Arthur Britney Joestar became the first non-binary person to be recognised as a refugee in the UK. In a historic ruling, Appeal Judge Gaenor Bruce ruled that returning to El Salvador, from where they fled, would put the 29-year-old’s life at risk of persecution and violence, as had already happened to them. “My case is a victory for migrants and for British citizens who consider themselves non-binary. Because I am the first person to be legally recognised as non-binary in the country,” said Arthur Britney. When the judge asked by what pronoun “he” wanted to be addressed – as everyone on the papers referred to him as “he” – Arthur Britney replied “they” (inclusive pronoun).
Discrimination, violence and poverty are the main reasons why LGBT+ people decide to leave El Salvador in search of protection. Fleeing discrimination and violence because of their sexual identity and orientation, Arthur Britney also decided to emigrate from El Salvador to the UK in 2017, seeking humanitarian asylum that would give them access to a life free of stigma. Far from that, Joestar found an immigration system designed to reject as many applications as possible.
“I’ve always been a person who likes to explore my identity, trying to find how I felt comfortable with my body. I never felt that I was the stereotypical macho man that Salvadoran society has. But when I stepped out of the pattern, I suffered attacks and discrimination on a daily basis”, Arthur Britney told Presentes.
According to data from the organisation Communicating and Empowering Trans Women – COMCAVIS Trans, El Salvador is one of the most unsafe countries for LGBTI people due to the high level of intolerance towards sexual diversity. In 2020, the organisation assisted 131 people who suffered forced internal displacement. “Once, I was walking to work and a guy from a truck threw a bag of urine at me and it fell on me. It was one of the most humiliating things that ever happened to me,” recalled Arthur Britney.
Since initiating the application for humanitarian asylum in October 2017, Arthur Britney had to face three negative rulings before approval. The road was arduous. Joestar said even the UK immigration service tried to force them to sign the voluntary deportation letter. “They [the immigration service] tried to deport me for no reason. I went to my monthly report and they took me to a room where they told me my case was closed and denied. They told me I had the option of signing my voluntary return waiving all asylum rights or they would detain me and take me to a jail and then remove me from the country,” said Arthur Britney.
At the time, the case was at the appeal stage. For that reason, they could not be deported or forced to sign a voluntary return to El Salvador. But Arthur Britney says their lawyer managed to stop the proceedings and had to be released. “After detaining me and interrogating me to try to break me, a guy came into the room and said to let me go because my case was now with the Supreme Court,” explains Arthur Britney. The prolongation and denials of asylum claim took a toll on their mental health. Arthur Britney suffered from depression and was treated by a psychologist who helped to withstand the cumbersome process of the trial and to discover their non-binary identity.
The lack of rights for the LGBTQ+ community in El Salvador
Arthur Britney recalls that in the early years of exploring their identity, there was a lot of regret. Joestar was living outside of the parameters of heteronormativity that prevail in Salvadoran society.
El Salvador does not recognise equal civil marriage. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice is currently considering two lawsuits challenging the unconstitutionality of the family code that prohibits same-sex marriage. In March 2018, the draft bill on gender identity was presented in the Legislative Assembly, and the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) supported the initiative, which is still under study.
The influence of the Catholic religion on political power in El Salvador is still very strong. The right to sex education, equal marriage or abortion remain stalled in Congress because political parties fear punishment for pushing “taboo issues” to the majority of the population. “When I was younger I took a lot of refuge in the Church, because I tried to get rid of all thoughts that I believed were sinful. I wanted to get all that out of me and the best method I got was religion,” Arthur Britney recalls. In the hope of “getting away” from their identity, Joestar even decided to study for a degree in pastoral theology.
“It was a time in my life when I had a terrible internal struggle. Maybe it didn’t show on the outside, but when I was alone I suffered a lot. I said ‘I don’t want to be gay and I don’t want to be a sinner, I want to be normal’. It was a very dark time and I know a lot of people go through that,” Joestar said in an interview with Presentes.
Britney Spears fan
His admiration for Hirohiko Araki’s androgynous characters in the manga series Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and the music of Britney Spears were the inspiration for defining their new identity. “Coming up with the combination of my names is a win-win because now everyone will have the possibility to make their identity their own. And no one can legally say whether it is wrong or not,” said Arthur Britney.
The construction of this name has multiple meanings for Arthur Britney. During their childhood and adolescence, they endured the acts of physical violence their father inflicted on their mother, Joestar says. Arthur Britney recalls that together with both their brothers, they vowed not to use the surname of the person who abused them. “We suffered a lot of domestic violence when we were young. Carrying the surname of a person who caused you so much harm and who destroyed your family, who destroyed your childhood, is not something you want. My siblings and I decided at one point to change our names. And we came to the conclusion that we were all going to take on Joestar”, Arthur Britney explained.
Britney Spears was the escape he had during their youth. She became the muse who took them by the hand with her songs and led them towards acceptance of their gender identity and sexual orientation. “Britney is the reason I’m alive right now. She’s always been there for me in the hard times, in the dark times. The only thing that comforted me was listening to this diva’s music. In my depression stage she also lifted my spirits.”
Born again as a non-binary refugee
From their home in Liverpool, Arthur Britney – who has a degree in graphic design and works in that field – is still reeling from the significance of the landmark ruling in his favour and the recognition of their gender identity. When the ruling was announced last December 30th, Joestar told the Guardian: “At the end, the judge turned to look at me and started speaking to me in Spanish, to tell me that she was giving me the right to stay in this country and the right to be who I want to be. I started to cry. I felt like I was born again”.
Arthur Britney now reflects on their future and how this case can serve as a precedent for migrants and non-binary people. “If I was able to change the perception in a foreign country, which is not my own and does not speak my language, and if we all come together we can make a big difference and create a better world for the generations to come.”
This story was written by Paula Rosales for Agencia Presentes, first published here on Pikara, a Spanish feminist magazine, and translated by Azickia. Photo credit: Arthur Britney Joestar
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.
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