Guest blogger Max Niedzwiecki is the founder and coordinator of the LGBT Faith & Asylum Network and a consultant with the Daylight Consulting Group.*
Homer’s Odyssey is compelling in part because it’s such an extraordinary love story. The hero, Odysseus, endures shipwreck, the Cyclops, and the Land of the Dead to be reunited with his beloved Penelope.
We feel empty when our capacity to love is thwarted. We go to great lengths to find the person to whom we can give ourselves unconditionally. Sometimes what gets in the way is far less romantic than great sweeps of time and space. It’s human ignorance. It’s simple bigotry codified as law.
That’s the challenge faced by a man—we’ll call him David—who flew 6,000 miles from Nigeria to search for the freedom to love in our country.
Being gay carries the death penalty in parts of northern Nigeria. Throughout the country, same-sex behavior is criminalized, and prison terms of up to 14 years can be imposed on people for entering into committed same-sex relationships. Mobs can attack LGBT people with impunity, and membership in any kind of gay society or organization can bring prison terms of up to ten years.
When David arrived in the US and informed a customs officer that he intended to file for asylum, he was jailed. He has no legal right to a lawyer. If he’s released, he will be barred from working for at least six months before filing for asylum.
David is not a rich man, so his options are limited. He’s now in detention, where he’s likely to be abused because he’s gay. If and when he gets out before a successful asylum application, he’ll rely entirely on the kindness of strangers to keep him off the street. If his asylum application is rejected – which is likely unless he can find a good pro bono lawyer – he’ll be returned to a country where he is likely to be beaten, imprisoned, or killed.
David is one of thousands of people who come to the US every year seeking safety from persecution that is motivated by homophobia and transphobia. It’s illegal to be gay in nearly 80 countries, seven impose the death penalty, and in many more there is no accountability for people who attack or murder people just because they are LGBT. Russia has gotten a lot of press lately, but it is not the worst place to be queer.
Invisibility is imposed on LGBT asylum seekers in the US, just as it is in their countries of origin. In the US, many are hidden in an immigration detention system that is required by law to fill at least 34,000 beds every night. Others live on the streets or in the shadows because it’s illegal for them to work or use most social service programs. Unlike most other immigrants, they usually arrive in this country alone, and because of continued prejudice they choose to hide from their former compatriots. If they aren’t fluent in English, this isolation makes it even harder for them to find safety.
LGBT asylum seekers are also invisible to American grantmakers and nonprofit organizations. Asylum seekers are barred from receiving almost all services supported by government funds, and the foundation world has yet to come around: only one American foundation – and a small one at that – has started to make grants to a group that is helping LGBT asylum seekers with necessities such as shelter, food, clothing, and medical care.
In June of 2012 a few advocates and service providers joined together for the first time to talk about what could be done do to help LGBT asylum seekers live through the period between their arrival in the US and the resolution of their applications for asylum. The LGBT Faith & Asylum Network (LGBT-FAN) has since created a community where people engaged in the work could encourage and learn from one another.
LGBT-FAN has also created a referral network connecting all regions of this country. In January of 2014, it organized a well-attended congressional briefing with support from the LGBT Equality Caucus, Center for American Progress, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Heartland Alliance, Unitarian Universalist Association, and others. LGBT-FAN has established a charitable fund at a community foundation that will dedicate 99% of all money collected to providing shelter, food, medical assistance, and other basic necessities to LGBT asylum seekers. You can contribute to this fund by visiting this page.* You can also sign a petition here.
There’s still a long journey ahead for David and the thousands of other asylum seekers who every year cross land and sea in search of basic human dignity. Driven from their countries of origin, they seek compassion and a simple gesture of welcome, in places very far from home.
* Disclosure statement: Max Niedzwiecki is married to White Courtesy Telephone founding editor, Albert Ruesga. The charitable fund established by LGBT-FAN is held at the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF) where Albert serves as president & CEO. As is standard for donor-advised funds at GNOF, the Foundation charges the fund a one percent per annum administration fee.