Metro Weekly

For refugees, being queer is anything but easy

Recognizing the reality of being an LGBTQ refugee in America

Pro-immigration rally in Cologne, Germany - Photo: Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)
Pro-immigration rally in Cologne, Germany – Photo: Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Today is World Refugee Day, a day to show support for refugees and demand action. Refugees are an incredibly diverse group of individuals, with no two stories alike. Yet, the sexual orientation and gender identity of many is often ignored.

More than 3 million refugees have entered the U.S. since 1975, but the number who identify as LGBT is harder to estimate. Many are fleeing deadly violence and oppression in countries where same-sex relationships are punished.

According to United Nations Free & Equal, consensual same-sex relationships are still illegal in 77 countries. Yet, there is no current standard that recognizes queer individuals as a refugee sub-group. Rather, they are lumped into the left-overs: “particular social group.” Many also fear revealing their sexual orientation or gender identity, which could lead to further discrimination. Others find it hard to prove their identity, since same-sex relationships and transgender individuals are not legally recognized in many countries. Queer refugees in the U.S. have escaped abuse from their home countries, but must face the continued threat of being LGBTQ in America, a danger illuminated by the Orlando shootings.

“I never felt I would be unsafe just going into a gay bar. This is happening right now,” Ali, an Iranian refugee who works for a nonprofit assisting LGBT refugees, told Newsweek. “It is a very, very present thought.”

All refugees to the U.S. must take a cultural adjustment course. Refugees are shown slides with various scenarios and are then tested on whether or not the actions are legal in the U.S.  The orientation lasts three days and when Ali took his, the closest reference to LGBTQ issues was a slide showing two men kissing.

“The instructor just said, ‘Yeah, it’s legal, let’s move onto the next slide,’” Ali said. “Is that how we want to tackle homophobia among immigrants? No.”

Queer refugees are burdened with the additional fear of being at risk of violence or sexual assault in immigration detention centers. Transgender persons in California detention centers are 15 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than the general population and trans individuals are rarely placed in the correct facility according to their gender.

Ishalaa Ortega is a transgender woman from Mexico who claimed asylum in the U.S., after receiving death threats from a political party and surviving a hammer attack that almost killed her. Ortega now works as a chef in a Manhattan hotel and is an activist for LGBTQ rights.

“I think the government and society will change because of this, society will accept us more, which is not the mentality of the countries where we are coming from,” Ortega, who plans to march in New York City’s Pride parade this Sunday, told Newsweek. “We are here, we are still here, we’re not going anywhere. We will continue fighting for our rights and to have equal treatment in every sense, in every way.”

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