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RGOD2: With persecution of sexual minorities in 76 countries, is there a need for an LGBT Underground Railroad?

This week, another gay African refugee arrived in Washington, D.C. to begin his process for asylum in the USA. He is one of four people the St. Paul’s Foundation is working closely with and although each case is different, the overall circumstances are similar.

LGBT people all over the world are telling their stories, coming out and demanding a quality of citizenship that has for too long been denied. As criminals in 76 countries, merely for being what God created them to be, they are denied equal opportunity to education, health care and economic prosperity. A cohort of young leaders, shaped largely by a universal human rights framework, is working within very difficult contexts to be recognized as full citizens and given protections and rights under their constitutions. These people are not anarchists or revolutionaries; they merely want a piece of the existing pie. When they challenge the unjust systems and prejudices in their countries, they not only meet resistance, but often violence. If it not directly from the mob, it may come from police or state harassment, violence of imprisonment.

The new crime: “Promotion of homosexuality”

One of our four people was detained in a military barracks and tortured. Another lost his government job and state housing and was made homeless overnight merely for attending the International AIDS Conference and our Spirit of 76 Initiative in Washington, D.C. in July.

They are perceived to be criminals, deviants and promoters of something sinful and un-African. “Promotion of homosexuality” has become a new international cause that is being used by churches and governments to clamp down against existing organizations and leaders. From Russia (where Madonna’s high profile support of Pussy Riot has landed her in court accused of “promotion of homosexuality” and Russia’s new anti-gay laws i.e. banning any gay pride parade for a century) to Africa’s more famous anti-homosexuality law- (the Bahati Bill in Uganda also known as the “Kill The Gays” bill), we have an anti-gay epidemic.

Promotion is a loaded word because it implies a form of recruitment and choice. The African stereotype of a gay person is that of a predator, pedophile and someone who is bringing decadent western practices to heterosexual Africa.

This fear and misinformation is stirred up by politicians (the situation in Zimbabwe is particularly difficult as the country prepares for March elections) by using LGBT human rights issues as a political issue that needs to be crushed by a strong moral government . The local gay movement’s offices were raided recently, people were arrested and computers seized. Sometimes the families of prominent activists are also harassed. One of our four people found his family’s business vandalized and his mother had to run into hiding for her safety.

The knock-on effects of this kind of intimidation and harassment is profound and largely undocumented. It is easy to understand why someone who becomes a target of the state can want to leave their country. In the end, this difficult decision may be more about giving protection to their family rather than a concern for their own safety. It is a very difficult decision for anyone to make –to leave their country and their family and friends and begin a new life in a strange place. Their activism and commitment to the rights of their people does not change, but they have to become part of a virtual community. There are numerous examples of LGBT exiles continuing the struggle from other countries and the internet gives the international community opportunities for education, dialogue and support.

Our latest refugee

I will write more about our latest LGBT refugee next week but when we spoke on the phone on Thursday, he told me the main negative influence in his country against homosexuality was from the church.

When clergy and politicians join forces to persecute LGBT people, many people get hurt. When Mitt Romney uses Rick Warren as an example of good American foreign aid and faith-based services overseas, I know what this means to my African LGBT friends. If we in the USA end up with a Republican Administration, we will have thousands of LGBT people needing an Underground Railroad system, particularly for the activists, to get out of harm’s way. We cannot expect a Romney Administration to speak out against the kinds of violations we read about every day in the blog Erasing 76 Crimes. Colin Stewart is one of the few journalists I know who is committed to reporting the details and the facts on what criminalization actually means in these countries. Romney, if elected, will let these countries do whatever they want and we will not get the consistent advocacy that has been a mark of the Obama/Clinton foreign policy of the past few years.

In Uganda, Sexual Minorities Uganda is taking a government minister to court for illegally closing down some workshops and arresting some participants. The date for the trial has now been changed three times. It is now set for November, conveniently coinciding with the American presidential elections.

The next few weeks will be an anxious time for the global movement for equality. Our next Administration will create either a climate of protection for LGBT and engagement with foreign governments on this issue, or we will turn a blind eye to a new wave of terror directed particularly towards LGBT activists and organizations that appear to be in the business of “promotion of homosexuality.” This includes not only LGBT embryonic organizations, but will include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and more inclusive faith communities.

Madonna’s legal battle will do much to highlight a largely unknown phenomenon in the West and it should be very interesting to see how the legal framework of Russia’s new anti-gay law will stand up to international attention. In the meantime, there will need to be a much more organized “underground railroad” system to help people escape from a new wave of persecution as governments and churches attempt to make homosexuality not only illegal but invisible. If it is not being discussed maybe it no longer exists? This is their goal and they will all make political capital in the process of realizing it.

The shape of things to come

Meanwhile, the USA asylum and immigration system remains extremely flawed and it is very difficult and expensive for poorly paid LGBT activists to access it. In one recent example, we were told human rights defenders funds could be available to our people (usually around $5,000 of emergency assistance) but they had to travel from one African country to another. Our friend who just arrived in Washington does not qualify to access these funds and he was lucky to have his own funds for airfare, because this fund, we were told, does not pay for airfares to the USA either.

Once here, we are now faced with the issue of how he makes a living and we need to create some hybrid internship for him because he is not legally permitted to work until his asylum is actually granted. We are now raising money for emergency assistance so he and some others can have something to eat, while the D.C. faith community provides him with free accommodation. There is no doubt, these personal stories will help educate the faith and wider community on the importance of current American foreign policy and why our government needs to keep this advocacy going at the highest levels with other governments.

We need to fix our asylum and immigration system immediately so others at risk can be protected and removed from harm’s way. We need to create funding that is more flexible and available to grass roots organizations and individuals to assist these courageous individuals within a short timeframe. We are developing an underground railroad and it looks to me as if it has all the trappings of a familiar American saga. The long term solution is to decriminalize homosexuality globally and for governments to protect and respect all its citizens. This will take many years to achieve and in the meantime, organizations like the St. Paul’s Foundation and faith communities all over this country will be receiving LGBT exiles, largely invisible and largely undocumented.

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE.