Persecuted Gays Seek Refuge in U.S.
Foreigners' Abuse Increasingly Seen as Grounds for Asylum
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 10, 2007; Page A06
One night in 2003, on the wintry streets of Kosovo, a group of thugs stalked and beat Gramoz Prestreshi almost to death. Police in the war-scarred Balkan province laughed and called him names. The emergency room workers made him mop up his own blood. It was a sordid but hardly unusual episode in the hostile environment homosexuals encounter in societies of all kinds.
Unlike many such victims, though, Prestreshi kept his wits about him. He had photographs taken of his injuries. He complained to the press and clipped every article. When his family disowned him, he joined a gay rights organization and slept in its office. This spring, his determination bore unexpected fruit, and Prestreshi was accepted as a legal refugee in the United States. He now lives in the District.
“I am happy because I don't have to live like a prisoner anymore in a society where no one is allowed to be different,” said Prestreshi, a slight, nervous man of 22, who won his asylum case with help from Whitman-Walker Clinic in the District. “But I can never forget what happened. It hurt when the police called us 'faggots.' It hurt when my parents screamed and beat me after they found out. It still hurts.”
Harassment and abuse of gay men and lesbians is becoming increasingly accepted as grounds for legal asylum in the United States, even at a time of conservative judicial activism, fear about HIV/AIDS transmission and increased scrutiny of asylum seekers. The government does not disclose a breakdown of reasons for granting asylum petitions, but legal advocacy groups in several major U.S. cities said they have won dozens of cases.
Homosexuality, once a de facto condition for barring foreigners from entering the country, is now officially recognized by the U.S. government as a category that might subject individuals to persecution in their homeland, just as if they were political dissidents in a dictatorship or religious minority members in a theocracy.
But although petitioning for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation has become far easier since 1994, when then-Attorney General Janet Reno ordered that a groundbreaking case involving a gay Cuban refugee be viewed as a legal precedent, such asylum cases are still extremely difficult to win, according to lawyers in Washington and elsewhere.
One reason is that applicants face multiple burdens of proof. They must demonstrate that they were abused or harassed by authorities, not merely by angry relatives or drunken hooligans, or that the authorities failed to protect them. They must also prove that they were abused because they are homosexual — and thus prove that they are, in fact, gay.
Raul Calderon, 40, the ex-soldier from Colombia, said he was raped as a recruit of 15 but commanded by officers who constantly exhorted the troops “not to act like women.” In an atmosphere of civil war militarism, he said, he felt equally threatened by the guerrillas, the armed forces and members of the right-wing squads who called themselves social cleansing committees. “To them, people like me were filth,” he said.
Often, Pilcher and others said, foreigners living in the United States who have possible grounds for asylum on the basis of sexual orientation are afraid to come forward or unaware that there is a one-year deadline to apply.
Even in societies with freewheeling, tolerant urban cultures, homosexuals can be harassed to the point of seeking refuge abroad. Brazil, for example, has a huge population of gays and transvestites, and last month's annual gay pride festival in Sao Paolo drew 3 million people, according to Gay Life, a Baltimore newspaper.
Yet J.C., a District man from Rio de Janeiro who spoke on condition he not be further identified, won his asylum petition in 2001 after proving that he had been repeatedly beaten and abused by powerful, armed street gangs in his hillside slum, known as a favela, and that the local police force had failed to protect him.
Fear of AIDS is another frequent factor in public and private harassment of homosexuals abroad. A doctor from Venezuela, who treated people with HIV and AIDS there and championed their cause within his profession, was granted asylum this year after being kidnapped, beaten and sexually humiliated by a police squad.
“I was lucky because I could prove my case, because I speak good English and have a useful profession,” said the man, a D.C. resident who spoke on condition he not be identified because he does not want to jeopardize his job as a U.S. government medical researcher. “A lot of people don't have winnable cases, but they are living desperate lives.”
Ironically, experts said, it might be harder for homosexuals to win asylum claims on grounds of sexual orientation if they come from countries with dictatorial governments that repress a variety of people. Victoria Neilson, legal director of a private New York agency called Immigration Equality, said that seeking asylum from a country with a great deal of violence might work against a gay applicant.
“We have cases from all over the world, but sometimes people who come from the scariest countries have the hardest time proving their case,” said Neilson, whose office currently represents asylum seekers from 26 countries including Albania, Indonesia, Jamaica, Turkmenistan and Zimbabwe. “If you come from Iraq, where nobody feels safe, it is hard to show why you would be singled out,” she said.
In one recent groundbreaking case, a lesbian from Uganda won U.S. asylum after her family had a stranger rape her as a “cure” for being gay. Neilson said the woman's petition was rejected initially because the abuse had been carried out in private, but an appeals court in Minnesota reversed that decision and approved her claim, noting that conditions in Uganda were so hostile that she could not seek protection from the state.
Often, even in countries where legal help is available theoretically, social hostility to homosexuals can overshadow their formal rights. Kosovo, for example, is governed under a postwar U.N. mandate. It has laws banning discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation and has an active, liberal press.
None of that, however, was enough to protect Prestreshi or his friend Korab Zuka, 23, who fled to the United States this spring and is awaiting an asylum hearing. Zuka was a leader of the fledgling gay rights movement in Pristina, and he was featured last year in a British gay magazine article called “Europe's Hidden Homos.”
Zuka said his public profile led to unbearable pressure and a series of threats. He said he repeatedly called the Kosovo police, who shrugged off his complaints.
“It was very frightening to live there as a gay person,” Zuka said during a recent interview at Whitman-Walker. “You always had the fear that someone would come up and kill you. At least here I can walk down the street without looking around to see who is behind me.”