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
Times, August 12, 2001
P. O. Box 2491, Roanoke, VA, 24010
"Now, Im free. I can stay in this country. I can start working. I
can start building my life back from zero."
By Kimberly Obrien, 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, its 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 didnt 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
theres one more step the FBI has to check his fingerprints to make sure
hes stayed out of trouble Grigoryans 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, Im 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 doesnt 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.
"Its a recent thing," said Adam Francoeur, a legal assistant
for Washington, D.C., attorney Elizabeth McGrail, who handled Grigoryans
case. "There seem to be more and more, as the laws become more
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
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
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
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
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 dont exist, there still can be
In Armeniaa former Soviet republic of 3.5 million people bordering
Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijansexual 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.
"Its persecution if youre forced to hide your beliefs,"
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.
"Its not easy at all. For gays and lesbians, its so difficult to
come out. They are extremely uncomfortable because of what happened in their
own country. Here, theyre expected to declare their sexual orientation to
lawyers, strangers and authorities."
And applying for asylum as a homosexual doesnt 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
Grigoryan said hed 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 10he didnt know their reasonswho
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, whos not so sure that the numbers are growing.
Not everyone, however, is pleased that the United States is welcoming
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.
"Its just another example of using the long arm of the law to bring
about acceptance of homosexuality," Lafferty said, adding, "Its
part of this whole agendabreakdown 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
Still, there arent 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.
Hes 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 wouldnt
mean a harsher punishment for the still-free suspects. Sexual orientation isnt
included in Virginias hate-crime statute.
Grigoryan just wants to get on with his life, pray that his family in
Armenia wont 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. Im human. Im just regular. No
ones better than me."
Looking at Justus, his partner of just more than a year, Grigoryan grinned
"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.