Persecution and Identity—Stories of LGBT Asylum Seekers

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By Jacob Thompson

The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) works with over 300 survivors of torture from around the world, an estimated 5-8% are asylum seekers or asylees from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. They come from diverse countries including Egypt, the former Soviet Union, Kenya, Serbia, Jamaica, Uganda, Nigeria and Cameroon. Their lives differ in many ways from the typical TASSC survivor who is fleeing political persecution. LGBT survivors were persecuted because of their sexual identity, because of who they are, not what they believe. TASSC believes it is important to shed light on their stories.

There has been a dramatic improvement over the last 40 years for LGBT people in the United States and much of Europe. But this is not true in most other countries--74 out of 195 countries still criminalize homosexuality. LGBT people are imprisoned and tortured by governments, their own family members and communities. They are subjected to beatings, forced to perform sexual acts and murdered in “honor killings” by family members because they are considered “impure.”

Six people were interviewed for this article, some from TASSC and others referred by DC Center Global, a volunteer organization that provides a welcoming environment for LGBT asylum seekers along. It follows the lives of four LGBT people and tells their stories of persecution at home, and what happened to them after they arrived in the United States. Marcial (a pseudonym), a TASSC survivor from Cameroon, was targeted by his government because he was seen as sympathetic to LGBT people when he was interviewing some for a research project.

Learning What it Means to Be Gay

“Growing up, you learn right away how being LGBT is viewed in your country,” is something heard frequently from LGBT people all over the world. This can result in what TASSC psychologists call “developmental wounds” - psychological wounds from repeated physical and/or verbal assaults from childhood over a long period of time; this often leads to more difficult healing processes.

Jean-Leon Kassi, an aslyee from Ivory Coast, was ridiculed from an early age. “I’ve always had more feminine characteristics and people would single me out for these characteristics every day,” he said. He had mostly girl friends; they would play with dolls and comb each other’s hair. His relatives and classmates would tell him “you are too girly” and “you will be gay.”

People often choose to stay quiet about who they are when they are young. “You learn to lie easily,” said Noura Moira, a transgender woman from Saudi Arabia. “To be a survivor in Saudi Arabia, you have to hide yourself completely, and make sure 1000% that a person you are talking to or dating is not a government agent trying to catch you.” Saudi Arabia is one of eight countries where homosexuality is punishable by death.

Growing up in Nigeria, A.E. knew there would be severe consequences for anyone who identifies as LGBT. Homosexuality is illegal but often community members decide to “punish” LGBT people themselves instead of waiting for the police to act. A.E. has pictures from an Instagram account, “instablog9ja,” showing Nigerian gay men being paraded through streets, stripped, beaten, and sometimes killed.

Persecution at Home

Jean-Leon saw the consequences of the negative stigmas when he came out to his aunt, who basically raised him. When he told her, “Auntie, I am a homosexual,” he felt like he was being stripped naked and his aunt would not look at him the same way. A pastor told his aunt, “Jean-Leon can’t stay in your house, he is a sinner.” He begged to stay with his aunt but she told him “No, you will contaminate the others,” and he was forced to leave.

When A.E. decided to meet someone online discreetly, a Nigerian civilian “caught him” going into the home of a potential companion. The civilian took him to the police station. Instead of protecting him, the police allowed the Nigerian civilian to blackmail A.E., threatening to “expose” him as gay.

Noura was also blackmailed at age 14 by one of her teachers. He forced her to perform sexual acts on him. Then when she was 18, the same teacher took her to a private building and forced her to have sex with 12 males in two days. “I thought I would die each minute from the pain,” she said. “The teacher told me, “this is your place in the world.”

The teacher continued to force Noura to have sex with men, and give him the money she earned. She became so depressed that she attempted suicide several times. Looking back, she said “What is life where no one understands and accepts you?”

Deciding to Escape

Jean-Leon, Noura, A.E., and Steven all decided to leave their lives behind and flee to the United States out of necessity, not choice.  

In her mid-twenties, Noura met a man in Saudi Arabia whom she secretly “married” and calls her “husband.” After the husband’s family discovered their relationship, the family tried to murder Noura and forced the husband to marry a woman. When the “husband” and his new wife moved to Arkansas, Noura went to visit him there. In Arkansas, Noura says she “found Jesus” and converted to Christianity.

When Noura returned to Saudi Arabia, her family found out she had converted and were outraged—they still did not know she was gay. For 15 months they tortured her inside her home because she had become a Christian. Noura has photos of large bruises all over her body, including some from her brother scratching her with a hot knife. That was when she decided to flee to the U.S. permanently.

In January of 2017, Jean-Leon was attacked by a youth group. They surrounded him holding wooden batons and told him “We know you’re a faggot. You’re going to contaminate our kids and you have to leave our city.” They pushed him to the ground and beat him with wooden batons, breaking his shoulder. After six months of recovery in hiding, Jean-Leon left the Ivory Coast.

A.E. paid off his blackmailers with all the money he had, but they kept harassing him and his family members, including his small niece. Finally he had enough. “I did not want my problems to be my niece’s problems,” he said. So he left his home and sought asylum in the U.S.

Steven (a pseudonym), comes from a country that was part of the former Soviet Union where homosexuality is now legal. But he says being LGBT is still considered “immoral,” similar to how sex offenders are viewed in the United States. He was raped and tortured and his own father blamed Steven’s mother for “raising a gay son.” Steven decided to escape and build a new life in the United States, which he had visited before saying, “It was not safe at home, not at all.”

Life in the U.S.

LGBT asylum seekers in the United States deal with their sexual orientation in different ways. According to TASSC psychologists and social workers, some are comfortable are identifying as LGBT. Others are still traumatized from having to hide who they were for so long. Just getting to the U.S. and feeling safe is sometimes enough for them. Many also look for acceptance in their diaspora communities, which have conservative views on sexuality, causing some survivors to live a dual life if they want to identify with both their culture and their sexual orientation.

Jean-Leon was granted asylum six months after arriving in the United States. He has chosen not to interact with the diaspora from the Ivory Coast, because he does not want them to “judge” him. Before receiving asylum, he worked in menial jobs where his employer exploited him. Now that he has asylum, he is looking forward to a better future.

Since he could not work when he first arrived in the U.S., A.E. used his savings to travel by bus to over 18 states, from California to Texas to Maryland, as a form of therapy. He has been granted asylum and now works for a PNC Bank.

Steven’s first year in the United States was extremely difficult. Without a work permit he could not earn any money. He recalls walking long distances just to get free food and often did not have a place to stay. At one point he was detained by ICE (Immigrant and Customs Enforcement), part of the Department of Homeland Security, where he said he was “treated like an animal” and psychologically tortured. He was shocked that this could happen in the United States to an asylum seeker. Things began to improve for him. He got a work permit, found a good job and was eventually granted asylum. Steven also volunteered with TASSC’s Advocacy program, visiting Congress to support a Senate resolution that would create a permanent U.S. envoy for LGBT people in the State Department.

Noura received funding from the Arkansas church where she converted to fly to Washington DC. When she arrived in Washington, she had to move around from place to place, to avoid a brother sent from Saudi Arabia to kill her. She finally settled in Washington DC and is living at a shelter provided by Casa Ruby, the only bilingual organization for LGBT people. That was when Noura decided to commit to her transgender identity, saying “this will either break me, or I will break it.”

From then on she started wearing women’s clothing everywhere. Noura applied for asylum five months ago and is waiting for an interview with an asylum officer. Noura is also concerned with “the war of colors” between ethnic groups happening in the shelter. She is disappointed by this racism, asking: “We in the LGBT community see how people discriminate against us, so why are we discriminating against each other?”

TASSC and DC Center Global continue to reach out and embrace LGBT asylum seekers and asylees. “George” from the Middle East, a TASSC LGBT survivor, says “TASSC was a welcoming place where I felt comfortable identifying as LGBT. My social worker and other staff gave me a safe place where I could process my stress and anxiety, organize my life, learn to network then find a job.”

I want to thank Noura, A.E., Jean-Leon, Steven, Marcial and George for being brave by telling their stories for this article. You can learn more about TASSC by visiting www.tassc.org and DC Center Global at http://thedccenter.org/centerglobal? Asylum-Connect at https://www.asylumconnect.org provides the first ever online resource database for LGBT asylum seekers.

Jacob Thompson was an Advocacy Intern at TASSC, in summer 2018. He is a student at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania studying Political Science and Psychology, and hopes to become a public interest lawyer.