Arthur Britney Joestar was walking back from university one day in San Salvador – El Salvador’s capital – when they were attacked by police officers for their shoulder-length, blonde hair. During the beating, which lasted five minutes, officers told Joestar they would, “Teach [them] how to be a man.”
After consistent physical and verbal abuse, Joestar left their home country for the UK in 2017, and in a landmark ruling last year won the right to asylum, becoming the first person in the UK to be granted refugee status on the basis of being non-binary. In their ruling, immigration judges said that Joestar would be far more “vulnerable to attack” were they to return to El Salvador now, in light of the high-rates of hate crime against LGBTQ people there.
Last year three police officers were given 20-year jail sentences for murdering a transgender woman, in what were the first murder convictions in El Salvador involving a trans victim. It’s not just LGBTQ people who face discrimination: The country holds some of the most repressive gender laws in the world – abortion is illegal in all cases, and women face murder sentences for abortions or miscarriages.
Joestar now lives in Liverpool, where they are involved in LGBTQ activism. VICE World News spoke to them about their difficult process of seeking asylum, and growing up in El Salvador.
VICE World News: Hi Arthur. You lived in El Salvador until 2017, when you moved to the UK. What was your life like back in Central America?
Arthur Britney Joestar: Back in El Salvador, I didn't identify myself as non-binary. It was after a long process here in the UK with a therapist and with a lot of thinking I realised I am non-binary. I will say – you always have that inside of you. I never felt totally male, but all my life I hid that.
Back in my country, I always felt like a different guy. In Latin America, there is a lot of machismo. I would dye my hair, wear earrings, sometimes using chokers – tiny details that usually are for girls. I always wanted to have my hair long but I was scared of what would happen to me if I changed my appearance.
Honestly, in El Salvador, non-binary people don't exist [openly]. Even in the UK, we struggle with visibility. They cannot express themselves without the fear of being attacked.
Did you experience any violence in El Salvador?
Yes. The first incident was back in 2013, when I only had mid-blonde hair. I was walking in the city centre in San Salvador, and five police officers started to question me [about] why I have my hair blonde, [saying] that's not something for a normal guy.
One of them hit me in the face and started to ask me, “So, why do you have your hair like that?”, and I only answered, “Because I like it.” At that moment he hit me in the chest and told me they would teach me how to be a man, and the five police officers started to beat me together for about five minutes. They left me on the streets, just like that, bleeding. It was horrible because no one cares about that. People just walked around me, looking at me like I was a dying dog. It made me feel really ashamed of myself.
In those moments, when I say I'm going to be myself for a few days or months, I suffered violence on the streets. People made fun of me and looked at me because I looked like a weirdo. From the bus windows, they threw rubbish, crisp packets, chewing gum. One time I was walking to my work and from a truck, a guy threw a bag with urine. That was horrible. That was the most humiliating thing. I just came back and showered and just was thinking, “What the hell, I don't deserve this.”
What was the process of deciding to leave for the UK?
I just realised, if I wanted to be the kind of person I wanted to be, it will be a matter of time before I am in the wrong place in the wrong hour, and the incorrect people will find me. The hate crimes back in El Salvador are horrible, they torture LGBTQ people because they want to send a message, and that message is that we are sinners and that we deserve that.
I had a reasonable job back in El Salvador. The reason I came here was not about the economy but about my identity. At that time, my feelings were telling me I needed to be the person I wanted to be, but the other part of me was like, you know what you should expect [in El Salvador]. So that combination made me leave in 2017.
How difficult was it when you were originally denied asylum in the UK?That's one of the reasons I started therapy. The asylum process is one of the most terrible things here in England. The process is broken and it's totally unfair. If you read the final rule the judge criticised all the previous process. She said, “How come they didn't use all the evidence?”
Even the Home Office has a report from El Salvador that says El Salvador is one of the most dangerous places for LGBTQ people. They completely ignored and missed that.
All these negative thoughts made me depressed, so I started to go to counselling. At the same time, I was going through this process of trying to heal, and I started to explore my gender identity.
You were granted the right to appeal the decision and in September, won the right to stay. What was that like?
It was the most courageous thing that could ever happen in my life. It's like when it's really really hot and you feel that wind that is like a summer breeze. I was totally speechless. I couldn't be happier with the judge I got. She totally took care of my case and understood all the tiny details that make the whole picture what it was. She understood all my fears, not only with being sent back to El Salvador but with the asylum process. She saw many errors in the process.
What’s life like now you’re in Liverpool? Do you find the social attitudes are much better?
I couldn't be more grateful to be here in Liverpool. Liverpool is one of the best places here in the UK. People are really open-minded. People really take care of me, they try to lift me up when I feel down. I compare all the time what I expected in El Salvador – I expected to be treated like rubbish, I expected something bad to happen to me. But now, I can go out and girls stop me and say, “OMG I love your hair!” I'm glad I'm trying to make this place my home. It feels like home because I can go out and I know people will only stop me to say positive things.
I don't believe in God, but I feel blessed. All my fight now will be a fight for future generations.