Magazine article The Nation

Political Asylum for Gays? America's Sexual Refugees

Magazine article The Nation

Political Asylum for Gays? America's Sexual Refugees

Article excerpt

My Russian friend Sergei is a lean and gentle man. But when he recounts the years he languished in prison for the crime of loving another of his own sex his soft voice hardens and his impish grin disappears. Sergei is staying in California now on a student visa, and is scared to go back home. Russia's brutal antisodomy law remains on the books, and hundreds of gays are still stashed away in labor camps and prisons. So my worried friend is considering an alternative legal strategy - applying for asylum based on his sexual orientation.

Until 1990, when Congress removed "sexual deviation" from the list of reasons for barring someone from the United States, the Immigration and Naturalization Service could prevent deserving individuals from entering or remaining in the country simply by citing their homosexuality. Now, in a twist that has immigration officials squirming, a handful of foreigners are clamoring for asylum or for suspension of their deportation proceedings because they are gay - arguing that their sexual orientation exposes them to deadly persecution back home.

Such persecution has been well documented. Although the international human rights community has been shamefully slow to take note, attacks on homosexuals by governments around the world are rampant. Gays are executed in Iran and "disappeared" by death squads in Colombia. China reportedly "treats" gays with electroshock and sends them to the countryside for "re-education."

Last summer Nicaragua, our "democratic" ally, passed a law that calls for three-year jail terms for anyone who "promotes, propagandizes or practices" homosexuality in a "scandalous" manner. Lawyers say the phrasing is so ambiguous that the statute could be used to jail men or women for holding hands on the street, as well as journalists and others who write or speak sympathetically about gays and lesbians. The statute is being challenged in court.

To qualify for asylum here, gay immigrants must prove that they are part of a persecuted social group and that their fears of returning home are therefore "well founded." Organizations such as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission in San Francisco estimate that there may be thousands of gay foreigners in the United States terrified to return home. Most of them probably don't realize that applying for legal status here is an option; others are frightened to come forward because they fear that if they do they could be deported. …

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