Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Sexual Identity Asylum and U.S. Politics

Guest blogger: Emmett Luty, second-year law student, University of San Francisco
When immigrants arrive in the United States, they hopefully find family or a community to offer some support in starting a new life.  In our immigration class, we mostly discussed communities centered on national origin, language, and race.  The GLBTQ community, though, is not based on any of these, but rather on sexual behavior, public relationship habits, and a vague sense of somewhat shared cultural history.  The GLBTQ community is not a community of queer immigrants and their descendants, of course, nor is it bound to any national pride.  Yet it can certainly function as a support community to a number of people who came to the U.S. to escape persecution due to their sexual orientation. 

Last August I abandoned my small Richmond District efficiency to share a house with five gay male friends in St. Mary’s Park, a subdivision within the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco.  Our house quickly became a meeting place, short and long-term crash pad, and frequent dinner party destination for our friends, who have introduced us to yet more friends, and so on.  Uncle Kirk, one house mate’s bearded and silver-haired gay male mentor for the past decade, comes by a few times a week to chat, have tea, or eat whatever’s cooking.  During the most recent of his regular romantic disclosures to us, he told me about Omar, a young Iraqi refugee he was crazy about.  I immediately went into law student mode, and asked him about the grounds on which his refugee status was granted.  “Because he’s gay.  There are more after him too.”  He said there were 12 or 15 more, according to Omar.  “They’ve opened the floodgates!”

The next evening I came home from class to find the living room full and lively.  In addition to some house mates. Kirk and a crew of friends were over, including Omar and Skander.  Omar spoke almost no English, but was chatting with Akrum, an old friend of mine who’s a native New Orleanian with Palestinian parents.  Kirk told me that it was the Jewish Children and Family Services of the East Bay that had brought Omar over, and set up housing and ESL classes for him.  Skander introduced himself and told me he was granted asylum last year after coming to the US on a B1 business conference visa.  He told me it was on grounds of his sexual orientation and that the Organization for Refugee Asylum and Migration (ORAM) had assisted him and many other GLBTQ folks in the process. 

I seriously contemplated interviewing Skander for my Imigration Law class research paper.  Quickly, though, our conversation turned to other interests, and I worried that putting him on the spot would ruin an otherwise light social event.  In the course of conversation, Skander had a brief tiff with Kirk, and complained that had to get accustomed to being the subject of gossip in this open and out community that was still so new to him.  I had taken gay male gossip for granted for so long that I had forgotten about becoming accustomed to it for myself years ago.  Maybe GLBTQ folks in the US are all “immigrants” to the community, when we decide to join it, I thought.  Skander gave me his phone number, told me I was his type, and told me we would see each other again soon. 

I ran into Skander and Omar again a couple days later, at a recently re-opened Gay male cultural institution – the Eagle.  Famous for its sunny patio, cheap beer, edgy entertainment, and welcoming crowd, the Eagle was closed for two years for still-debated and controversial reasons.  Despite zoning and “respectability” concerns of the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, members of the gay male community eventually convinced the city to let it reopen as it was, but under new management.  When the Eagle reopened this year and resumed its post as an open-minded gathering place, there was a palpable sense of community achievement.

Skander and Omar were happy, social, and surrounded by friends on that sunny Sunday at the Eagle.  Skander and I kissed, and I warned him that I wasn’t looking for anything serious.  “You and me both,” he assured me.  When Skander left the Eagle later that evening, he had to tear himself away from conversations with friends, multiple times.  It was clear that he was already part of a community here, although he was probably the only Tunisian and one of the few Arab-speakers at the bar.  I thought of how many GLBTQ people tried to seek refuge or asylum in the U,S. from ally countries who were turned away, often from Africa or the Caribbean.  Omar and Skander may have “deserved” to stay here because of their sexuality, but I knew it was their specific home countries, and U.S. involvements there, that was an equal or greater factor in the Government’s decisions.  It seemed only fair that queer folks in other countries should have the opportunity to escape to this community, and know that they are safe.  Like I thought days before, we all joined the community as immigrants at some point, be it from Iraq, Tunisia, or the parallel universe of hetero-normative America.

I’m often quick to dismiss the concept of the GLBTQ community.  On grumpier days, I feel that “nontraditional” sex is the only unifying factor.  But for queer immigrants to the U.S., much as it was for me when I came out, there must appear to be a tight-knit community, with a shared history and traditions.  It can be, at its best, a community of friends, lovers, and potential partners who will not judge anyone on their sexuality, sexual choices, or lack of gender conformity.  I see no reason why our policies of asylum and refuge can’t start seeing the GLBTQ community as one capable of offering immigrants a social and cultural safety net, just as communities based on national origin, language, and race do.  I would love the U.S. to admit more refugees and asylum seekers purely on sexual identity grounds, and not on political ones. 


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