Before Pride season officially kicked off, President Biden took steps to restore rights and protections for LGBTQ refugees who seek asylum in the U.S., reversing the homophobic policies of the Trump administration.
Having policies that welcome LGBTQ refugees is key for those fleeing prejudice and discrimination, but so is courage. It’s one thing to make plans to leave but it’s another to actually do it. That takes real bravery.
Alice, a young entrepreneur from Uganda—one of the most virulently anti-gay countries in the world—decided her only option was to leave.
Four years ago, Alice was a 24-year-old business major living in Kampala. Outgoing, resourceful and fluent in English, she had her whole life ahead of her except for one thing—she was gay in Uganda.
The country is so homophobic that the Parliament attempted to pass “The Anti Homosexuality Bill” in 2014, making homosexuality punishable by death. Nicknamed the “kill the gays” law, the legislation was never enacted but was instead amended to life in prison.
In May of this year, a new Sexual Offenses Bill was passed reinforcing the criminalization of homosexuality. This level of homophobia isn’t indigenous to Uganda but stems from right-wing Christian evangelicals in the West who have used it as a way to establish a foothold in Africa.
Being queer in Uganda means jail for life; the only alternative for many is to hide.
Alice did just that. Even though she kept her sexuality to herself, her parents suspected the truth. Her father believed that marrying a man would fix the shame her sexuality had caused the family, so he forced her to marry. Like many in Uganda, he thought homosexuality was caused by demons and that a person could become straight once the demons were excised. Alice’s mother also convinced her to marry. “I wanted to make her happy, but it didn’t work out. The marriage didn’t last a month.”
But by the time the short-lived marriage ended, Alice realized she was pregnant.
After her daughter was born, Alice continued to work—braiding hair and running a money wiring service with a business partner. Alice had worked for an employer before starting her own business but was terminated when they found out she was a lesbian. Being self-employed helped but the dangers associated with being gay were ever-present.
One night, a friend invited her to an underground LGBTQ party. It was there that Alice met Rebecca*, an activist who had helped others get out of Uganda. When Alice told Rebecca she wanted to leave, Rebecca mentioned camps in Kenya that offered protection for LGBTQ refugees. Alice knew about the camps but said they weren’t right for her. LGBTQ refugee camps, while important, can often be unsafe. Refugees in Kenya’s Kakuma camp have reported being attacked by other refugees or by the local community.
Rebecca offered another possibility: apply for a student visa and leave the country that way.
She gave Alice a list of American universities that had a good track record of accepting students from Uganda. One of the schools was Lincoln University in Oakland, California. Alice sent in her application and kept working two jobs. Three months later she received an acceptance letter along with a student visa. But just when things should have gotten easier, they got harder.
“I was walking back home after work. It was getting dark when I was attacked by two guys and one lady. They kept screaming at me, things like ‘We want to kill you. We want to get rid of you.’”
Luckily, a stranger came along and her attackers fled.
“I think they were jealous. They knew that if I left the country I’d be safe. Uganda is not friendly to LGBTQ. They hate us. You live in hiding because people might kill you. I left home because of my dad and his rejection of me. He threatened to kill me. He threatened to call the police. The law says that if you are arrested you will be imprisoned for life. He said ‘I don’t want to see you.’ I realized I needed to go and find my new life.”
Alice moved quickly after the attack, securing an airline ticket and tucking a photo of her one-year-old daughter inside her wallet. Her goal was to start school, apply for asylum, and then return for her child. Alice boarded a twelve-hour flight from Kampala, arrived at JFK, and changed planes before landing in Oakland. After spending a few initial days at a hotel, Alice retrieved the paper with the name and address of the organization Rebecca had said could help and called a taxi.
It was a sunny day when someone from Jewish Family Community Services (JFCS), the United States’ leading LGBTQ refugee resettlement program, answered the door to find Alice standing alone. “I said, ‘I’m from Uganda. I have my suitcase and I have nowhere to go.”
With support from JFCS and Oasis, a non-profit that offers legal advocacy for LGBTQ refugees, Alice was granted asylum in 2018.
“When my status changed, I felt hopeful. In Uganda, I had my own money but I didn’t have happiness. Now, I’m here and I can have money and happiness. I am studying to become a nurse and can concentrate on what I want to become in the future more than ever before.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
Global LGBTQ Refugee Settlement Programs and Statistics
- Consensual same-sex conduct is criminalized in 75 countries and as many as 13 countries can impose the death penalty if convicted.
- A United Nations report states that 37 countries allow asylum for people who face persecution on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression, and/or sex characteristics however many of these nations fail to offer asylum despite having laws that establish it.
- Most LGBTQ resettlement programs are located in the United States, Europe and Canada.
- 11,400 applications for LGBTQ asylum were submitted in the U.S. between 2012 and 2017 but only a minority of these were granted asylum.
- Of these U.S. asylum applicants, more than half (51.3 percent) originated from the Northern Triangle area of Central America including El Salvador (28 percent), Honduras (14.9 percent), and Guatemala (8.4 percent).
- Only one-fourth of U.S. asylum seekers with LGBTQ claims identified as women
- There are an estimated 289,700 undocumented LGBTQ+ immigrants in the U.S. Many of them would qualify for asylum if they had access to representation, but less than .5 percent of immigration funding goes to serving LGBTQ+ immigrants.