Queering the Immigration Conversation - LGBTQI Asylum Seekers' Stories
Human migration is as old as humanity.
We are a species that for tens of thousands of years or more have been on the move. So why is it that there are still deep divisions about those who move around the planet?
The idea of there being finite resources in a given region comes to mind.
But in a globalized world, we have learned how to engineer problems associated with the distribution of resources out of the equation. It is commonly heard from opponents of migration that those who are migrating are somehow inferior to those already in a place. Or that local resources cannot support newcomers to a region.
Of course, these viewpoints neglect the obvious. The same people who complain about newcomers do not necessarily complain when certain people who already live in an area birth new children. To these people, there always seems to be enough resources for babies that just so happen to look a specific way, or so the argument goes.
According to the United Nations August 1, 2018 Report of the Secretary-General on International Migration and Development, “Between 2000 and 2017, the estimated number of international migrants increased by almost 50 percent, reaching 258 million in 2017.
Together, Asia and Europe host 6 of every 10 international migrants, corresponding to 31 and 30 percent, respectively, of persons who reside outside their country of birth, followed by Northern America at 22 percent. Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean and Oceania host approximately 10, 4 and 2 percent of the world ’s migrants, respectively.”
Migration can be a challenge for anyone. But for those who migrate because of the threats they face to their personal safety are in special need. Among that group are often the most marginalized people in a society, people who flee not just because of universal violence or famine but because of who they are or who they love.
What follows are stories of individuals who migrated in hopes of a better future because where they were fled was life-threatening for them specifically because they are LGBTQI.
Roxsana Hernandez was a Honduran transgender woman and an asylum seeker who arrived at the US southern border with a caravan in May of 2018.
She arrived in Tijuana, Mexico and sought asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in San Diego. Due to inhumane conditions, while she was in US custody, she became ill. Time and again she was denied access to medical care that she begged for.
After days of vomiting and diarrhea, she was granted her request, but it was too late. Not only did Roxsana endure this abhorrent level of neglect, but she was also shackled and shuttled for days around the country from “California to Texas to Washington to New Mexico,” said Lynly Egyes, Transgender Law Center’s Director of Litigation, an organization that recently filed suit with the US Government to learn more about the details of the torture and neglect that Roxsana experienced while in US custody.
“An independent autopsy report reveals that Roxsana was shackled for a long time and very tightly, enough to cause deep bruising on her wrists,”
“She also had deep bruising and injuries consistent with physical abuse with a baton or asp while she was handcuffed, according to an examination of the tissue by an independent expert board-certified forensic pathologist.”
“Her cause of death was dehydration and complications related to HIV. Her death was entirely preventable.”
According to Diversidad Sin Fronteras, the group that helped Roxsana during her migration, Roxsana died in US Custody on May 25, 2018. A US Immigration and Customs Enforcement press release announced her time of death at 3:32 AM (MDT).
Note: Names and identifying characteristics of migrants below have been changed to protect their anonymity due to safety concerns for them and their loved ones. Also, all quotes are transcribed verbatim.
Ahmed visited New York City from Egypt before.
He loved that he could be himself as a gay person in New York, something he could not do safely back home.
His last visit to the city became a permanent one. About a week before his flight back home, multiple outlets reported that several people at a Mashrou' Leila concert in Cairo in September of 2017 were arrested after a rainbow Pride flag was flown at the event.
Shortly thereafter, extrajudicial thugs went to Ahmed’s home, and that of many LGBTQI people, looking for Ahmed so that they could illegally detain him.
Ahmed’s mother contacted him, afraid for his safety. “She told them that, um, that I was studying abroad. But that I don’t live here anymore,” Ahmed remembers of the incident. It was then that Ahmed decided to start the asylum process in the US.
Due to recent changes in immigration policy, Ahmed had to apply and receive asylum before he could hope to get a work permit.
His asylum request was approved and in July of 2018, Ahmed received his work permit and is now working while he waits until he can apply for a Green Card. He looks to the future when his family can come and visit him in New York. “They can. They haven’t yet but they can, yeah.” He finished that thought positively with, “Hopefully soon.”
When asked what he would say to people who do not want People of Color emigrating to the US, he shared,
“I would tell them to think of other people because just because they were born white doesn’t give them the right, ya know too, to hate people of different color or like different religion, because it’s- Like again we’re in 2019, like, where people are supposed to be progressing.”
Anton and his now-husband came to visit San Francisco from Russia, as countless LGBTQI people have done for decades.
“But after someone killed two of our gay friends, we decided not to return home and filed an application for asylum, because now we became afraid of our murder.”
Anton’s husband has received asylum. Anton is still waiting for his asylum application to be approved. When asked how he feels about his husband's asylum approval while he awaits his fate he said,
“We are glad to be safe now. In Russia, we survived because we knew that any wrong step could be attacked, beaten, made invalid and so on, which sometimes happened to us.”
Anton explained further,
“In the US, we can now think about our future family, work, leisure, and not be afraid that we will be killed because we held hands.”
When asked to explain further how holding hands with his husband would affect their safety in Russia, he shared,
“Dressing well can be an indication as to one’s sexual orientation for men in Russia. So someone wanting to harm gay people in Russia don’t even need to see people of the same sex holding hands. What they wear can be enough of an outing for LGBTQI folks to fear.”
He went on to talk about the stereotypical gopnik, or rural men of limited education, that may target LGBTQI people in Russia who dress well, thinking falsely that only “gay people dress well.” Anton talked about other complexities of being gay in Russia.
“The last two years in Russia, I even went with the guard sometimes. But I could afford it because I had a business.”
He recognized that even with guards, people are still at risk. He spoke of the culture of extortion in Russia, sharing an example of how even foreigners are not safe. In one instance, an individual was forced to pay a $65,000 bribe to keep their gay identity a secret.
He said that his only fear now is that his asylum application will not be approved for years. “I am also afraid of the homophobic remarks of the US president who are starting a war against gays.”
When asked about work, Anton shared that he had his own business in Russia. In the United States, he wants to open a business with his husband. Right now they are taking the time to study the local laws where they live before moving forward.
Adam Fitzgerald's Story
In light of the current dire struggles faced by LGBTQI migrants and asylum seekers to the US, people are joining the fight to help these folks. One such person is Adam Fitzgerald.
As he’s watched the horrors migrants and asylum seekers face, especially over the past two years under the Trump administration, where children have been separated from their parents and loved ones and put in cages and detention facilities, where people like Roxsana and children are beaten and murdered in US custody, Adam felt like his current use of theatre as a way to address these social ills wasn’t enough to combat this violence.
“Over the past few years, I’ve sort of stopped feeling like the work I was doing in theatre was having an impact on a scale that I wanted sort of in comparison to everything that’s going on in the world or perhaps just my awareness of it increasing,”
Adam shared when asked why he wanted to become more active fighting for migrant’s rights. As a result of his growing concern, Adam started volunteering for a refugee organization that is not LGBTQI focussed. And though he loved that work, he decided he wanted to do work more geared specifically to the needs of the LGBTQI population.
As a white, gay man he was also aware of the perils of the white savior complex.
“You know, a lot of organizations where white people sort of announce what people need.” He went on to say that those same organizations then “go tell communities what those needs are.”
As he continued his work with the refugee organization, he also contemplated how his degree in theatre and work as a theatre director and producer could be of service. He started researching organizations that have a physical presence in a place as a way to make sure whatever work he did was run by victims and their advocates, not outside forces.
That led him to Refugee Coalition of East Africa (RefCEA) and to their need for someone to help manage public relations efforts. He saw how his work as a theatre producer was relevant to the organization’s robust needs.
RefCEA is an umbrella organization uniting LGBTQI refugees across East Africa charged with a mission of advocacy, strategy, fundraising, and research. Adam volunteered to help garner press attention for RefCAE, specifically related to their work helping LGBTQI Ugandan refugees in Kenya.
Adam explained how difficult it is for LGBTQI Ugandan refugees in Kenya.
Uganda’s laws against LGBTQI people are draconian. Kenya’s laws are also discriminatory towards LGBTQI people.
But at least in Kenya, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) has set up a large camp of over 180,000 people, the Kakuma Refugee Camp, where ostensibly LGBTQI people can go to escape the brutality in Uganda.
This would be a ray of hope if it were not for the United Nation’s neglect for the safety of LGBTQI refugees once they arrive at the Kakuma camp. Adam explained, “There were between two and three hundred LGBTQI refugees in a, what they were saying was a protected area.
But it was really just a fence made of bushes that had been torn down months ago. And the UNHCR never repaired it and didn’t provide any security. So a group of these refugees marched on UNHCR demanding more protections. They were attacked by locals, um, badly.
Several of them were hospitalized. And so the UNHCR suddenly relocated about 150 of them to Nairobi. They were able to place some of them in safe houses.” The majority of the refugees are still in a transit center where they have been since December 2018.
The need for real security for LGBTQI Ugandans in Kakuma and Kenya, in general, is partly because they have a hard time blending in with the rest of the population in the camp or in Kenyan society overall due to their dialect.
A Ugandan dialect is a strong indicator to Kenyans of someone who is LGBTQI since such refugees make up the vast majority of Ugandan refugees in the country. A Ugandan dialect in Kenya means discrimination against LGBTQI people, which is common there, severely limits their chances of work or living in relative safety.
Gabriel knows the struggles Adam speaks of first hand. He is a gay Ugandan man now living in Canada.
It all started when Gabriel was a child. He was suspended from school at age eleven for as he said, "acts contrary to the school rules and regulations."
The next school year he was expelled from school.
“I was again caught red-handed with my boyfriend as we had our moments in his house. He had been warned several times by his neighbors and he was cautioned never to bring a male in his house, something I didn’t know. On getting inside, it was just a few minutes when a group of people emerged, banged our door, broke it and got us outside, stripped naked, beaten up until police came. Because we were minors, the police resolved the matter by calling both our parents. My parents took me home, caned and tortured me, starved me and were made to sleep outside for days. My siblings were cautioned never to associate with me at any time.”
The torture continued until he was disowned by his family for not tolerating their abuse further. At sixteen, Gabriel was homeless.
He tried to keep a low profile while he stayed at friend’s houses, all the while knowing that violence against LGBTQI people was getting worse in Uganda.
The countrywide violence against LGBTQI people accelerated during 2012-14, when the United States Evangelical community’s anti-gay efforts in the country resulted in the passage of the Ugandan Anti-Homosexuality Act in 2014. During this time, Gabriel and his LGBTQI friends suspended their gatherings “in fear that the police can at any time raid us.”
It was during these years that Gabriel experienced the highest level of personal violence.
He had no recourse because going to the police to report anything was sure to cause him even more harm. He recalled that during this time, due to mob attacks, two of his friends were murdered. Another friend was attacked and survived. As his situation became dire, he went to a mosque for evening prayers. He was recognized.
“I was beaten up to near death, bled with cuts/bruises all over.”
The excuse for the beating: the assailants falsely claimed that Gabriel was there to recruit boys into homosexuality, a common trope of radical religions the world over.
From that point, Gabriel knew he could no longer survive as a gay person living in Uganda. That night, Gabriel walked over 20 kilometers to his partner’s house, who took him to the hospital. He then hid out in his partner’s house until his partner called supportive activists, who advised both of them to leave.
His partner decided to stay due to his work and because he had not himself encountered any anti-LGBTQI violence. The activists arranged for Gabriel to travel alone to Nairobi. A few weeks later, Gabriel learned that his partner was murdered.
In Kenya, things were not much better. Gabriel explained, “I can recall the hundreds of times I was denied services, job placements, rental houses just because I am a gay refugee.
The Kenyan society hated Ugandan refugees so much, for they knew we fled because we were gay. They actually referred to us as "the people Museveni doesn't want in his country." Museveni is the president of Uganda who championed the horrendous anti-gay bill, commonly referred to in the LGBTQI media and elsewhere as the “Kill the Gays Bill.”
For four years Gabriel waited for the UNHCR to determine his refugee status. His criticism echoed Adam Fitzgerald’s.
“It is quite unfortunate that the UNHCR Kenya is less bothered in prioritizing the protection of LGBT refugees. Many have been jailed, sentenced and several others kidnapped and forcefully repatriated back to Uganda by their families.”
Again, like in childhood, Gabriel found himself sleeping outside.
“I at several times had to sleep in the cold outside UNHRC offices, for I felt it was the only safe place I could be.”
But it was all in vain.
“I remember moments where spending days without feeding had become a usual practice, since UNHCR scraped away financial assistance for all LGBT refugees in January 2017.”
Finally, Gabriel came in contact with Refugee Coalition of East Africa.
“They were able to recognize the sensitivity of the matter and how my life was at risk. My case was referred to Rainbow Railroad, a Canadian organization that helps LGBT person flee the violence. Rainbow Railroad established avenues to get me to safety.”
Gabriel urged people to understand that
“LGBT refugees survive by God's grace, maybe, and only with the established peer to peer support systems.”
Gabriel was referring to those organizations on the ground, such as Refugee Coalition of East Africa, that are the lifeline to get LGBTQI people resources for survival now while also connecting them to individuals and organizations who can help from afar.
If you would like to help LGBTQI folks who are literally fighting for their lives as they migrate, seek asylum or refugee status, or find justice for themselves and their loved ones, here are a few organizations, mentioned in this article, to contact:
Tips for Seeking Asylum:
Be honest about your situation
Know the current asylum process for where you are planning to go and what problems you may have getting to your desired location
Make sure seeking asylum is what you want
Be patient and persistent
Look for good legal representation
Find out where the most hospitable locations are to seek asylum