LGBTQI Asylum Seekers Face Many Obstacles


By Michael K. Lavers, Washing Blade

A Biden administration official on Friday said the U.S. has “engaged directly” with LGBTQ Ukrainians and other groups that Russia may target if it gains control of their country.

“We have engaged directly with these populations to direct them to programs that offer emergency assistance to address relocation, medical expenses or other unexpected costs,” the official told the Washington Blade. “And we have engaged with allies and partners to try to ensure that those who must flee Ukraine have somewhere to go.”

The official noted that “based on Russia’s past behavior, it is reasonable to expect that Russia’s authorities would target those who oppose or are perceived to oppose the Russian government’s actions or policies, and/or belong to groups of persons targeted for repression inside Russia. The aforementioned would include leading Ukrainian officials, Russian and Belarusian dissidents in exile in Ukraine, independent journalists, anti-corruption activists, vulnerable populations such as members of some religious and ethnic groups, and LGBTQI+ persons.”

“We are also concerned about the safety of persons with disabilities in any conflict situation,” said the official.

“We have warned and will continue to warn groups in the categories we think could be targeted based on our understanding of Russia’s past behavior and our knowledge of Russia’s plans in order to enable them to protect themselves or move to places where they might be safer,” added the official. “We’ve been warning the Ukrainian government of all that may be coming, as well.”

The official spoke with the Blade less than two days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.

The U.S. earlier this week in a letter to U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Russia plans to target LGBTQ Ukrainians and other vulnerable groups the Biden administration official noted to the Blade. A Russian government spokesperson on Tuesday described the claim to the Blade as “propaganda.”

The Congressional LGBTQ+ Equality and Ukraine Caucuses in a letter they sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday said they are “particularly concerned for the well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) Ukrainians and other marginalized groups in Ukraine.”

“There is an impending humanitarian emergency in Ukraine and Ukraine’s partners — including the U.S. — must take action to protect Ukrainian lives, with a particular focus on minority communities,” reads the letter. “LGBTQ Ukrainians as well as Ukrainians with disabilities, the elderly, and other marginalized groups face greater hurdles in seeking safety as a Russian incursion into Ukraine begins.”

“We must safeguard the rights of marginalized people in Ukraine and ensure they are protected as this crisis unfolds,” it adds.

The letter notes Ukraine in recent years “has made great strides towards securing equality for LGBTQ people within its borders and is a regional leader in LGBTQ rights.” These advances include a ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity and efforts to protect Pride parades.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last November pledged his country would continue to fight anti-LGBTQ discrimination after he met with President Biden at the White House.

“LGBTQ civil society in Ukraine is robust and visible with numerous LGBTQ groups officially registered as non-governmental entities,” reads the letter to Blinken. “While there is still work to do, these advancements stand in stark contrast to Russia’s positions on LGBTQ equality. Increased Russian government influence on the lives of Ukrainians is likely to be incredibly harmful to the rights of LGBTQ people in Ukraine.”

The State Department has not responded to the Blade’s request for comment on the letter.

LGBTQ Victory Institute President Annise Parker on Thursday echoed calls for the U.S. to protect LGBTQ Ukrainian activists and other vulnerable groups.

“We call on the United States and our allies to ensure the unique vulnerabilities of Ukrainian LGBTQ leaders and civil society are part of all diplomatic talks and negotiations. Their safety must be paramount,” said Parker in a statement. “The future of Ukrainian democracy depends on it.”

The Global Equality Caucus, a group of LGBTQ elected officials from around the world that fights discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, share Parker’s concerns.

“We are concerned that Russia’s subversion of Ukrainian democracy and sovereignty has put human rights defenders in the country at immediate risk,” said the group on Friday in a statement. “We call on governments worldwide to recognize the humanitarian impact of this invasion and to take necessary action to ensure any Ukrainian at risk of persecution can be guaranteed safety elsewhere.”

A Wider Bridge and more than a dozen other LGBTQ Jewish organizations in the U.S. and around the world on Friday condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and expressed their “solidarity with the people of Ukraine.” The groups, along with the Global Equality Caucus and the Victory Institute, are also concerned for LGBTQ Ukrainians and other groups, including Jewish Ukrainians, inside Ukraine.

“The Ukrainian Jewish and LGBTQ communities face particularly acute vulnerabilities,” reads the groups’ statement. “They have historically been marginalized and continue to face ongoing discrimination. We are deeply concerned that LGBTQ people overall and LGBTQ Jews, in particular, will be subject to scapegoating in what may become a vast humanitarian crisis.”

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By Michael K. Lavers

A transgender man who the Washington Blade interviewed in Honduras last summer is now seeking refuge in the U.S.

Jerlín in a video message he sent to the Blade on Thursday from Piedras Negras, a Mexican border city that is across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass, Texas, said he and a small group of migrants left Honduras on Jan. 14.

Jerlín said police at the Guatemala-Honduras border “assaulted us, robbed us and took everything that we had brought with us.” Jerlín told the Blade that people in Guatemala did not help him and the other migrants with whom he was traveling because they were afraid of gangs and corrupt police officers.

“Passing through Guatemala was like passing through hell,” said Jerlín.

Jerlín said some of the migrants in the group who were from his community in Honduras later disappeared. Jerlín also told the Blade that people who he encountered demanded sex for food and water.

“It was also very hard crossing Mexico,” he said.

Jerlín said he arrived in Piedras Negras on Jan. 24.

He told the Blade that he had been sleeping along the riverbank and outside Mexico’s National Institute of Immigration office in Piedras Negras in the cold and the rain in the hopes he will receive a humanitarian visa. (The temperature in the city on Thursday was near freezing and Jerlín was wearing a coat, thick gloves and a hat in the video he sent to the Blade.)

“You cannot walk here because the drug cartels will kidnap you,” he said.

Jerlín on Wednesday sought to enter the U.S., but U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials sent him back to Mexico under Title 42, a Center for Disease Control and Prevention rule that has closed the Southern border to most asylum seekers and migrants because of the pandemic. Jerlín is now living in a temporary migrant shelter the Transgender Law Center and Abdiel Echevarría-Cabán, a South Texas-based attorney who is also a human rights law and policy expert, helped him find, but it is unclear how long he can stay there.

The State Department currently urges American citizens to reconsider traveling to Coahuila state in which Piedras Negras is located because of “crime and kidnapping.”

Anti-LGBTQ violence commonplace in Honduras

Jerlín was a bus driver in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ commercial capital, until gang members shot him three times in 2012 because he couldn’t pay the extortion money from which they demanded from him each month. Jerlín, his partner and their daughter subsequently fled to La Ceiba, a city on Honduras’ Caribbean coast that is about three hours east of San Pedro Sula.

Jerlín migrated to Mexico in January 2019, but returned to Honduras less than a month later because his partner was hospitalized. The couple and their daughter migrated to Mexico a year later and applied for a Mexican humanitarian visa.

Jerlín last July during an interview at the offices of Organización Pro Unión Ceibeña (Oprouce), a La Ceiba-based advocacy group, said he and his family were living in a migrant detention center in Tapachula, a city in southern Mexico that is roughly 20 miles from the country’s border with Guatemala. Jerlín said they decided to return to Honduras in May 2020 because they did not want their daughter to further endure the “inhumane” conditions in which they were living.

Someone shot at their house on July 10, 2020.

“Sometimes I think that it’s better that they kill you in your home country and not here where nobody knows you or feels compassion for anyone,” Jerlín told the Blade from Piedras Negras.

Jerlín fled Honduras four days after Thalía Rodríguez, a prominent trans activist, was murdered outside her home in Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital. Vice President Kamala Harris and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power are among the dignitaries who attended Honduran President Xiomara Castro’s inauguration on Jan. 27.

Harris and other White House officials have acknowledged anti-LGBTQ violence is among the “root causes” of migration from Honduras and surrounding countries. The Biden administration has also told migrants not to travel to the U.S.

By Matt Lavietes

LGBTQ Afghans have increasingly been threatened, beaten and raped since the Taliban took control of the country in August, a new report found.

The advocacy groups Human Rights Watch and OutRight Action International compiled a snapshot of how the freshly reawakened Taliban regime has targeted Afghans based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. And while LGBTQ Afghans have long lived in peril, the groups concluded that the situation has “dramatically worsened” following the Taliban’s takeover. “The thing that I think we heard most commonly from people who we interviewed, who are still in Afghanistan, is that they don’t leave their rooms. The level of fear of being targeted is so great that they feel like they’re risking their lives to go buy food,” said J. Lester Feder, one of the study’s co-authors and a senior fellow for emergency research at OutRight Action International. “And beforehand, these were people who had jobs or had ways to eat, who could go about their cities — and that’s a real change.” For the report, released Tuesday night, the researchers interviewed 60 lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer Afghans, most in their 20s, from October to December of last year. Through telling the stories of their interviewees’ allegations of abuse, the report illustrates how threats, violence and harassment against LGBTQ people have become more common under the Taliban’s rule.

A few weeks after Taliban forces overtook Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in August, a 20-year-old gay man reported that Taliban members had detained him at a checkpoint. He was then beaten and gang-raped, he said.

“From now on anytime we want to be able to find you, we will,” Taliban members told him following the attack, according to the report. “And we will do whatever we want with you.”

After the incident, the young man went into hiding, the report said, but the Taliban then moved on to harass and attack members of his family. In one instance, Taliban fighters spent three days in his family’s home, interrogating and beating them, researchers reported. The report also detailed an uptick in abuse faced by LGBTQ Afghans from their own family members.

One interviewee, a lesbian from a small Afghan village, said that her uncle and male cousins became emboldened to kill her after they joined the Taliban.

“If you’re not going to do this, we will do it,” she recalled a relative saying to her parents, according to the report. “We have the authority.”

Heather Barr, a co-author of the report and an associate director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, attributed the attacks by family members to fear of the Taliban’s wrath themselves.

“There’s a kind of feeling that you get credit from the Taliban for turning people in, that a way to keep yourself safe is to rat out other people,” Barr said. “Some people are clearly feeling like the way to keep themselves above suspicion is to hand in other people in this environment where there’s no kind of protection from rule of law.”

The report also outlined how gender-nonconforming individuals, in particular, have been subjected to danger under the Taliban’s rule. Several of the report’s interviewees told researchers that they were beaten on the street for wearing clothes that did not conform to gender norms, or looked “too Western.”

“Every moment we receive threats and calls,” said an Afghan trans woman, according to the report. “Even children on the street say, ‘You’re still here? Why hasn’t the Taliban taken you yet?’” Nemat Sadat, a former political science professor at the American University of Afghanistan, echoed the sentiment that, among LGBTQ Afghans, trans and gender-nonconforming Afghans are more vulnerable to attacks. “A cisgender gay or bisexual male, who could grow a beard, who can look like the Taliban, who could wear their clothing, who could dress like them … they won’t even be questioned,” said Sadat, who told NBC News that he has spoken with over 200 Afghans who have been targeted or tortured by the Taliban since August.

“A lot of Afghans want to get out, and we should try to help all of them, but we have to prioritize,” Sadat added, suggesting trans and gender-nonconforming Afghans should receive help first.

To aid LGBTQ Afghans, the authors of the report urged other countries — and the United States specifically — to expedite their applications for evacuation and resettlement, support humanitarian assistance programs that specifically target LGBTQ Afghans and apply diplomatic leverage.

Throughout the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, advocates and lawmakers urged the State Department to specifically include LGBTQ Afghans in its pledge to evacuate vulnerable people from the country. That request, however, went unanswered. But, describing the efforts as of “utmost importance," a spokesperson for the State Department told NBC News in an email that the Biden administration will continue to help LGBTQ Afghans through "diplomacy, international influence, and humanitarian aid." The spokesperson also acknowledged that evacuating LGBTQ Afghans is "extremely difficult" and "potentially dangerous."

"The best we can say is that we know by numbers that we will help some, but we are unlikely ever to be sure how many since many people cannot disclose their sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex characteristics due to shame, stigma and fear of backlash," the spokesperson said.

Only Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland have publicly announced that they would commit to resettling LGBTQ Afghans.

“I’m disappointed overall in the international community’s sort of growing disengagement from all human rights issues in Afghanistan, but I think that this one has been particularly neglected from the beginning,” Barr said, referring to the plight of LGBTQ Afghans.

“I mean, it’s been neglected as long as I’ve worked on Afghanistan, honestly, but this moment is more important than ever for people to actually engage and raise this issue,” added Barr, who has worked on Afghanistan-related human rights projects for 15 years.

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