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The Plight of LGBT Refugees
Gay, lesbian and transgender people fleeing persecution often struggle to find a place where they belong.
By Courtney Suciu
LGBT protesters recently gathered in front of the United Nations agency in Nairobi to demand protection from the homophobic violence and discrimination inflicted on them at the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya.
They came from Rwanda, Uganda, Somalia and the Congos where members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual and intersex communities are considered criminals. In those countries, they are subject to harassment, abuse and even death because of their sexual orientation and gender identities.
While same-sex relations are also against the law in Kenya, it is not strictly enforced, and the nation recognizes the right of persecuted LGBT people to seek asylum.
“Once in Kenya, however, LGBT refugees are ordered to stay in one of the two designated areas in the country, either the Kakuma refugee camp or Dadaab in the northeast,” reported EFE News Service1.
“It’s something we have been hearing since 2016, that the LGBTI refugees in Kakuma have been experiencing threats,” Human Rights Watch researcher Otsieno Namwaya told the agency.
“That is why we are here,” a protester from Uganda told EFE, “to ask them [the United Nations High Commission for Refugees] where we are supposed to be.”
But on May 10, 2019, police claimed protesters at the UN were blocking a major road and moved in with tear gas, arresting dozens on charges of assault and public scandal. However, other reports indicated that the protesters were peacefully demonstrating and only fought back in defense when the police attacked them.
This currently unfolding situation made us wonder about the plight of LGBT populations who flee persecution in their native countries. What conditions force them to leave behind their lives and loved ones? Why do they risk the journey to foreign lands? And what awaits them when they reach the places where they expect to find refuge?
Why LGBT people flee their native countries
In the late 20th century, inspired by LGBT populations in the places like the U.S., Europe and Canada, people in the developing world started coming out about their sexual and gender identities. But this gradual openness roused tremendous social upheaval in parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Central America. This often resulted in a violent backlash against LGBT populations, according to the documentary, Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World2.
Narrator Janeane Garofolo explained, “As the millennium approached, the crackdown began…The resurgence of fundamentalism coincided with the increase in gay visibility in the developing world.”
Public lashings, imprisonment and death sentences have been common punishments for same-sex relationships and gender nonconformity in many countries. According to the film, Zimbabwe’s Minister Makumbe said anyone convicted of homosexuality “must be castrated.” In Namibia, the president called for the “elimination” of all LGBT people. Homosexuality was condemned as “a moral perversion” by church leaders in Brazil.
These attitudes toward same sex relationships also pervaded Egypt. Ashraf Zanati described to filmmakers his experiences as a young gay man in Cairo during the 1990s: “In Egypt, sex is a taboo,” he said. “And when you have a taboo, it’s difficult to share it with other people [so when you do] you feel relaxed. If you don’t, it’s a burden.”
The Queen Boat, a floating night club on the Nile River, became the place where closeted homosexuals were able to meet and escape the burden of living in secrecy. But on May 11, 2001, police raided the Queen Boat and arrested a large group of men who would come to be known as the “Cairo 52.” Zanati was among them.
I was beaten for this day... They started collecting like groups and putting them in rooms and beating them up. So, I heard people screaming and they put us all in one enormous horrible, ugly, cold room, filthy. It's not a room for human beings. Once we walked in the prison it started to rain. I didn't know what sign is it. The next day, the shift of the prison came and they called our names, they put us outside, we had to take off all our clothes and they kept hitting us.
He was sentenced to two years imprisonment and two years of probation, after which Zanati planned to leave Egypt. A video clip from the 1990s showed him packing up as he discussed the decision which would tear him away from his home and family:
Here, I'm at my home in my own flat... And I'm leaving that all behind and I'm going, I'm leaving. I'm leaving everything behind me, even my memories. My mommy is very attached to me. When I told her that I'm leaving, she couldn't believe it and she said, "Try again to be here." But I couldn't. Where I'll be staying or what is tomorrow going to be?
In January 2003, Zanati emigrated to Canada where, beginning in 1991, LGBT immigrants were welcome.
The Mariel boatlift and U.S. immigration policy
While many LGBT refugees and asylum seekers have found safety and protection in the West, that hasn’t always been the case.
Prior to 1990, U.S. immigration law excluded LBGT people from entering the country, though according to a policy enacted in 1980, “’aliens’ were not to be asked about their sexual preferences during ‘primary inspection,’” according to Susana Peña’s article “’Obvious Gays’ and the State Gaze: Cuban Gay Visibility and U.S. Immigration Policy During the 1980 Mariel Boatlift3.”
However, Peña continued, this policy noted anyone who voluntarily admitted to being homosexual would be subjected to a “secondary interview” where they would explicitly be asked about their sexual preference. Respondents who said “no” to being homosexual were released without further questioning; those who answered “yes” were referred to an immigration judge who would decide whether to let them stay.
Coincidentally, this “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was enacted toward the end of a massive influx of refugees – many of them gay men – from Cuba.
“The Mariel boatlift” transported nearly 125,000 “Marielitos” (as they came to be known) from the Mariel Harbor in Cuba to Florida between April and October 1980. Fidel Castro had announced that any Cuban wishing to leave the island would be allowed to depart; and as a part of this program, Peña wrote, the Cuban government “developed a selective process to facilitate the exit of people whom the revolution had already identified as undesirable,” including gay men.
Homophobia was systemized in the country’s laws and culture. Peña explained, “The state had especially targeted gender transgressives, ‘ostentatious,’ or obvious homosexuals. Long hair, tight pants colorful shirts, so-called effeminate mannerisms…were seen as markers of male homosexuality.”
“The gravest crime was not same-sex sexual acts per se,” she added, but defying a conventional and conservative version of masculinity.
To expedite their exit from Cuba, many gay (as well as some straight) men “deliberately perform[ed] the category of flamboyant, effeminate homosexual for state officials,” she wrote. They dressed, walked and spoke the part of “obvious homosexuals” to obtain permits allowing them to leave the country.
Activist organizations step up to welcome Cuban refugees
The challenge was, while appearing “obviously homosexual” helped them out of Cuba, it made their entry into the U.S. more challenging. While the U.S. government basically turned a blind eye to the number of gay refugees arriving from Cuba (because it wasn’t in their best interest to turn away immigrants escaping a communist nation), local and national media reported widely on their large numbers in U.S. resettlement camps.
“Gender transgressive homosexuals were generally segregated or self-segregated within the camps and were, therefore, more visible to visitors and the press,” Peña explained.
Media coverage sparked a public debate, revealing a range of attitudes. Some officials were quoted using derogatory language in their defense of keeping gay refugees isolated in the camps, Peña noted; other critics brought up public health concerns related to sexually transmitted disease and mental health issues.
But the media attention also brought the plight of the LGBT refugees to the attention of advocacy groups who were galvanized to support this vulnerable population who seemed to be caught between two worlds.
For example, on the west coast, The Los Angeles Times4 reported on a consortium of local churches formed to find sponsors for gay refugees in an effort to save them from languishing in the camps and resettle them in L.A. While on the east coast, the Baltimore Gay Alliance sent a letter5 to the State Department requesting to visit gay refugees held in isolation at a camp in Pennsylvania.
“We feel that they would particularly benefit from the knowledge of sincere concern and support that must result from a visit by American homosexuals,” they wrote.
However, despite work by LGBT organizations and other social activists, gay refugees from Cuba struggled to find their place in the U.S. As Peña concluded, “identification as homosexual did not necessarily lead to exclusion” for the Marielitos but it “contributed to an ambiguous sociocultural standing [for them] in the broader U.S. society.”
In other words, refugees who fled persecution in Cuba still faced many challenges in the U.S. because of their sexual identity. They found themselves in a gray area where they were accepted into the country, but they weren’t exactly accepted by the country.
Much like LGBT refugees who fled persecution in Uganda, Somalia and Rwanda and are now struggling to find acceptance in Kenya.
- LGBT refugees in Kenya, Trapped between Homophobia, Bureaucracy: KENYA LGBT (2019, May 17). EFE News Service. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
- Dangerous Living: Coming Out in the Developing World. Scagliotti, J. (Director). (2003, Jan 01).[Video/DVD] First Run Features. Available from ProQuest One Academic and Academic Video Online.
- Peña, S. (2007). "Obvious Gays" and the State Gaze: Cuban Gay Visibility and U.S. Immigration Policy During the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. Journal of the History of Sexuality, 16(3), 482-514,518. Available from ProQuest Central and ProQuest One Academic.
- Welkos, R. (1980, Aug 07). Drive On to Bring 700 Gay Cuban Refugees to L.A. Los Angeles Times (1923-1995). Available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Letter from Baltimore Gay Alliance to Victor H. Palmieri, re: Homosexual Cuban Refugees at Fort Indiantown Gap, June 22, 1980. (1980, June 22). Immigration during the Carter Administration: Records of the Cuban-Haitian Task Force (RG220), Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. Available from Border and Migration Studies Online and Global Issues Library.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu