Lesbians are under threat — yet denied asylum

We don’t talk much about the unique threats to lesbians when we discuss LGBTQ rights issues, either domestic or foreign. The pandemic of corrective rapes and honor killings of lesbians rarely make the news. Yet they impact American lesbians as well as lesbians in other, less democratic and/or theocratic countries as case after case has shown. The Texas honor killings of Britney Cosby and Crystal Jackson, the Texas corrective rapes of Mollie Olgin, who was also killed, and Kristene Chapa, who was permanently disabled, made headlines. But many other cases do not.

Equally concerning is the fact that lesbians fleeing to the U.S. to seek asylum based on these threats of rape and death have routinely had their asylum requests rejected.

Corrective rape — the rape of lesbians and queer women to purportedly “cure” them of their lesbianism and turn them heterosexual — has been used as a weapon against lesbians for centuries. That it remains a constant and devastating hate crime in a post-Stonewall world is shocking. According to human rights groups like the World Health Organization, corrective rape of lesbians is pandemic in some countries, with the most cases in South Africa, India, Uganda, Kenya and Jamaica. Corrective rape has also been used in conversion therapy worldwide, including in the U.S.

Jamaican lesbian rights activist Angeline Jackson wrote about her own experience of corrective rape at 19 in Marie Claire on Oct. 11. She had planned to meet a woman with whom she had been corresponding online. But instead, two men raped her. Police blamed her, citing her lesbianism as the real problem. In her essay, Jackson wrote about the prevalence of corrective rape and asserted, “Even parents have been known to hire men to rape their daughters to ‘cure’ them.”

Jackson wrote of her fear of having acid thrown on her — a common assault against lesbians in Jamaica, the Middle East, India and South and Central America — or being killed. Several LGBTQ activists have been murdered in recent years.

In this atmosphere of fear and threat for lesbians globally, why isn’t the U.S. making it easier for lesbians to apply for asylum from nations where being gay is a “crime” punishable by prison or death?

Following the Lavender Scare of the 1950s and President Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450 banning all homosexuals — referred to as “sexual deviates” — from working in any area of the federal government, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 became the first policy to explicitly prevent “sexual deviates” from entering the country. The law also stipulated the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to deport lesbians and gay men.

In 2015, as part of his “International Initiatives to Advance the Human Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Persons,” then-President Obama directed federal agencies to take steps to protect vulnerable LGBT refugees and asylum seekers.

President Trump has rejected those guidelines and actively prohibited LGBTQ refugees.

In the past three months, four Ugandan LGBTQ rights activists have been murdered in a climate of intense government-instigated homophobic reprisals in Uganda, causing many to flee. Yet despite these facts that have been the subject of international condemnation, on Oct. 18, “Margaret,” (she uses the pseudonym to protect her family), a 20-year-old Ugandan lesbian who survived a corrective rape and severe beating, was denied asylum in the U.S.

Her immigration attorney, Nancy Oretskin, managed to get Margaret over the border from Jaurez to El Paso after months of Margaret being held in a Jaurez detention center under the new guidelines Trump has set up, using Mexico to prevent asylum-seekers from getting into the U.S.

Oretskin thought Margaret’s case of her life being in danger if deported to Uganda was clear. But on Oct. 18, U.S. officials found that Margaret “had no ‘credible fear,'” or any way of knowing what would happen if she were sent back to Uganda — where she had fled mere weeks after the corrective rape and beating by men she thought might have been police.

According to Immigration Equality, the nation’s leading LGBTQ immigrant rights organization, “Since 1994, United States immigration law has recognized persecution on account of sexual orientation as a basis for asylum.” Immigration Equality also explains that in a case like Margaret’s, “an immigration judge has the legal authority to grant other immigration benefits in addition to asylum, such as withholding of removal, Convention Against Torture relief, and in some instances, lawful permanent residence (a green card) for those who qualify.”

But those cases are fewer and fewer under the Trump administration.

The Trump Administration has been deporting lesbians who should have qualified for asylum since 2017. Margaret may, as early as this week, become one more. It is time corrective rape and honor killing be considered critical issues for LGBTQ rights organizations and “credible” cause for granting asylum. Without such remedies, more lesbians will most definitely die. 

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.