Eight years after he fled to Costa Rica, Dennis Castillo sometimes finds himself happily surprised to see same-sex couples holding hands in public.
A Honduran refugee and member of the LGBTQ community, Castillo grew up in a country he long recognized as violent and homophobic. The danger became more acute when a friend and fellow activist was killed. Then Castillo himself was threatened for pressuring police to properly investigate the crime.
For those reasons, Castillo says, he left for Costa Rica in 2012, where he became one of the first people to receive LGBTQ asylum status in this country. Surrounded by others in similar situations, he co-founded Casabierta the following year, aiming to provide help and ease the sense of isolation for other refugees in the LGBTQ community.
“When I arrived, I didn’t realize there were other people facing the same situation,” he told The Tico Times in a recent interview. “I asked, ‘Why me?’ Now I know this is my purpose.”
That decision to leave Honduras, he says, saved his life.
“They were killing my colleagues. If I hadn’t left, I would be a statistic,” Castillo said. “I wouldn’t be here.”
To this day, IRCA Casabierta provides assistance and resources for members of the LGBTQ community who have been forced to migrate. It also conducts research and hopes to inspire political change in Costa Rica and elsewhere.
After eight years in Costa Rica, Castillo reflects on how far he’s traveled — both physically and metaphorically — from life in Honduras.
“I grew up in a culture that said ‘No, you can’t do this,’ and ‘This is bad,’ and the fear,” Castillo said.
“I feel free here.”
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According to government data, 10.5% of people living in Costa Rica are immigrants. A primary reason: Costa Rica is widely recognized as one of the most politically and economically stable countries in Central America.
The LGBTQ community in Costa Rica has achieved levels that were previously “unthinkable,” according to IRCA Casabierta, including some protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, and some domestic partnership benefits.
2020 is also shaping up to be a monumental year: Gay marriage will become legal in Costa Rica by May 26.
Still, things are far from perfect in Costa Rica, which has admitted to struggling with the large influx of mostly Nicaraguan migrants in recent years. A Casabierta study found 70% of migrants in Costa Rica are still waiting for a final decision regarding their asylum applications. (The United Nations recently provided the government with $4.1 million, in part to help expedite the processing of these refugee requests.)
For the subset of migrants who are members of the LGBTQ community, sexual orientation can intensify the struggles of being a refugee. Xenophobia is not uncommon in Costa Rica, and 40% of respondents to an IRCA Casabierta survey reported facing homophobia as well.
“It’s not the magnitude of discrimination that I felt in Honduras,” Castillo said of his own experiences. “There, I couldn’t stand on a streets and feel safe. But there is still tension in Costa Rica.”
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Dennis Castillo hopes that someday, IRCA Casabierta will have the funds to operate a permanent physical headquarters in San José.
Right now, he says, Casabierta is staffed by a handful of volunteers who support a community of about 30 refugees. Casabierta offers migrants guides on how to properly apply for refugee status, leads health initiatives, and provides an audience where LGBTQ refugees can share their experiences, frustrations and advice.
“In our journey, every decision we’ve made has been with gratitude, because the Costa Rican state has allowed us to lead from here,” Castillo said
Castillo also hopes to expand the organization throughout Costa Rica and Central America, in order to assist more people and to act as a political voice against fundamentalist groups that use religion to prevent equality.
“Costa Rica is positioned as a leader in LGTBQ rights in Central America, because some of the northern countries are far from that,” Castillo said. “In this moment, in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, we can’t fight for marriage equality when the right to life isn’t guaranteed.”
But perhaps more importantly than expanding, Castillo wants his voice be heard.
“The dream is to have no more hate crimes,” he said. “But more realistically, it’s to have a small space to help the LGBTQ population and have a place for them to be comfortable and safe.”
To learn more about IRCA Casabierta and how to support them, visit their website.