse, jeans, and Nike tennis shoes.

The officers lead Amanda to a small office. She sits in a chair in front of a lieutenant's desk, crosses her legs, and tosses her long, dark hair in a ladylike pose, trying to put herself and the officers at ease. As they open the packet and pull out her passport, it doesn't take long for the officers to realize the person in the passport is not the Amanda sitting before them, but a man named Oscar.

"This is you?" the lieutenant asks, surprised -- and angered -- that Amanda is convincingly pretty. "Look at you now, you look like a fag."

He asks Amanda why she was deported from the U.S.; she tells him it was because she committed some crimes while in San Francisco. The lieutenant believes otherwise. "It's because you have AIDS," he accuses. "How much did the gringos pay you to bring AIDS into Nicaragua?"

Amanda tells him she doesn't have AIDS, and the Americans haven't sent her to do anything, but the officer doesn't listen. "All you gays have AIDS!" he yells. "We don't want fags like you here. You have to go back."

The lieutenant looks at Amanda's passport again, and shakes his head as he glances back and forth between the photo of a 19-year-old boy with cropped hair and the mature, voluptuous woman sitting before him. He asks her how a man can have breasts. The officers laugh at her, and two of them grab Amanda by the hair and pull her into an adjoining room. They restrain her while the lieutenant takes off her shirt. Another officer lights a cigarette and holds it against her breasts, telling her to be quiet. If she screams, he says, it will only get worse.

The lieutenant then punches Amanda. Her mouth begins to bleed.
The officers are ordered to remove Amanda's shoes and jeans, and the sight of her black panties evokes even more snickers. The women's underwear is removed, too, revealing Amanda's penis. Now she is completely naked, and the lieutenant calls for a broom.

He orders her beaten and raped. The repeated blows raise welts on Amanda's back, hips, and buttocks. The end of the broomstick is rammed into her anus three times.

The lieutenant isn't done. He grabs Amanda's hand and spreads her fingers on a desk next to a stapler. Amanda cries out as a staple is punched into each of her fingers, just below the nail. She is left alone to pull out the staples and get dressed. She uses a dirty rag to wipe the blood.

The lieutenant threatens Amanda and her family, and says she needs to leave Nicaragua soon. "We know who you are; we'll be watching," he says. "You're gay, and we don't want any gays here."

Growing up in Nicaragua, Oscar Serrano always knew he wanted to be a girl, but thought since he was born a man, he must be a gay man. It is a crime to be gay in Nicaragua. It's a crime to even talk about being gay, because Nicaragua's sodomy law -- which provides for prison sentences of up to three years -- was amended in 1992 to include anyone who "promotes, propagandizes, or practices" same-sex relations.

Claiming persecution, Oscar has fled his home country three different times in the past decade. His first harrowing trip to the United States came at age 19; the most recent at 30. While here, the former Oscar Serrano realized he didn't have to be a gay man. He became -- with the help of hormone treatments -- the woman he always felt he was.

But for the new Amanda DuValle, living in the U.S. is also a crime. Not because she is transgendered, but because she is an illegal alien. Twice, the U.S. government has deported Amanda to Nicaragua. Both times, she made the arduous return trip to California. Now 31, she is in the custody of the INS again.

Although Amanda's accounts of her treatment by Nicaraguan authorities, if true, constitute vicious, inhuman abuse, U.S. immigration law has -- until now -- given her little or no legal avenue for avoiding deportation.

Normally, illegal immigrants who come to America looking to escape government mistreatment can ask for asylum. The U.S. will grant asylum, and eventually citizenship, to people who can prove a well-founded fear of persecution based on any of five grounds: race, religion, national origin, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

But for Amanda, asylum has never been an option. When she first came to the U.S. in 1986, gay or transgendered people were not allowed to apply for asylum. Sexual orientation was not considered a valid basis for persecution until 1994.

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