Now underway, award winning photographer Stephen Laxton and New York City's LGBT Community Center have launched "Free to Be Me," a photography and essay exhibit which preserves and celebrates the stories of LGBT immigrants to the United States. The exhibition was put together in conjunction with Immigration Equality, the country's leading LGBT immigrants' rights organization.
"Our clients are hands down the bravest people I have ever met. Every day, I feel honored to know and work with them. Through Steven's beautiful photography, the broader public will have a chance to get to know and appreciate them too," said Jackie Yodashkin, Immigration Equality's Public Affairs Director.
Indeed, these are brave and hearty souls who share their personal stories. Yodashkin points out that it is unsafe, or even a crime to be LGBT in 80 countries around the world. For many, coming to the United States can mean the difference between life and death. Immigration Equality has secured asylum in the U.S. for more than 1,000 LGBT or HIV positive individuals.
One such person, who's story is shared in "Free to Be Me," is Ishalaa, a transgender activist from Mexico. She was the lead spokesperson for an LGBT rights organization in Mexico and organized protests against an anti-LGBT gubernatorial candidate in her state. After receiving death threats, Ishalaa fled for her safety. She spent a month in detention after she presented herself at the U.S. border before she was released on bond. Two and a half years later she was granted asylum.
Other stories in the exhibition include that of Alena, a lesbian from Russia, a country that has been rife with anti-LGBT violence. Alena came to the U.S. in 2009 in search of freedom and safety. With Immigration Asylum's help she was granted asylum and has since been granted a green card. She now owns her own jewelry business and has six employees. Last summer Alena became a US citizen.
"The day I took my oath, I felt like the heaviest weight was lifted," Alena said. "It felt like freedom."
Still another story is that of Victor, a gay man from Columbia. Victor fled Columbia after he was gay bashed and was blamed for his attack by the police. But then he had to return to Columbia to care for his ailing mother. When he tried to re-enter the U.S., he was detained. With the help of Immigration Equality Victor was released. In December 2013 he married his husband Derik. The couple started a catering business and Victor has since been granted his green card.
These are but some of the stories on display in "Free to Be Me." Steven Laxton, himself an immigrant, explained why he became involved with the project.
"I wanted to celebrate Immigration Equality's inspiring clients," he said. "They have overcome horrific adversity, and truly add so much to our communities. I hope that through my photography more people will be able to learn about and appreciate LGBT immigrants and their contributions to our nation."
View the exhibit online at ImmigrationEquality.org/FreeToBeMe.