Jacque Larrainzar fled Mexico in the late 1990s. She asked the woman at the airport how far she could go with the $300 in her pocket, and the woman suggested she fly to Seattle.
Larrainzar asked where Seattle was, and the woman said, “Have you heard of Nirvana?”
For Larrainzar, leaving Mexico was a matter of life and death. If she happened to be fleeing to the city that gave birth to a band she loved, that was just an added bonus.
“I said, ‘OK. Let's go to Seattle,’” she said. “And I ended up here with 20 bucks and my guitar — and that was it. Never looked back.”
Larrainzar told her harrowing story to KUOW’s Bill Radke, starting with how her conservative family kicked her out of the home when she was a teenager after discovering she was gay. After that, she found a home among Mexico City’s LGBTQ activists — many of whom she said were kidnapped, beaten and even killed in a brutal string of malicious acts by political opponents.
Friends urged Larrainzar to leave the country, but she was arrested on her way to say goodbye to her mother. For several days, she was tortured and raped — while being asked for names and information about her activist friends.
“I later actually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder because of the torture,” she said. “I still to this day deal with the sequel to that.”
Larrainzar was one of the first people from Mexico to be granted asylum in the United States because of her sexuality, but it took her a year to submit her application after arriving in Seattle.
“As you can imagine, I was really afraid and traumatized by all the things that had happened,” she said. “I really didn't want anybody to know that — who I was or how I got here. And so it took about a year for me to gather the courage to tell the attorney, ‘OK, submit my application.’”
The first time Larrainzar tried to tell her story while applying for asylum, she threw up; it was too terrible to recount aloud. She also suffered from nightmares and later had to have a total hysterectomy — the result of the brutal torture she experienced in Mexico.
“It took years for me to be able to get to this point, where I can tell the story without just breaking up and [shaking],” she said.
Eventually she found a way to draw on her painful past by helping immigrants who faced similar atrocities in their homelands. Nearly 20 years after arriving in Seattle, she got a call from Seattle Counseling Service asking if she would help design a program that would connect LGBTQ immigrants and refugees with mental health services.
She said yes immediately; Seattle Counseling Service helped Larrainzar find counseling when she first arrived in Seattle, and she said she’d always wanted to find a way to do something to help the organization.
She set about collecting data by conducting a survey of LGBTQ immigrants in Seattle — strictly on an anonymous basis, since some feared their sexuality or gender identity could mean imprisonment or death for the family members they’d left behind.
“It made me realize, one, how safe I felt,” Larrainzar said. “After all this time, I was in a very different place. But also, it made me realize that that things haven't changed that much in other parts of the world.”
She said language was one of the biggest barriers she faced while conducting the survey; many people didn’t have words to describe themselves that weren’t charged with hate.
“I learned, for example, that in Arabic there's no word for gay,” she said. “There are some insults that refer to gay people or transgender people, but they will not use them because they're offensive. So how then do you describe your experience? How do you talk about the feelings that you have or the attractions that you have in a way that you don’t get lost in that world of hate and reinforce all those hate images that you've been growing up with since you were a child?”
Larrainzar said many said they don’t feel accepted by the immigrant community, but they don’t feel a part of the LGBTQ community either.
“I remember this Mexican transgender woman said, ‘I had to stop to wonder, who was discriminating me because of what? Was it because I’m an immigrant? Was because of my accent? Was it because I want to be a woman? Because I’m attracted men? What was it?’”
For Larrainzar, interviewing immigrants like herself underscored the need for counseling services in the immigrant LGBTQ population. And the data she collected was used to create what’s now called the Immigrant, Refugee, and Undocumented Outreach Project with Seattle Counseling Service.
But she said more needs to be done for the immigrant LGBTQ community, especially amid a recent wave of anti-immigrant policies from the Trump administration.
“We need to do the research, we need to gather the data, we need to tell our stories,” she said. “And we need to be courageous and say, ‘I'm here and I matter, and I'm going to work to make my life worth something. Because we only have one life, and if we don't use it to make the world better then, you know, I don't know what we're here for.”
Larrainzar wants those with stories like hers to know they’re not alone — and that their experiences should be shared.
“My story is one of thousands,” she said. “There are many, many others that might not have the opportunity, or are not in a place where they're able to tell it. But to them, I would just want to tell them that they need to tell their story, because our stories matter. And they're part of a history that needs to be told.”
Produced for the web by Amy Rolph.