Column: The Other Refugee Crisis

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Photo: Tomislav Georgiev for CNN

With this year’s Supreme Court victory for marriage equality, it is easy to forget that LGBT people still face dire circumstances over large swaths of the globe. Seventy-nine countries still criminalize LGBT life in some way, including some that have the death penalty. While these laws are sometimes directly enforced, they more often reinforce societal discrimination and embolden both state and non-state actors to target the identified scapegoat.

The decreasing effectiveness of inflammatory rhetoric in the U.S. signals new challenges for human rights activists in places such as Uganda and Russia. In recent years, the lucrative anti-gay industry has had success exporting its toxic mix of pseudoscience, religion, and fear.

Scott Lively, who made his name blaming homosexuals for the Holocaust, is one example of a hate entrepreneur. As this country became increasingly unreceptive, he shifted his focus to a more receptive overseas audience. Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” bill owes much of its “intellectual” backing to Lively and his ilk. Lively has also ventured into Russia, where his message has contributed to President Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on LGBT expression.

And of course there are the two most populous countries, where queer organizing is still a precarious endeavor. India’s judiciary seemed to have invalidated its sodomy law, only to reinstate it subsequently. Windows of hope crack open occasionally in China only to be shut by leaders eager to quash any activity that could be seen as human rights organizing.

Given these attacks on LGBT life, we must ask ourselves what we can do from our privileged position. Supporting organizations in the affected countries when they request such support is critical to building sustainable local movements. Already European and North American governments and private foundations fund HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs that work with activists focused on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. Many times this is the only way to organize in extremely dangerous settings.

Beyond such support, our country must provide refuge for LGBT individuals who are forced from their countries of origin. While asylum exists as an option for some, it places an inordinate burden on most persecuted individuals. A gay man from Jamaica, for instance, must gather enough money to move to the U.S. and obtain a temporary visa under false pretenses. If his community finds out, he may not survive the ensuing mob. If the U.S. consular officer who is interviewing him for his tourist or student visa finds out that he fears persecution due to his sexual orientation, that officer will likely deny his only path to the U.S. and to freedom.

The obstacles do not end there. LGBT individuals must navigate a byzantine legal system to win asylum. This entails finding legal representation, a particularly tricky endeavor in a field crowded with incompetent lawyers and non-lawyer scammers. Asylum seekers must find a job or other way to support themselves, but virtually no one is authorized to work legally until 180 days after filing an asylum application. Networks of support that are available to other immigrants are often unavailable due to homophobia within many families and immigrant communities. Healthcare, especially related to mental well-being, is not readily available in most of the U.S. Mental health services are incredibly important to these individuals, nearly all of whom have endured torture or other traumas. Finding culturally and linguistically appropriate professionals who are also LGBT-affirming can be daunting.

Once asylum is granted, which can take several years, the problems do not end. While asylees are allowed to immediately petition for spouses and children outside the U.S., this option is closed to most asylees with same-sex partners. In a recent move, the State Department changed its policy to allow some same-sex partners from a few countries to immigrate once their partners are designated as refugees. However, the vast majority of families of LGBT asylees are left to fend for themselves in the persecuting countries or somehow find their own way out.

The federal government could alleviate many of these challenges by incorporating LGBT communities into its refugee admissions policy. Horror stories abound of LGBT individuals and families pleading to U.S. embassies and their international partners for life-saving assistance, only to be turned away. Not only should the U.S. be steering these individuals through the refugee process, but also officials should be proactively identifying potential beneficiaries. Once in the U.S., these refugees need services that are sensitive to the types of persecution they suffered. Advocates report that current resettlement programs contracting with the federal government are plagued with homophobia and transphobia.

Regardless of how they reach our country, LGBT immigrants deserve support services that address their very particular needs. Unfortunately, this population’s needs remain neglected even as the number of funding sources for LGBT-focused and immigrant-focused programs grows. The fact remains that even the most altruistic-sounding service providers follow the money, meaning much of the inaction stems from the lack of funding dedicated specifically to LGBT immigrants.

Money is not the only issue; the ideological priorities of the movement also matter. Many LGBT organizations are ultimately run by wealthier, whiter gay men (although there are exceptions). Marriage was their goal, and now it is time to pack up the movement and ride off into the sunset. Grassroots activists are left to address a host of pressing issues, to name just a few: transgender justice, economic disparities, youth and education, and immigration. LGBT issues do not fare much better at major immigrant advocacy organizations. Many of these groups fight for what they term “comprehensive” immigration reform yet omit LGBT concerns.

There is indeed an ongoing refugee crisis that has largely escaped the attention of this country. How the LGBT community responds will be a measure of whether the movement will carry forth the legacy of Stonewall.

Sebastian Maguire is an immigration attorney and legislative aide to New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm.


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