Last edited: February 14, 2005

Gays Seeking Asylum Find Familiar Prejudices in U. S.

New York Times, August 2, 2001
229 W. 43rd Street, New York, NY, 10036
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By John Leland

By the time he came to the United States in 1999, Gerson Platero, 29, had had his fill of life as a gay man in Latin America. He had been attacked by the police in El Salvador because he is gay, he said, and shot at after moving to Guatemala. He fled to the United States, to attend an AIDS conference, and applied for asylum based on his sexual orientation.

His application was granted last March.

But Mr. Platero, like many other gay men and lesbians from abroad, found that even in the United States there was antigay animus. As he was walking through a Hispanic neighborhood near his home in Washington recently, he said, a man yelled slurs and attacked him.

"It’s like being in Latin America," Mr. Platero said. "They’re living here, but they bring with them the culture and the church prejudices."

Mr. Platero is one of a small but growing number of gay men and lesbians who have won asylum here in the last decade. They fled abuse or threat of death, either perpetrated or condoned by foreign governments and police departments.

Many leave dire circumstances, only to face what lawyers describe as a uniquely fraught road to asylum, with the worst rejection often coming from their fellow countrymen. Established immigrant communities, which historically function as a lifeline for newcomers -- helping with the language, the law, employment and credit -- often reject or even menace gay men and lesbians seeking asylum.

"It’s the same homophobic community," said Wilfredo Valencia, 34, who applied for asylum in the San Francisco Bay area last November, after what he said were repeated attacks from the police in El Salvador.

Mr. Valencia is awaiting judgment on his application.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service does not keep figures on how many people seek or receive asylum based on their sexual orientation, but the agency and lawyers who represent gay asylum seekers say there are hundreds.

What they often find here is isolation. A Lebanese woman who agreed to be identified only by the initial N said she got asylum after her family threatened to report her to the police in Beirut, where homosexuality is a crime.

But at her first job in the United States, she said, she found herself surrounded by other Arab professionals, in constant fear that they would discover that she is gay. Now she isolates herself from other Arabs in her New Jersey community, and especially hides her sexual orientation.

Like Mr. Platero, she misses bonds of culture and language. But seeing other Arabs, she said, "made me relive my fears from Lebanon, and I did not come out to them."

Lawyers who handle such cases say the number of gay asylum seekers has steadily increased since 1994, when the Board of Immigration Appeals published a decision that a gay man was eligible for asylum, and Attorney General Janet Reno instructed immigration officers and courts to use the decision as a precedent.

The United States grants asylum to people with a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group. The 1994 precedent established that gays constituted a social group.

Persecution of gays is global, human rights groups say. A June report by Amnesty International describes abuses in 30 countries throughout Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and the Middle East. It also criticized police abuse and antisodomy laws in the United States.

The report cited Namibia, for example, where Jerry Dkandjo, the home affairs minister, reportedly urged new police officers to "eliminate" homosexuals. In Chechnya, under the Muslim Shari’a criminal code, punishment for male homosexual acts can include execution. Interpretations of the Shari’a code extend throughout the Islamic world.

The list of countries from which gay men and lesbians have been granted asylum includes Albania, Bangladesh, Belarus, Brazil, Chile, China, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran, Jamaica, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mauritania, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Peru, Romania, Russia, Singapore, Syria, Togo, Tunisia, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela and Yemen.

For many gays, leaving these countries can be just the beginning of the struggle, said Flavio Alves, who has interviewed 287 such asylum seekers for a book about gay men and lesbians fleeing persecution.

Mr. Alves, 31, was a gay activist in Brazil until death threats forced him to flee; he received asylum in the United States in 1998.

Suhardy, 29, an Indonesian who said he fled the threat of an "honor killing" from a lover’s family, spent 27 months in an immigration service detention center in El Paso. Mr. Suhardy said another inmate raped him because he is gay. (Like many Indonesians, Mr. Suhardy does not have a first name.)

Gays are often isolated in detention centers to protect them from such attacks. But this isolation also prevents them from using the law libraries in the detention centers, a particular hardship for those who cannot afford lawyers. Mr. Suhardy, who did not have money for a lawyer, was unable to convince the courts that he faced likely persecution if returned to Indonesia. In July, he lost his final appeal; he is now living in a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, awaiting deportation.

"I feel fear," he said. "I have no appetite to live."

Under a 1998 revision in the asylum law, visitors to the United States must apply for asylum within a year of entering the country. But many do not know that sexual orientation can be grounds for asylum.

"Even a lot of immigration lawyers don’t know the law," said Suzanne Goldberg, a law professor at Rutgers University and member of the Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force, a nonprofit group in New York.

Pedro Luís Abosolo, 31, came to Houston in 1998 on a temporary visa after, he said, the police in Mexico City arrested him, threatening him and demanding money. The first two lawyers he consulted told him he could not get asylum based on his sexual orientation, Mr. Abosolo said. An immigration court eventually denied his application, but Mr. Abosolo has appealed, a process that often takes years to resolve.

Like many other asylum seekers, Jeremy, who would not allow his full name to be used, said he had been so terrorized by the authorities in his native Brazil that he had been afraid to ask the immigration service for help.

Jeremy said he fled Rio de Janeiro after his mother discovered he is gay and went after him with a knife, vowing to kill him. At a Starbucks in New Brunswick, N.J., in June, he pointed to a thin lattice of scars on his right arm, and a burn on his torso, reminders of his mother’s attacks and those of a Brazilian death squad, which also beat him because he is gay, he said.

In his first months in the United States, he was depressed, lost weight and ran out of money. He had nightmares almost every night. When he finally went to an asylum officer, he said, "I thought he was going to say, ‘Fags must die.’ I thought they’d say, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’"

Jeremy’s application was granted in May. The headaches passed, but he said he was still "afraid to spit in the street," afraid that he would be deported. New Jersey has been a haven, yet he does not feel secure. He clings to a boyfriend who he said treats him poorly.

"I have no family," he said. "I need someone to give affection, to get affection."

Mr. Platero, the Salvadoran who was attacked by another Latino, said this isolation compounded the abuse he had endured back home. He does not like to walk through Hispanic neighborhoods in Washington.

"That’s the worst torture," Mr. Platero said. "I lost my whole background, my family."

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