Recently, Uganda made international news after its government passed one of the world’s harshest anti-LGBTQ laws. The “Anti-Homosexuality Act of 2023” introduces harsh penalties for ‘homosexual acts’ including life imprisonment and the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’. This new act builds upon and adds harsher punishments to the previously annulled 2014 Anti-Homosexuality Act which prohibited sexual relations between persons of the same sex. In the weeks following the passage of the 2023 act, disturbing videos surfaced showing hostility and violence towards LGBTQ+ individuals in Uganda. A June 29th CNN article reported that at least 300 human rights violations against suspected LGBT+ individuals had been reported in Uganda since the passing of the act. Currently, the number is likely more. World leaders have since condemned this new law, with President Joe Biden threatening additional steps in the form of sanctions and restriction of entry into the United States (U.S.), for anyone suspected of being involved in these human rights abuses.
LGBTQ+ Experiences Worldwide
While the situation in Uganda is arguably one of the harshest, it is not an unprecedented or exceptional case. Thousands of individuals all over the world are facing the same anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric in their countries of residence. According to a database run by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association, of 193 countries in the United Nations, 64 still criminalize same-sex acts. LGBTQ+ individuals often experience violence and discrimination in their home countries and are survivors of sexual violence, torture, and/or persecution by their families because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This marginalization leads many LGBTQ+ individuals to seek entry into countries such as the United States and Canada to escape the violence and discrimination. However, not only is this process difficult, but upon their arrival, they often also experience compounded stress and trauma due to their migrant status, their sexuality, their socioeconomic status, and their race and ethnicity.
Asylum vs. Refugee Status
Currently, the United States has legal provisions intended to help LGBTQ+ individuals who are faced with violence and stigma in their home countries. Individuals outside of the U.S. can seek refuge if they demonstrate that they were persecuted or have a fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. This distinction is different from asylum, which is an offer of protection provided to a person who has already left their native country and is living in the U.S. To qualify for refugee status, one must first receive a referral to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for consideration as a refugee. After filling out the proper application, the individual will then be interviewed abroad by a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services officer, who will determine whether they are eligible for refugee resettlement. If approved, the individual will receive a medical exam and help with their travel plans, including a loan. They also will be eligible for medical and cash assistance and have the ability to work immediately upon arrival to the United States.
The asylum process is different from the refugee process as it offers protections for individuals who are already located in the United States and are applying within one year of a most recent arrival to the United States. Asylum seekers must demonstrate that they have a genuine fear of returning to their native country. If granted, individuals are then offered an array of benefits, such as financial assistance to healthcare, resettlement, and more. Additionally, once granted asylum, individuals may file for a Green Card and be granted lawful permanent residence status after one year.
During this process, individuals are expected to provide proof of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Asylum officers or Immigration judges are hired to perform ‘assessments’ to determine whether or not the applicant is a part of the LGBTQ+ community. They may ask the applicant to provide testimony or physical proof, such as subscriptions to LGBTQ+ media, membership, or participation in LGBTQ+ groups. They may even look at a person’s appearance for further confirmation.
The issue of “proof”
Although the intentions surrounding the U.S. government’s requirement of proof may be sound to avoid abuse of this resource, it nonetheless opens up many challenges. Namely, is there a ‘correct’ way to prove one’s gender identity and sexual orientation?
Individuals of LGBTQ+ communities are not homogeneous. There is substantial diversity and spectra in how people choose to live their authentic selves, which are often influenced by demographic variables such as age, race, and ethnicity. American philosopher Judith Butler states that gender is what you do, not who you are. They argue that “one’s learned performance of gendered behavior (what we commonly associate with femininity and masculinity) is an act of sorts, a performance that is imposed upon us by normative heterosexuality.” Butler’s claims deconstruct the binary and offer up a broader scope of what we consider gender to be. This openness then allows individuals to have immense freedom in expressing their identity in any way they so choose. For example, lesbian women may choose to convey themselves as hyper-masculine or hyper-feminine, or neither. Trans individuals can, and often, identify as simultaneously gender diverse and gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, queer, etc.
Furthermore, LGBTQ+ individuals are diverse due to their interconnected identities. In Katie Acosta’s “How could you do this to me?”, the author explores how sexually diverse Latinas negotiate sexual disclosure and familial relationships. The article offers three strategies that study participants utilized with their families: erasure of nonconformity, sexual silencing, and avoidance after disclosure. The second strategy offers a way for families to tacitly accept sexual diversity without directly acknowledging it, while the last strategy occurs when participants disclose their sexual diversity but later choose with their familiar to render the disclosure unheard. These strategies are largely influenced by age, economic autonomy, and migration. They help lesbian, bisexual, and queer Latinas to minimize possible rejection from their families and preserve familial bonds. This balance of sorts is especially important considering the importance of ‘familism’ as a key survival tool for navigating the U.S. immigration system/process.
With all this in mind, it is clear that how one performs their authentic self may not always fit into the U.S.’s or individuals’ definition of what it means to be a member of LGBTQ+ communities. Attempting to find set criteria to neatly define LGBTQ+ individuals is not only impossible, it completely disregards the work of queer activists that have argued for centuries for the dismantling of strict conformities and nonexistent homogeneities.
Prospects for Asylum Seekers
This requirement of proof is especially worrying when one considers that the prospects for asylum seekers and refugees, in general, are sometimes bleak. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse database demonstrates that since January 2023, more than half of the individuals who apply for asylum have been denied asylum relief. The statistics vary by the applicant’s nationality, and whether the application was affirmative or defensive, that is, filed in response to the Department of Homeland Security initiating removal proceedings in Immigration Court. Note, however, that these statistics do not specify the success rates for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.
Barriers LGBTQ+ immigrants face within the US
LGBTQ+ immigrants also face added barriers within the U.S. due to their interconnecting identities. Not only may they face barriers due to their gender and/or sexual orientation, but they may also face barriers due to their migrant status, their race/ethnicity, or even age. This phenomenon is often referred to as ‘intersectionality’–a term coined by scholar Kimberelé Crenshaw to explain the interconnected nature of social categorizations (such as race, class, and gender) as they apply to a given individual or group. For example, in the U.S., it is estimated that 22% of LGBTQ+ immigrant populations are undocumented. This reality proves a challenge for many LGBTQ+ immigrants. To receive public benefits like Medicaid, immigrants must meet federal eligibility requirements such as having legal permanent status or asylum/refugee status. Moreover, 36% of transgender immigrants are uninsured, twice the percentage of uninsured people in the general U.S. population. Of those insured, many individuals face significant disparities in accessing the care they need, especially gender affirming healthcare, sexually transmitted infection testing and care, and medications to prevent and treat human immunodeficiency virus. These challenges are only a fraction of the systemic issues in place. There are also many institutional and interpersonal disparities, such as discrimination in healthcare and lack of comprehensive LGBTQ+ education in healthcare professional schools, that further threaten the lives of LGBTQ+ immigrants.
With the increase of far-right political movements all over the world that threaten the lives and safety of LGBTQ+ individuals, the U.S. should take pride in and continue to serve as a beacon of hope for many looking to flee. However, in acting in this role, it is essential to also address the systemic and societal issues that affect LGBTQ+ immigrants not just abroad but on U.S. soil as well. These concerns not only affect LGBTQ+ immigrants but also multiple disenfranchised and minoritized populations in the U.S. LGBTQ+ immigrants, however, are in a unique position as their interconnected identities mean that they are often subjected to unique forms of discrimination based on one or a combination of some/all of their interconnected identities. This compounded marginalization then affects their access to healthcare and quality of life. LGBTQ+ immigrants offer scholars and activists a unique framework for the concept of intentionality to further address and dismantle issues related to gender/sexuality, race/ethnicity, etc. Therefore, LGBTQ+ immigrants must never be ignored or overlooked.
Author Bio: Dehandra Blackwood is a passionate advocate for LGBTQ+ health equity and an integral member of the OutCare team. With a BA in Global Public Health and Anthropology, along with a minor in Latin American and Caribbean studies from New York University, Dehandra brings a wealth of knowledge and a deep understanding of the intersections of health, culture, and society. As an LGBTQ+ Health Advocacy Scholar sponsored by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Dehandra joined OutCare to further their commitment to creating a more equitable healthcare system. Currently pursuing an MPH in Sociomedical Sciences and infectious disease epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Dehandra’s long-term goal is to obtain a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology. By combining her expertise in public health, epidemiology, and anthropology, Dehandra aims to conduct research on the anthropological roots of health disparities across race/ethnicity and gender/sexuality, ultimately working towards culturally competent solutions. With her dedication and interdisciplinary background, Dehandra is making a significant impact in promoting health equity for LGBTQ+ communities.