Transmutations in Tijuana
Meet the Christian Pastor Who's Praying Away the Gay in the Mexican Border Town's Slums
Photos by Alejandro Cossio
Sunday prayer at the church is when attendees try to wash away their sins through atonement, music and dance.
T he pastor finishes her sermon and closes her eyes, waiting for her parishioners to come to her at the altar while the house band provides a down-tempo accompaniment to the congregation’s reading of the Psalms. The only fan inside the cramped, overheated church is pointed at the drummer.
“Open your heart so that Christ may cleanse and heal you,” she commands the dozen men walking toward her. One of them is sweating profusely (or crying, it’s hard to tell) while lifting his arms toward the pastor. He has a girlish face, dyed hair and plucked eyebrows. The pastor takes him by the shirtsleeve. “Just like Jesus rose from the dead, so shall you,” she assures him.
The other 150 or so worshippers begin to shake violently – some yell and gasp, others jump and spin in circles. The music speeds up. It’s the climax of the ceremony, which has been going on for almost three hours in the sultry heat.
“In the name of Jesus, I’m saved! In the name of Jesus, I’m saved!” yells the man as the pastor grabs him by the hair and brings his forehead to hers. The man’s sweat wets her face, they both take a deep breath and then he collapses onto his knees and begins to pray in silence.
The man’s name is Eduardo Herrera Gómez. He’s 30 years old, and he is one of 25 “redeemed” homosexuals who have kneeled before Alma Leticia Rosas, a Pentecostal pastor who claims to have the power to exorcise diabolical spirits that, according to her, cause homosexuality “and other evil deviations”. Every Sunday at the Templo y Centro de Rehabilitación La Esperanza (Temple and Rehabilitation Center of Hope) in Tijuana, the group gathers to celebrate having turned their backs on what Sister Lety – as she’s known to her followers – calls “the evil way”. The Temple is one of four affiliated rehab centers in the neighbourhood, but it’s the only one that, in addition to treating addictions to hard drugs, also strives to train gay men to love women.
The surrounding area is typical of the borough of Sánchez Taboada, one of the most violent in Tijuana: a labyrinth of muddy roads cluttered with homes made of cardboard and tin. You can buy drugs from hole-in-the-wall stores called narcotienditas, and some of the neighbourhood’s flimsy houses serve as holding cells for kidnapping victims. At night, luxury SUVs with tinted windows drive through the streets at high speeds.
Pastor Alma Leticia Rosas, aka Sister Lety, is the leader of a church in Tijuana where she attempts to convert gay men into heterosexuals through the power of God.
Sánchez Taboada is also home to many transexuals whose presence has helped turn the city into a destination for American sex tourists. For years, homosexuals and transexuals have arrived anonymously in hedonistic Tijuana, fleeing the conservative towns where they were raised.
“Ever since I was conscious of who I was, I began leaning toward things that were not meant for a boy, like dolls, dresses and makeup,” Eduardo, who says he’s now a “former homosexual”, tells me. He ran away from his home in Guadalajara at 15 so that he would no longer have to hide his identity; he didn’t want his mum to see him dressed as a woman or his brothers to be ashamed of whom he dated.
One night, Eduardo went out partying with his lover, a man ten years his senior and never looked back. They moved to Manzanillo, Colima, a nearby town with a reputation for having a good LGBTQ scene, and his life took a turn. “That’s when I started living la vida loca,” he says. “I started using drugs and prostituting myself for money.” He also said he began taking female hormones and saving money to pump his breasts, butt, hips and calves with silicone, doing “everything to enlarge my butt and my tits”.
Lack of work forced the couple to move to Tijuana in 2002, when the violence caused by the drug trade was at a low ebb and the tourist-solicitation business was brisk despite post-9/11 security protocols that made crossing the border more of a hassle. He rented himself a room downtown and started turning tricks for money in the Coahuila Alley, part of the red-light district.
It didn’t take long for Eduardo to acquire a smorgasbord of addictions. “Ever since I got here it was like I had been possessed by the devil,” he says. “I was falling: using drugs, whoring, doing everything to myself.” I got the feeling he had a morbid sense of accomplishment about his past, or perhaps it was that he was proud of having repented after a seven-year period of living in such deep sin. “My job as a whore gave me a life of comfort and luxury, but it also pushed me toward drugs, and because of that I lost my apartment, my friends and my family,” Eduardo continues. “I ended up eating from a trash can.”
One day, when he was still lost in his “evil way of living,” someone told Eduardo that Jesus Christ could fill the void that had developed in his heart. He ended up at Sister Lety’s temple, where he came to denounce his former life so totally that he now says he would like to get married to a woman and start a family. “I’d share my life struggle with my kids,” he says, “take care of them and protect them so that they don’t become homosexuals.”
Men who have renounced their homosexuality and drug-use praise God during a service at Sister Lety's church.
E duardo’s inspiration, Sister Lety, has devoted almost half of her 46 years to healing the “victims of the evil spirits”, the term she uses to refer to gay men and transexuals. When I interviewed her at the rehab center, she asked me to let the homosexuals of the world know that “if they believe this is how they were born, that this is how they should live, they’re wrong – your homosexuality is the devil trying to deceive you. Your insane desires are the result of evil spirits.”
Sister Lety’s convictions may sound extremely homophobic, but she cares for her charges in her own way. A couple of years ago, when she was preaching at a state penitentiary in Baja California, she came across an effeminate homosexual whom all the other inmates wouldn’t allow to pray. She managed to earn his trust and proposed a cure to his woes: the teachings of the Bible. A few years later, after the troubled man had done his time, the pastor took him in to live at her house. “Then came another one and another one, but I couldn’t take them all into my house,” she said. “That’s when this place we’re in, which belongs to my brother in flesh, was lent to me.”
For Sister Lety, homosexuality isn’t a disease or psychiatric disorder – it’s a form of spiritual possession. She’s never turned to a psychologist in an attempt to “treat” someone’s sexual orientation and pays no mind to the current scientific consensus that one’s sexual orientation or gender cannot be “fixed”. Her belief is that drug addiction and homosexuality occur as a result of sexual abuse during childhood: All the pain and hatred that result from such an experience attract spirits into the victim’s soul, she says, and homosexuals and addicts are always in the company of these spirits.
“The solution is teaching them the Word. I have them listen to the Word of God three times a day and pray. And celebrate the Lord on Sundays,” Sister Lety says. She stresses, though, that this process is entirely voluntary: “The lost one grants us the authority to help the Holy Spirit possess him or her, so that he can be guided, cleansed and cured.”
No one can claim that Sister Lety is a stranger to abuse. She grew up in a Catholic family in Tijuana, where she was molested by her uncle when she was five. She didn’t confess this to her mother until years later, instead choosing to enter a convent, where she lived until she was 14. She then ran away with a man who got her pregnant and promptly abandoned her. At 23, she decided to move to Los Angeles with her daughter. Once there, she befriended a former heroin addict who reintroduced her to the Christian faith. “He showed me that, no matter who is at fault, we’re all sinners. In the eyes of Christ, the person who abused me isn’t the only one who has sinned. I have sinned, too.”
Rafael has been a transexual for many years. He is hopeful that in the future he will be able to afford reconstructive surgery of his genitals and live as a man once again.
Homophobia is common in Tijuana and other places throughout Mexico. Víctor Clark Alfaro, the director of the Binational Center for Humans Rights in Tijuana, says this climate of hatred has forced some LGBTQ people to flee to the US. In 2006, a group of about 30 transexuals immigrated illegally to California and took the unusual step of applying for political asylum because of how they were treated by the Tijuana Municipal Police. In addition to verbal and physical abuse, Víctor tells me his organisation has documented reported cases of transexuals being raped by cops.
From a scientific and logical point of view, religious institutions often make matters worse when it comes to anything involving sex – especially when it comes to anyone who isn’t heterosexual. The former archbishop of Guadalajara, Juan Sandoval Íñiguez, for instance, is an unabashed homophobe, and in an interview with Gatopardo magazine published last February he claimed that homosexuality was a “strategic weapon from the developed world” to “reduce the population no matter what… so that Earth’s resources are not depleted.” It’s no wonder some gay men in Tijuana wish they were straight.
In the Temple’s treeless concrete backyard, I spoke with Gustavo Silva, another of the 25 men currently being treated by Sister Lety. His story was similar to those of many of the other men. “Since I was 15 I started walking down the path to perdition,” he says. “I liked drinking, I liked using drugs and I also liked dressing as a woman. But what I yearned for the most was to look feminine and voluptuous. Then I had surgery. The bigger my tits, the larger I wanted them to be. My breasts were there to satisfy my desire for men but also to whore around and pay rent, as well as buy nice dresses.”
A few years later, the working life had worn Gustavo down to a point where he was so dangerously skinny he was almost certain he had contracted AIDS. Then, on his 23rd birthday, as he walked down the street after buying some meth, he began to feel “sick of so much filth around me” and turned his face toward the sky to yell: “‘God, give me the strength to get out of the street, for I can’t take it anymore!’ Then I remembered how these sick gays had once told me about La Esperanza. I said to myself, ‘Oh, the rehab house… I think that’s what I need.’ And that’s how I ended up here.” That was a year ago. He still has his breast implants but is saving up to pay for their removal.
After I’d spent some time with her, Sister Lety came off as a caring woman who lives by her convictions, and the men under her care are undeniably devoted to her. She, in turn, is devoted to them – or at least, in her mind, the people they have the potential to become. “I tell everyone who has this problem that they can do it, that there is a Christ who can change their minds and turn them into new beings,” she says. “I believe deep down that all homosexuals don’t want to be homosexuals. That is why there is hope.”
I detect no malice in her statements – she genuinely views homosexuality as a terrible curse and wishes to rid the world of her definition of evil. But when I shook her hand to say goodbye (against my better judgment, I nearly hugged her), I couldn’t stop thinking about the old saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
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