In January 2003, Wissam Abyad, an openly gay man in Egypt, arranged an in-person meeting at a Cairo McDonald's with a gay man he'd met via the Internet. The man claimed that he'd just moved to the area and wanted to meet other gay men.
At 1 P.M. Abyad was standing in front of the fast-food chain when his cell phone rang. "I'm here, where are you?" the man asked. "Why don't you wave to show me where you are."
As Abyad complied, a group of policemen and vice cops descended on him. They arrested him on charges of "public morality offenses."
Abyad was interrogated, threatened by police officials, and thrown into jail. During his trial he was displayed in a cage and was not allowed to testify in his defense. The judge gave him a sentence of one year and three months. "Egyptian jail cells do not have running water, bathrooms, or a place to sleep," Abyad says. "Inmates depend on their families to bring them basic necessities."
Yet in the end Abyad was one of the lucky openly gay men and lesbians trapped in such a culture. His case got worldwide attention, prison officials bowed to the pressure, and he was released in January 2004. He arrived in the United States in April with the help of human rights groups and his American partner. And he successfully got asylum.
Such cases are becoming increasingly common as gay Muslim men from the Middle East--and other conservative regions--have won the right to stay in the United States based on the threat of persecution in their home countries due to their sexual orientation.
Since 1994, based on a clarification of the law from then--attorney general Janet Reno, fear of persecution for sexual orientation has been grounds for being granted asylum in the United States. The burden of proof for such cases is also low, with a judge only needing to determine a person is subject to a 10% chance of enduring persecution if they were to return to their country of origin.
The law remains a murky middle ground, and unfamiliarity with GLBT issues has sunk many of the asylum claims filed since Reno's actions. But lately, a few cases were able to work their way through the system, as lawyers say the plight of gay men in the Middle East is starting to resonate within the courts and immigration system.
Perhaps the groundbreaking case for gay Middle Eastern asylum seekers is that of a 29-year-old Iranian who had battled for his asylum since November 2001 after realizing his life would be in danger if he returned to his native land.
Mohammad, the name his lawyers have given him to protect his identity, came to the United States from Iran in June 2001 after meeting a man in Maryland online. His first interview with federal authorities for asylum didn't go well, however, as an agent was seemingly more interested in the amount of time he'd spent in the United States than in his safety if he were deported.
In fact, his first claim was denied on the grounds that he may have been in the States for more than 12 months--the deadline for filing for asylum after arrival. After another attempt in 2002, the government demanded proof that he was indeed gay.
"Immigration officials wanted to confirm that he met his burden of proof for eligibility," says Chris Nugent, community services team senior counsel with Holland and Knight in Washington, D.C. "Winning asylum is a rare thing to get, because you have to prove the credibility of the person and the threat they face."
In the case of people from the Middle East, however, the threat is plain. Religious leaders often issue overt threats of arrest or death to homosexuals. And these threats are backed up by state laws, either legislated or simply de facto enforced, that punish homosexuality. In Iran, for instance, the punishment for sodomy between two men is known to be death. For lesbian conduct the penalty is 100 lashes from a whip.
Mohammad also had the testimony of friends and his lover to back up his claims. …