Juan Carlos Herrera-Zapata knew he was gay from the time he was a little boy.
Life was difficult in Olanchito, Honduras, because of the deeply engrained prejudice that surrounded him.
“I have always had to hide who I really am, because I’m afraid of being physically hurt, judged, rejected and discriminated against.”
To escape the scorn and ridicule in high school, he enrolled in a school for adults. But he found no refuge. Some of his new classmates asked why he “wasn’t ashamed to have a voice that sounded like a woman” and told him he should behave like an hombrecito, a young man.
Even one of his closest family members rejected him. His grandfather told him to leave the house – that he didn’t “love anyone who is a source of shame for the family.”
“[It] ripped my soul and heart into a thousand pieces,” said Herrera-Zapata, 26. “To be rejected by the only person who I knew as a father was the most horrible feeling. I was devastated, abandoned and alone.”
He left school altogether and moved from city to city, hoping to find a place where he could live freely and without fear of being physically assaulted for being gay.
The search proved futile. After police started labeling him as a “gay piece of shit” every time they saw him trying to walk down the street, Herrera-Zapata knew he would never be able to find safety in his country.
Finally, in February 2018, he fled Honduras in the hope of finding freedom in the United States.
When he crossed the border, he was taken to Folkston ICE Processing Center, a prison for immigrants in Georgia. Life there, he said, was bleaker and more difficult than it ever was in Honduras.
He was locked up for 11 months. But he found good fortune when lawyers with the SPLC’s Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI) offered to represent him in legal proceedings for free.
In his application for asylum, he pleaded with the judge: I fear that if I return to Honduras … I will suffer harm or even death at the hands of people in Honduras who hate gay people like me. … I ask that you help me.
On Jan. 9, Herrera-Zapata was granted asylum. He became one of the fortunate few whose pleas for help are answered by immigration judges overloaded with cases in a broken system.
Now, he is free.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images