“I see my life as a living challenge to societal norms and prejudices, whether I am challenging the way judges see my clients in immigration court, or whether I am walking down the street with makeup on my face, my main goal is to have people see my humanity and my clients’ humanity.”
This is Luis Mancheno, the immigration attorney who valiantly fought for and was an imperative cog in the dismantling on Trump’s recent travel ban which prevented citizens from seven countries – all with heavily Muslim populations – entering the US. Mancheno and his colleagues represented a woman from Syria who had lived in the US for the past 10 years. She had traveled abroad to visit family and on her way back, she was told she couldn’t come back home. After putting together some legal papers, he and his team filed a legal challenge to her detention and imminent deportation. Her story was crucial to convince a federal judge in Brooklyn, who was hearing a different case, to grant a request from the attorneys in that case to partially block the Muslim ban nationwide.
“It meant a betrayal to the promises that this country made to me and an attack to the values I swore to uphold when I became a US citizen last year,” Mancheno explains. It was so devastating to know that the borders of my country were now closed to refugees who like me looked to the US as a place of future safety and freedom.”
Mancheno casts back to the days of the papers being filed, running from his apartment to the courthouse: “ As I was approaching the courthouse, I realised that there were hundreds of people protesting in front of it. I was desperate and I really didn’t believe that I was going to make it to the door of the courthouse on time to file the papers and to stop my client’s deportation. As I was struggling to get through rivers and rivers of people, there was this guy who after seeing my face of desperation and the papers I carried, shouted: “he is one of the lawyers! Let him through!”
“People immediately reacted and like the red sea parting, people went to the sides and I had an open path to the door of the courthouse. As I was running towards it, people chanted and celebrated me. Nobody knew me, but we were all there, together, fighting injustice.”
Mancheno explains that his motivations behind his drive to protect this woman came from a need “to uphold one of the oaths I made when I became a US citizen.”
“I promised to protect the US constitution from all enemies, domestic and foreign, and the Muslim Ban was an attack to our constitution from a domestic enemy: Donald Trump,” he declares. “By fighting the Muslim Ban, I was not only representing my clients in court, but also, I was attempting to tell the world that America was not that executive order. The true America was the lawyers who fought in court and was the people who organised and shouted in the streets until it ended.”
A modern day trailblazer and activist through and through, Mancheno first moved to the US back in 2008 after experiencing how harmful and dangerous Ecuador’s treatment of LGBT+ people is. Born in Quito, he grew up in a very conservative evangelical Christian family, always standing out from the rest of the boys his age. He cites his father’s pride when he obsessed over the Miss Ecuador beauty pageant when he was 6 years old. His father – of course – boasted to his friends about his son’s interest in women at such an early age.
“Little did he know I was actually not really into Ariana, at least not attracted to her,” Mancheno explains. “What I really was into was her dresses, her shoes, her poise, her glamour, the way that she would stop everything when she would walk into a room. All I wanted was to be her, to be beautiful like her.”
He always knew he was different and only started to know what that meant when he was 14 years of age: “One of my classmates brought a porn magazine to school and while my classmates kept talking about the women in it, I couldn’t stop looking at the guys. That’s when I knew.”
Like most gay teens, Luis suppressed his identity and tried his hardest to fake it to fit in. He’d ask God why he was made the way he is, why he couldn’t be ‘normal’ and why he couldn’t just like women like his friends did. He knew he’d have to leave his country one day for being gay, so he forced himself to learn English through comparing Spanish and English versions of Harry Potter.
Four years later and an 18 year old Mancheno found himself on his first gay date – organised online – only to be seen by his aunt: “This guy was slightly more feminine than the average macho-baggy-pants-wearing Ecuadorian man, she guessed I was hanging out with a gay man. That same night she called me to her house and after a 3-hour gruelling session, she forced me to come out. The next night, she called my parents and she told them I was gay. That’s when the nightmare began.”
Then came the conversion therapy.
“After my parents found out, they took me to a Christian psychologist who was an ‘expert’ in conversion therapy. To be honest, I didn’t resist it,” he begins. “My parents talked me into thinking that there was something really sick and wrong with me and that there was a cure for it. During the sessions I did a series of horrible and ridiculous things. I was forced to watch straight porn while talking to the therapist about what I liked from the women in it and I was forced to get a girlfriend who would teach me “how beautiful was to date a real woman.” After months of doing this therapy, the doctor told my parents I was cured.”
America was a lifetime for Luis and proof that the regulation and manipulation of immigration policies can be dangerous. For the lost queers in the seven banned countries, Trump’s move was a denial to them ever getting the chance to begin again. After an incident at a gay club in Ecuador, where Mancheno and a friend were drugged, robbed, stripped naked and left unconscious in his car with the engine running while rolling downhill to a cliff, he knew he had to leave.
“I pulled my pants up and I went out of the car. I looked at my half-destroyed car and the word ‘maricón’ (Spanish for faggot) was painted across the car. Completely desperate, I started yelling for help while tears burst out of my eyes. I screamed my lungs out, but nobody heard my cries, and nobody came to help us.”
“I stumbled to the local police station to file a report. Paintings of the Virgin Mary and Jesus hung on the walls. A police officer opened his notebook and took notes when I began to describe what happened to me. When I told him the name of the bar where I was – a gay bar – he stopped. He put his pen down and closed his notebook. Looking me straight in the eyes, he told me the police did not have jurisdiction over that bar, and that I had gotten what I deserved for going to that place.”
Though terrified when he first moved to Oregon after the incident, Mancheno was eligible to apply for refugee status under US asylum laws. It was granted and he was allowed to permanently stay in the country. He describes America as not only his refuge and home but a place that “meant and keeps meaning a promise of freedom, equality, and opportunity. If it wouldn’t be for America and its promises, I wouldn’t be alive today.”
Mancheno is now your true New Yorker, what 2017 NYC should and does look like, usually dancing with friends to disco music until 6am at some grungy club in Brooklyn or eating an amazing meal at some pretentious restaurant in Manhattan. He cites Sylvia Rivera, RuPaul, Harvey Milk and Gavin Grimm as his heroes “for their uncompromised fight to make our community visible, represented and found”.
Community and belonging have been quintessential in Luis’ growth as both a person and a lawyer. He tells me about one particular case being a career and life defining moment of his being when he represented jailed transgender women in the Mexico-US border while they sought asylum in the US. Transgender women, mostly from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador daily flee from deadly persecution in their home countries with the hope of finding safety and opportunity here in the US. Instead, when they arrive, they are faced with a system that is designed to keep them away from this country.
“Having the opportunity to represent them, fight for them, and help them realise their American dream was one of the most important things I have ever done in my life.”
Joining the ranks of such queer legends himself, Luis sends a message out to other LGBT+ people who are still going through the unthinkable ordeals that he himself did years ago. “You are not alone,” he begins. “There are millions of misfits like you and me all over the world. Be yourself and don’t let anybody tell you that who you are is wrong. Dream high and work hard while holding onto those dreams.”
But he acknowledges how far we still have to go, referring to 2017 as a defining year for the LGBT+ community.
“ Our community members are facing horrible challenges, like the creation of concentration camps for gay people in Chechnya, to having Donald Trump opening the doors for discrimination against our trans brother and sisters, to the passing of anti-LGBT+ laws in dozens of states in the US. I am hopeful though, that as we came together during the AIDS crisis, our community once again will show its incredibly power and will come out of these turbulent times stronger.“
When asked why it is that he does what he does, he simply responds with “because it is only human. The real question is, why don’t more people do what I do?”
Luis Mancheno is a man who can only be described as a hero. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Luis will be speaking at the Coming Out Launch Event and LGBTQ Talks held at the Facebook offices on the 18th April. Information and more here.
Photography: Alex Pigeon