By Cynthia L. Cooper
Tuesday, June 26, 2007
Confronted with barriers to legal U.S. immigration, a small number of foreign lesbians are seeking safety through political asylum. A recent court opinion expanded the definition of persecution in the case of a Ugandan lesbian.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--The annual celebration of Gay Pride Month in June draws millions to events and parades throughout New York and across the nation. Although she had never seen a Gay Pride parade, one lesbian immigrant from Turkmenistan living in New York planned to partake in 2007.
"If they let me walk with them, I will walk with them. I could never be so proud or so out in my country. And it's not going to happen any time soon," said Mehre Palzanova, whose name has been changed because she fears repercussions to friends, colleagues and family in Turkmenistan.
Palzanova had a special reason to venture out. On May 1, she became the first lesbian from Turkmenistan to be granted asylum in the United States after an immigration hearing determined that she had a justified fear of persecution in her home country because of her sexual orientation, as well as her political opinions and gender.
"It's a small place. People don't understand, don't accept sexual orientations," said Palzanova in an interview with Women's eNews.
Palzanova was fired from her job when police received information that she was a lesbian; she was blacklisted by the government from other employment. Her father lost a promotion and her family tried to force her to marry. When family arguments turned violent, the police would not assist her.
Law students with the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic at Columbia University School of Law in New York spent 400 hours compiling extensive evidence, including an affidavit from a former U.S. ambassador, about the risks faced by lesbians in the predominantly Muslim culture of Turkmenistan.
But even in the United States, Palzanova says life as a lesbian is far from idyllic. "Some people in the U.S. are homophobic and I didn't expect that," she said. "I can't wait for the day when I am just acknowledged for who I am."
Asylum cases such as Palzanova's offer an underutilized possibility of safety for women who face a tangle of obstacles in seeking to immigrate to the United States.
One major barrier is U.S. refusal to recognize same-sex relationships for immigration purposes, which means that U.S. lesbians are unable to sponsor foreign partners as hundreds of thousands of heterosexuals do. In 2006 about 27 percent of the total grants of permanent residency were awarded to members of a heterosexual couple.
"If someone is straight and in a relationship, boom-boom-boom and they're done," says private attorney Noemi Masliah in New York. "Same-sex partners have to jump through the hoops and find different ways. Or some just give up . . . It's not fair that a lesbian's status is employment-based and the other (straight) piece is family-based. I think it's very sad and very dismal and very unfair."
Debanuj Dasgupta, immigration policy analyst at Queers for Economic Justice in New York, estimates that 40,000 same-sex partners without proper documentation are in the United States today, part of 1.2 million to 1.4 million undocumented lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender immigrants.
Without relationships as a pathway for immigration, lesbians, in order to secure permanent residency or citizenship, must fit within limited, elite employment categories. The restrictions make it particularly difficult for women emigrating from parts of the world where their educational opportunities are limited.
Amid such barriers, advocates are keeping a close eye on the legal developments surrounding asylum for some women who are persecuted because of sexual orientation.
A recent court opinion involving a lesbian named Olivia Nabulwala may help. She suffered private horrors in her native Uganda: She was beaten by her father when he learned of her sexual orientation and her family set up a man to rape her.
Because the Ugandan government was not directly involved in the persecution, an immigration judge denied her request for asylum, but in March, the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that asylum should be available if the government were unable or unwilling to control the harmful actions of private parties. It is only the second published opinion from a federal court on lesbians and asylum. An immigration court is now reviewing her case in light of these new standards.
"Although we are still fighting for immigration equality and are treated unequally in so many ways, with asylum, there is an opportunity to seek safety based on sexual orientation and gender identity," said Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality, a legal and advocacy group in New York that handled the case of Nabulwala in conjunction with a lawyer in Chicago.
Asylum is generally available to people fleeing persecution in a foreign country based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular group or political opinion. In total, approximately 25,000 people were granted asylum in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Far fewer lesbians apply for asylum than gay men. Although exact statistics are unavailable, "a huge discrepancy" exists, said Dusty Araujo, coordinator of the San Francisco-based Asylum Documentation Program of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission.
The group informally tracks gay and lesbian asylum cases by calls that it receives for information and follow-up. Since 1994 it found 62 lesbians permitted to stay in the United States out of 435 inquiries, compared to 643 gay men among 4,134 inquiries. In other words, only one lesbian applies for every 10 gay men.
The Department of Homeland Security does not categorize asylum cases by reasons. In general, only 37 percent of asylum seekers are female.
Many cases of lesbians pose legal challenges because the persecution occurs in private--at the hands of family members or others--and is similar to domestic violence. Most gay men, by contrast, flee persecution at the hands of authorities, in fear of arrest or confinement.
Lesbians, like other women, also face economic and cultural barriers in escaping from many countries. Many women have been forced into marriages, a factor that some judges weigh against a claim of homosexuality.
"Our clients have language barriers, cultural barriers, a lot of fear that they will not get the help they need because of their sexual orientation," said Noemi Calonje, director of the Immigration Project of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a San Francisco advocacy and litigation organization. "Some live in silence because they feel that silence is safer," she said.
In February the center released a guide with strategies and practice advice to aid lesbians in coming forward with asylum claims.
People need to apply for asylum within one year of arrival, advocates note. They can get free legal help from legal advocacy organizations and need to understand that speaking up about their sexual orientation could help an application for asylum.
Cynthia L. Cooper, an independent journalist in New York, frequently writes about justice.
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