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RGOD2: LGBT people face greater visibility, more persecution in 2013

Colin Stewart’s excellent review of LGBT international issues in 2012 in Erasing 76 Crimes gives us some hard data on the state of the LGBT movement globally.

While most Americans focused on winning marriage equality in nine states or same-sex marriage being now legal in 11 countries, Russia’s parliament may ban all discussion on homosexuality as “propaganda.” Even though there were a few countries that made progress to repeal or not implement their antiquated anti-gay laws, there were significant moves to enact even more repressive measures in Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Uganda and the Ukraine. Saudi Arabian police continue to crack down on homosexuality with an estimated 260 people arrested in one year alone while anti-gay murder by Iraqi militias are increasing.

While western democracies cheered at Secretary Clinton’s “gay rights are human rights” speech in Geneva a year ago, a significant coalition of national governments do not share the human rights framework as a basis for protecting their LGBT citizens.

A Russia-backed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in support of “traditional values” passed 25-15, opening the door for more countries to use “traditional values” as another way to crack down on LGBT people. Stewart noted how this was used in Russia to prohibit any gay pride march for 100 years and attack celebrities like Madonna and Lady Gaga for advocating LGBT equality. If Russia’s U-turn is not a wake-up call to all of us, maybe the wave of LGBT refugees coming to our shores will be. The more visible we become, the more we can expect persecution and more heat. The more persecution, the more refugees and asylum seekers will come here.

Falling through the cracks

Closer to home, St. Paul’s Foundation had to raise money to support four human rights advocates who got into serious trouble this year with their governments because of their LGBT work.

One man had to live on $50 a week while his year-long asylum process took its mysterious course in Nairobi, Kenya. It was impossible for him to survive on this, so we sent him money and helped him settled here when he arrived. He was never really informed about when he might expect to be granted asylum and following this case closely was an education for me.

Another young activist arrived in Washington, D.C. two months ago with no federal funding available to help him during the three-to-four months pre-asylum period. Even though everyone knows he was tortured by his government while trying to bring HIV health services to LGBT people in his country, no-one can “officially” help him. This is crazy. It makes no sense, not even to advocates for human rights. We take people out of countries where their human rights are violated, and we also offer them no protections or basic assistance like food or shelter.

Pastor Judith Hanlon

There are five similar LGBT asylum cases with pastor Judith Hanlon of Worcester, Mass. and two pending at the Washington, D.C. LGBT Center. Two other requests crossed my emails this week, but we are already overstretched to do anything to help them.

It is largely up to the faith communities in these emerging refugee communities (and other benevolent citizens and organizations) to take care of these front-line activists. No-one is collecting comprehensive data on these well-educated and experienced leaders who are the obvious first targets for state-sanctioned violence. Even in exile and facing great financial hardship, these activists continue to develop their networks remotely and continue to support their people who remain behind. Even when these activists have connections and have worked for American organizations overseas, i.e. HIV education or human rights, they are met with silence when they show up on their doorsteps.

Everyone agrees that it is appalling that their human rights have been violated, but few write checks or help them or with finding employment. This is one example of the limitations of a human rights only framework that we regard as somewhat semi-divine invisible human agreement.

In my experience, these people fight for human rights and when they have to flee to this country (championing gay rights as human rights) we often fail them. For many of us involved with the Spirit of 76 Initiative in Washington this summer, our concern for the safety of one of our delegates who was arrested and tortured was also monitored by the other 25 people who came with him to the International AIDS Conference. Many of them also face imminent danger or persecution, so by caring for a fellow activist, we give others courage who know that someone “has their backs.” If we fail to treat people well, we also cause a ripple effect among the LGBT and ally activist community that if they get in trouble, there is no safety net to catch them or help them out of a life threatening situation. Our vigilant response actually shapes the quality of the courage we admire most in others. If we fail one of these LGBT activists, we undermine all we are working for and believe in.

I do not respond from a human rights perspective only

I respond to these courageous individuals who find themselves in trouble with their governments, primarily as a person of faith. Simply put, if Jesus were around, he would want them to be kept safe, free of violence and given enough food and shelter so they could feel that someone actually cared about them.

The human rights framework is secondary to my deeper moral framework, which comes from my understanding of Scriptures and religious ethical teaching. I am sure other religious leaders can express different motivations but the same outcome. A Muslim leader recently told me that Islam had historically opposed homosexuality but compassion trumped everything in his religion. He concluded “And what would Jesus do?”

Our human rights framework may be protecting and supporting lots of people out there, but when I see the devastating impact of global homophobia on some people closer to me, the human rights framework has actually failed them and the faith community ends up feeding, housing and clothing them, sometimes against our own immigration laws.

As American taxpayers, we give millions of dollars each year in federal contracts to human rights organizations that cannot help these people. As a taxpayer, I have a serious problem with this situation, and we have approached the State Department to figure out a way so that thousands of LGBT refugees in the USA can get immediate support. They are not allowed to work here until the asylum process officially commences, which is usually three-tofour months after their arrival in the USA.

The first round of State Department Global Equality Fund grants all went to organizations who have a legal and human rights mission and it will be interesting to see how effective this program will be as increasing persecution of LGBT and health activists becomes “the new normal.” The State Department is on record to provide security for these brave leaders:

“The personal security of LGBT human rights defenders remains a top priority for the Department. The Fund will enhance the Department’s efforts to provide human rights defenders with legal representation, security, and when necessary, relocation support. Since 2010, the Department has provided emergency assistance to over 40 LGBT advocates in 11 countries throughout Africa, Asia and the Middle East.”

I expect this number should be 100% larger than the number of people who have been lucky enough to be served in this program. It is grossly inadequate and I would expect the USA faith community has seen more than 40 asylum seekers over the past two years given the work of people like pastor Judith Hanlon and others I know have done. Pastor Judith reported:

“Due to the lack of being able to work, we find safe housing and give the asylum seeker who has a LGBT asylum attorney ( not an immigration attorney as the cases are very different) a stipend of $300 per month to buy food, keep a cell and take care of themselves. To our knowledge, we are the only such organization that exists. To date, we have helped 54 people from 14 countries. It costs us $4000 per month to take care of the active asylum seekers. We have no grants and do this on fundraising. The United Church of Christ (www.ucc.org) has been a large and consistent supporter. We hold workshops and have invited asylees to tell their stories from San Diego, to Chicago, to Boston, to Dallas. Sometime, we are paid for the workshops that in turn pays for the asylum support.”

Another significant problem is the limitation that State Department funds are only available to help someone relocate from one African country to another or one region to another, but are not available to a person who wants to come to the USA. If a person is so traumatized and has a USA visitor’s visa, it makes most sense for them to enter the USA immediately and not seek relocation to Nairobi, where they will wait at least a year for their asylum to be approved and have no employment while living on $50 a week.

This was the case with Peter, who could have moved within Africa, received assistance but would ultimately have wasted a lot of time and would not have received counseling and the treatment he desperately needed following his torture. The human rights community has been largely silent on this issue, knowing the asylum system remains terribly broken. A lot of work has been done to improve the system once people are officially here and within it.

One certainty in 2013, given Stewart’s review of the trends of this year, we can expect more and more people will be needing pre-asylum services. The main support and the pressure to reform this broken system will come from the faith community in the USA. We are learning to document these individual cases and please let me know of any similar stories so we can begin to quantify the unmet needs.

Larger organizations need to build safety net funding into their budgets

We must also challenge American organizations who have professional connections with these individuals and do not have a “Plan B” to provide security and support when they meet difficulties. If we expect these people to do dangerous work as LGBT or health activists, we ought to have a safety net for them as well.

A recent comment from one very large organization that had contracted our recent African asylee (Peter’s) services in the past said: “We are a scientific AIDS organization and not a human rights organization.” Officially, they cannot help him as his needs are ironically outside of their mission. Yet, their capacity to raise more money than any of the faith community groups we work among should give them a moral imperative to do more than “pass the buck” to faith communities like pastor Judith’s or the Washington, D.C. LGBT Center. Their donors would be appalled to learn of their indifference and their staff may feel a severe disconnect between what the organizations says and does.

This kind of core inconsistency does not build robust organizations. In the meantime, people like pastor Judith and St. Paul’s Foundation network will be holding cocktail parties and church bake sales so some LGBT global leaders in exile can eat this week. Our next one will be in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 25 from 6-8 pm.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.