[13 December 2013]
Image credit: Gay pride flag painted on grunge wall with bloody palmprint from Shutterstock.com.
Still reeling from the maddening crowds at the mall, the 45 minute wait just to get out of the mall parking lot, and six additional stops for wrapping paper, tape, egg nog, and so on, you pop Melissa Ethridge’s or Mariah Carey’s Christmas CD in and begin slinging tinsel on your tree like Rip Taylor with a new bag of confetti. Soon enough, the house will be festive, and presents will be piled under the tree. You and your partner kick back in front of the fireplace. Life is good.
Or perhaps, the season will call for something more religious in nature: lighting the Hanukkiyah and reading from the Torah. Of course, there will be time to fry up some sufganiyot, then gather the kids to spin the dreidel. Grandparents, parents, siblings all gather together at you and your partner’s home to commemorate the holidays, and life is good.
Or perhaps, it doesn’t matter what your religious conviction is because celebrating is the last thing you’ll be doing. The guard may acknowledge the holiday as he throws you your daily food, and your one prayer for the day is that you won’t get raped again today. Ironic that the same type of men who used to throw rocks at you on the street and taunt you for being gay, or perceive that you are gay, now use you to satisfy their prison-induced sexual frustrations. Death is good.
For many of us, the liberties we possess as LGBT individuals are taken for granted. We may get looks of disapproval for wearing our “I’m not gay but my girlfriend is” t-shirts or putting the Gay Pride bumper sticker on the back of the SUV, but we don’t worry that such actions will get us thrown in jail or tortured. While there is still caution to be exercised—for example, making out with your same-sex boyfriend in a small town honky-tonk still isn’t advisable—and rights to be won, we enjoy the many privileges of living in an advanced society.
This is not the case in much of the world. Of the 197 countries in the world, homosexuality is illegal in 76 of them, according to the website The Guardian, of the 53 countries in Her Majesty’s Commonwealth, homosexuality is illegal in 41 of them. A push to get LGBT rights on the agenda for the annual meeting of the leaders of those countries failed.
In the United States, the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence v Texas in 2003 found sodomy laws to be unconstitutional, yet they are still on the books in 13 states (Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, Virginia, and Texas, which seems to be ignoring the court’s ruling). In recent years, over a dozen people have been arrested as a result of these laws in the US, although in each case, district attorneys have deferred to the Supreme Court and refused to prosecute. France’s successful push to legalize gay marriage was met this year with violence and anti-gay attacks and assaults by those opposed to the measure.
Still, life in these countries where gay rights are still being fought for is considerably better than life in a country where being LGBT is a crime, which has resulted in a marked increase in the number of LGBT individuals seeking political asylum. The number of refugees fleeing countries with strict laws against homosexuality is difficult to determine; due to the prevalent homophobia that has forced a life of living in the closet, many refugees are reluctant to admit even to refugee aids and workers what their sexual orientation is, instead claiming a need for asylum for other reasons.
According to a report prepared for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the situation is complex. The director of international protection at the UN Refugee Agency, Volker Turk, told the Office that “while the world has come a long way since first recognizing asylum claims based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the 1980s, residual factors ranging from criminalization to disbelief result in LGBT people suffering at the hands of a variety of actors as they flee oppression and seek safety.”
Turk’s assessment was validated by a report by experts Sabine Jansen and Thomas Spijkerboer in their report “Fleeing Homophobia: Asylum Claims Related to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in Europe”, in which they argue there is disparity in the way that LGBT refugees are treated under the law throughout Europe, and frequently, LGBT persons are returned to their home countries, where they face prison or death. In large part, this is done because LGBT individuals are not protected under international law as other refugees are (cited in Laurynas Biekša, “The Refugee Qualification Problem in LGBT Asylum Cases”, Jurisprudence, 2011). However, this year, the European Union Court of Justice ruled that LGBT asylum seekers could no longer be sent home with instructions to merely hide their true identity or practice restraint.
Fortunately, there is increasing awareness of the plights of these refugees, thanks to the work of organizations devoted to helping those who have the opportunity to flee. Since 2008, The Organization for Refuge, Asylum, and Migration has been the world’s only body devoted solely to the plight of LGBT persons seeking a safer life. Not only do they pursue freedom, they help LGBT refugees around the world assimilate to their new cultures. Immigration Equality is another group that works with LGBT refugees, winning an astounding 99 percent of their immigration cases in the United States. A promotional video for the group tells the stories of three of the people they’ve helped:
These are only two of numerous organizations worldwide that are working to ensure that one’s sexual orientation or identity isn’t a ticket to a life of fear and degradation. Their work is undoubtedly complicated by the cultural and governmental practices of homophobia in countries such as Russia and Uganda. The reality is that it will take considerable political pressure to change the policies that endanger LGBT people, and that pressure won’t happen until politicians and the public become more aware.
According to the book Making Sense of Media and Politics, only ten percent of news reports in the United States deal with foreign matters not directly affecting the US (Gadi Wolfsfeld, 2011). Considering that the majority of the countries that outlaw homosexuality are located in Africa and Asia, two of the areas of the world least covered by the US media (along with South America), stories of LGBT persecution stand little chance of gaining attention.
Those of us in the United States and other “tolerant” countries have much to give thanks for. In the US, we can look to the new year with optimism and hope, as more states and nations adopt gay marriage and advance LGBT rights. Still, let us not be so ethnocentric that we forget our sisters and brothers elsewhere, hiding in plain sight, sleeping on the dirt floor of a jail cell, being dragged away for reparative therapy, hanging at the end of a noose.
We can’t all go to Sochi this winter, but sending a donation to a refugee organization might save a life. That’s truly something to be thankful for.
Queer of the Year: Edith Windsor, who took the United States into the future with her successful march through the court system up to the Supreme Court, where she won us all landmark rights.