Cambridge’s LGBTQ+ Commission and the Commission on Immigrant Rights and Citizenship co-hosted an event on Thursday, November 9, to highlight the struggles faced by those seeking refuge from queerphobia and the oppression it breeds. The event, titled Challenges, Experiences, Freedom: LGBTQ+ Immigrants and Asylum Seekers, featured speakers who have faced this grueling asylum process, and lawyers who have dedicated their careers to aiding them.
Taking place in the Cambridge Public Library, the event opened with a panel of lawyers discussing the history of the United States’ refugee and immigration processes. Stefanie Fisher, immigration lawyer at Araujo & Fisher, LLC, offered a brief background of the laws associated with these respective processes, and how this ties into the historical oppression LGBTQ+ peoples have faced and continue to face in the United States.
For example, to enter the country and eventually become a naturalized citizen, one must have “good moral character,” a criterion which—as Fisher explained—has been used to bar LGBTQ+ applicants from entry repeatedly in the past. Until 1990, LGBTQ+ individuals were even banned under immigration law, which claimed them to be sexual deviants and mentally afflicted. On top of this, those who were HIV positive were considered inadmissible until 2010.
Lisa Weinberg, an asylum attorney at the Community Legal Services and Counseling Center, spoke about the difficulty for refugees trying to enter the United States; of all the world’s asylum applicants, only about 1 percent are allowed entry. Weinberg stated that even more roadblocks face those escaping persecution due to sexuality or gender identity, despite the fact that—according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association—there are currently 72 nations where relationships between males are illegal and 45 nations where relationships between females are illegal; in 13 of those nations, death is a possible punishment.
“People used to be shocked at the statistics,” Weinberg said during the event. “But not anymore.”
Following the lawyer panel, three LGBTQ+ asylees took to the stage to discuss their experiences and struggles. Sean Martin, a Jamaican asylee—and co-founder of Massachusetts’ LGBT Asylum Support Task Force—entered the United States in 2007, escaping the often brutal mistreatment LGBTQ+ individuals face in his native country.
Martin witnessed the country’s rampant queerphobia up close on several occasions. One example he gave was at his workplace when he was 18 years old. His employers were discussing the news of a famous Jamaican persona being outed, wishing death upon him.
“If they had known [I was gay], they would probably [have] slaughtered me, right then and there, in the office,” Martin said.
Last year, Martin became a U.S. citizen and voted in his local elections. He also returned to Jamaica to visit family and friends. Unfortunately, the situation there has only gotten worse over the last decade.
“It’s gotten so bad now, where even kids are being killed,” Martin said, holding back tears.
Gaelle Tjat described her life as a covert LGBTQ+ activist in Cameroon. Part of the movement since 2008, Tjat ran a cover business that was actually a lesbian advocacy group. Her work and sexuality made her a target for police and citizens alike. In 2013, she received death threats that she didn’t take seriously. The next year, police brought her into the local station, where she was beaten.
“The worst part is not going to jail,” Tjat said. “But what can be done to you once you are in jail.”
In September 2014, Tjat fled Cameroon and has been in the United States ever since. Her brother recently contacted her threatening to out her and turn her in to authorities if she ever returned.
John “Long Jones” Wambere was an LGBTQ+ activist in Uganda before seeking asylum in the United States in 2014. Long Jones worked at Spectrum, a group that advocates for and insures that LGBTQ+ individuals in Uganda have access to healthcare. His job—and his personal life—became progressively more dangerous after a wave of queerphobic legislation hit the country in the late 2000s, in part due to campaigning by far-right evangelical mogul Scott Lively.
Long Jones, Martin, Tjat, Fisher and Weinberg joined together after the event for a Q&A segment, during which one audience member asked what the average American citizen could do to aid LGBTQ+ asylees and immigrants. Stefanie Fisher advocated pushing for local law, such as those that could limit the power of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Lisa Weinberg suggested hosting families and donating goods, especially in winter. Long Jones urged citizens to raise money for aid organizations.