Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

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Refugees

Photo of a young African child holding a globe that shows the continent of Africa.For Agasha Linda*, there was no other choice but to leave. Her closely-kept secret was out and the consequences were dire.

“I left my country because my life was in danger after a number of people learned about my sexual orientation,” said Agasha, a 25-year-old lesbian from Uganda granted asylum in the United States.

Being openly gay in the east African nation of Uganda will not only bring on society’s scorn, but condemnation from the government too. State-sanctioned oppression is a daily occurrence as the public follows the lead of elected officials who regularly speak out against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) citizens.

Uganda, along with more than 70 other nations, already has laws on the books that criminalize homosexuality. Politicians are now working to pass a bill that seeks the death penalty for gay sex for repeated offenders or people with HIV. 

If the bill becomes law, Uganda would join Iran, Mauritania, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as nations that can arrest anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation and sentence them to death.

Agasha, and many like her, have long lived in the shadows and used privacy as a shield. But now the media has become their latest enemy. Ugandan tabloids have begun running names, photos and addresses of alleged LGBT people, putting private citizens in danger. Many known or perceived LGBT citizens have been attacked or murdered. 

“I am sad to say that all the news I hear from back home about the LGBT community is not good because people are being tortured and killed,” said Agasha. “This knowledge makes me so sick.”

Although the pain and torment now lie 8,000 miles away, her traumatic experience still remains with her as she attempts to rebuild a life in the United States.

“About safety, honestly, it's better but sometimes I still have these insecurities. But it’s much better here and I feel safe most of the time,” said Agasha.

As soon as Agasha received asylum in the United States, Heartland Alliance International (HAI)—funded in part by ACF’s Office of Refugee Resettlement—helped her gain a solid footing with a job, an apartment and new friends. But most importantly, this second chance allowed Agasha to be her true self, in a safe environment.

Although they accept every member of the LGBT refugee community, HAI and resettlement affiliates across the country have predominantly worked with gay males.

“In many refugees’ countries of origin, men's position in society often allows them to engage in and be more open about their sexual relations. For this reason, they are more visible, more prone to targeted attacks, and more likely to seek refugee status on the basis of their sexual orientation,” said Daniel J. Weyl, a HAI program associate, who manages HAI’s Rainbow Welcome Initiative, a technical assistance program funded by ORR, to support and assist LGBT refugees, asylees, and service providers.

HAI has observed that resettlement agencies have also resettled a significant number of transgender refugees, according to Weyl. Transgender refugees are especially vulnerable to violence as their gender nonconforming behavior and presentation can sometimes increase their risk of being identified by community members, resulting in persecution, he added.

“Violence against lesbians is often hidden within other forms of gender-based violence, including forced marriage and family violence, contributing to the lower numbers of openly identified lesbians who reach U.S. resettlement agencies,” he said. “Bisexual individuals are sometimes rendered invisible due to stigma and discrimination from within the LGBT community. They may choose to hide their sexual orientation, and be able to do so more easily, as a protection mechanism.”

When asked which region of the world is the most brutal people toward LGBT people, Weyl didn’t single out one area over another.

“In every corner of the world, including the United States, LGBT people are at risk of discrimination and violence. Approximately 78 countries, spanning each region, criminalize same-sex sexual behavior. Many more countries do not have specific legislation targeting LGBT persons, but refuse to offer protections to LGBT individuals whose human rights are violated and abused, resulting in systems and structures plagued by impunity,” he said.

For a fortunate few, they find refuge in the United States where the recognition of LGBT civil rights has advanced greatly in the last four years. And ORR and its grantees are ready to help these new citizens transition successfully.

“ORR has helped me so much I can't even begin to explain how much,” said Agasha. “My goal right now for the community is to try to use my life story to educate many people about LGBT issues and how we are all equal and no one has the right to take one's life simply because they don't agree with other people's sexuality.”

In 10 years, Agasha has an even more ambitious goal.

“I hope in 10 years I would have finished school with a degree in international relations with a job and hope to be able to go home to Uganda and help out other LGBT people,” she said.

*Agasha Linda is a pseudonym to protect the identity of the person and her family back home.