Last edited: February 14, 2005

For Gay Armenian Refugee, Prayers for Asylum Finally Answered Armenian Refugee Joins Trend of Gays Granted Asylum in U.S.

Armen Grigoryan Among Those Attacked Outside Church

Roanoke Times, August 12, 2001
P. O. Box 2491, Roanoke, VA, 24010
Fax: 703-981-3204

"Now, I’m free. I can stay in this country. I can start working. I can start building my life back from zero."

By Kimberly O’brien, The Roanoke Times

From the time he was about 11, Armen Grigoryan knew he was different.

But for years, throughout adolescence, college and his career as a dentist, he never acted on it.

He never, ever told anyone he was gay.

In Armenia, that could mean prison.

Then someone, suspecting Grigoryan was gay, threatened to tell authorities, and all hell broke loose. He was beaten, at one point suffering a broken nose and a head injury. He was blackmailed. His car was vandalized. There is more, he said, but it is private and difficult to remember, let alone talk about.

"It was so bad, it’s hard to register," he said.

Fearful for his life, and tired of not being true to himself, Grigoryan left his home, his family, his friends and his dentistry practice. So about a year ago, he applied for a tourist visa, flew to the United States and ended up in Roanoke.

He didn’t go back.

Instead, he applied for asylum, listing his reason as the thing he never admitted in his own country:

He was gay.

After months of waiting, an interview with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and lots of worrying, Grigoryan got the answer he was hoping for Monday — recommendation for asylum in the United States. Although there’s one more step — the FBI has to check his fingerprints to make sure he’s stayed out of trouble — Grigoryan’s asylum is a pretty sure thing.

"I was abused. I was used as a person in my country," the 28-year-old said the day after getting his good news. "Now, I’m free. I can stay in this country. I can start working. I can start building my life back from zero."

In finding solace thousands of miles from home, Grigoryan joins a growing number of people who have sought asylum in the past decade because of sexual orientation. Although the INS doesn’t keep track of how many gays and lesbians seek asylum, partly because of privacy issues, lawyers who work with such asylum seekers say the numbers are growing.

"It’s a recent thing," said Adam Francoeur, a legal assistant for Washington, D.C., attorney Elizabeth McGrail, who handled Grigoryan’s case. "There seem to be more and more, as the laws become more liberal."

The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, based in San Francisco, reports at least 400 cases in which homosexuals have been granted asylum since 1990. That year, Congress removed homosexuality as a disqualification for admission to the United States, and a gay Cuban man was granted asylum.

In 1994, then-Attorney General Janet Reno declared the case a binding precedent for all immigration judges and courts. In doing so, homosexuals became accepted as a group that could receive asylum.

The United States grants asylum to people who have a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Gays and lesbians, the 1994 precedent established, constitute a social group.

"Since 1994, there have been hundreds of cases," said Pradeep Singla, staff attorney with the New York-based Lesbian and Gay Immigration Rights Task Force. "We are receiving more and more calls. As the gay men and lesbians gain more visibility in other countries, they are facing persecution."

Amnesty International, which in June published a 69-page report on torture and ill treatment based on sexual identity, gives these examples of persecution among stories from about 30 countries:

In Namibia, Africa, the home affairs minister was reported on state television last year to have urged new police officers to "eliminate" gay men and lesbians "from the face of Namibia."

In November 1996, four men arrested for "gross indecency" in Kingston, Jamaica, were forced to remove their clothes and stand naked in public view at an airport police station until the next day. Consensual sex between men is punishable by up to 10 years in prison with hard labor.

In Malaysia, "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" is punishable by up to 20 years in prison and whipping. In 1998, two men sentenced to six months’ prison time for "outrages on decency" were stripped naked and forced to simulate the sexual acts of which they were accused.

Under interpretations of Islamic law, punishment for sex outside marriage, including same-sex behavior, can result in up to 100 lashes for unmarried people and stoning to death for married people. In Afghanistan, men were reportedly crushed to death in 1998 and 1999 after being convicted of sodomy by a Taliban court. And in Chechnya, criminal code allows for the death penalty for male homosexual acts.

"If laws exist, they can be the basis of persecution," said Sydney Levy, communications director for the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. "If the laws don’t exist, there still can be persecution."

In Armenia—a former Soviet republic of 3.5 million people bordering Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan—sexual relations between men is punishable by up to five years in prison.

"Most of the time, the reality is extortion and beatings," said David Maxey, an immigration counselor with Refugee and Immigration Services in Roanoke who helped Grigoryan with his case.

Back in America, 20 states have laws prohibiting sodomy, sometimes referred to as a "crime against nature," according to the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. Of those 20, six states maintain laws that apply only to homosexual acts: Arkansas, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma. In Virginia, consensual sodomy by either sex is punishable by up to five years in prison.

But being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered should not be a crime, Singla said, and people should be accepted for who they are and not persecuted for being themselves.

Last August, an appeals court in California backed that up, ruling that a transsexual from Mexico who dressed like a woman was entitled to asylum. Mexico is among the countries where Amnesty International found evidence of brutality against homosexuals.

"It’s persecution if you’re forced to hide your beliefs," Singla said.

Grigoryan, who speaks Armenian, Russian, French and English, said he was happy in his country up until right before he felt forced to leave. As a doctor in dental surgery with his own office, Grigoryan said he felt free in every way but one.

"I had a great life in my country," he said. "I had friends. I had my own business, but I could never be who I was."

Arriving in the United States brought its own set of problems, however. Grigoryan found himself dealing with depression because of what he had been through and sought the help of a counselor.

Meeting his partner, Richard Justus, helped, too. Grigoryan met him through a man he knew in Roanoke, who was the reason Grigoryan first came here.

Singla said depression among gay asylum-seekers is not unusual. For some, seeking asylum means coming out for the first time.

"It can be a very emotionally overwhelming process," Singla said. "It’s not easy at all. For gays and lesbians, it’s so difficult to come out. They are extremely uncomfortable because of what happened in their own country. Here, they’re expected to declare their sexual orientation to lawyers, strangers and authorities."

And applying for asylum as a homosexual doesn’t mean automatic approval. Applicants must show documentation that they could face persecution, which Singla said can often be hard in countries where the media ignores crimes against homosexuals.

Grigoryan said he’d like to make himself available to others from Armenia who need someone to help with that information.

In fiscal year 2001, according to INS statistics, about 49,000 people applied for asylum in the United States; about 15,000 received approval. The day Grigoryan learned he had been recommended for asylum, he said he was one of only two out of a group of 10—he didn’t know their reasons—who got favorable results.

The 400 homosexuals that the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission have documented as getting asylum is actually "just a drop in bucket," said Levy, who’s not so sure that the numbers are growing.

Not everyone, however, is pleased that the United States is welcoming homosexuals.

Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Commission, a lobbying group for family values that opposes homosexual advocacy, said that there was opposition to the 1994 precedent set by Reno. The fact that gays are getting asylum is the Clinton administration still at work, she said.

"It’s just another example of using the long arm of the law to bring about acceptance of homosexuality," Lafferty said, adding, "It’s part of this whole agenda—breakdown of the family."

Lafferty challenged what gays and lesbians were considering persecution, pointing out that people in America are persecuted because they say homosexuality is a sin. Christians are persecuted all over the world, she said.

Still, there aren’t any anti-gay groups lobbying against the asylum laws at present, Lafferty said. She said it will likely take "some time" before the Bush administration and Congress address the issue.

"A lot of people believe this is out of control," she said.

But Grigoryan is not listening to the naysayers.

He’s not even letting a recent attack on him and Justus get him down. The two men were cursed at and beaten Aug. 1 while they were getting into their car outside Metropolitan Community Church of the Blue Ridge. Roanoke police are now calling the attack a hate crime, although the designation wouldn’t mean a harsher punishment for the still-free suspects. Sexual orientation isn’t included in Virginia’s hate-crime statute.

Grigoryan just wants to get on with his life, pray that his family in Armenia won’t be harassed because of him and one day resume his dentistry career. In five years, he can apply for U.S. citizenship.

"It was important for me," he said of seeking asylum. "I know that to be gay, I can be accepted. I’m human. I’m just regular. No one’s better than me."

Looking at Justus, his partner of just more than a year, Grigoryan grinned widely.

"I gave up everything to be with Richard and to be free," he said. "I have all I need to be happy."

  • Staff researcher Belinda Harris contributed to this report.

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