Quick Intro to Queer Migration
While the development of an academic understanding of queer migrants is a relatively new field of study, it is becoming increasingly clear that queer migrants possess unique experiences which differentiate them from non-LGBTQ individuals. Generally, queer individuals have unique challenges which restrict their ability to migrate; oftentimes this is a result of social exclusion which limits individuals’ access to resources and migrant networks and presents physical danger where varying sexual orientations and gendered expressions are not permitted by society.1 During transit, queer migrants are at a higher risk of experiencing gender-based violence than their heterosexual and heteronormative counterparts and are often faced with more difficult immigration processes which discriminate on the basis of gender identity and minimize experiences of violence in the country of origin.2 Upon reaching their host country, queer migrants continue to experience hyper-vulnerability as their needs and interests often remain unaddressed, they continue to be subjected to high rates of violence, and they are rendered invisible in their attempts to assimilate.3 While queer migrants share many overlapping experiences, it is important to emphasize that queer migrants do not have monolithic experiences and that it is especially important to differentiate between the experiences of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgendered individuals, HIV-positive individuals, etc.; but in this regard, scholarly research is unfortunately even further behind.
This document presents a brief summary of existing peer-reviewed research on the unique experiences of queer refugees and asylum seekers and speaks specifically to the experiences of queer migrants arriving in the United States. But, of course, the US is not alone in this regard. Many other countries around the world are experiencing influxes of queer migrants and the responses of these countries vary dramatically and are subject to notable inconsistencies. Canada, for example, has received some negative feedback on its judicial reviews of asylum claims involving lesbians, but it is also recognized for currently having the highest rate of acceptance of LGBTQ asylum seekers in 27 years.4
4750 LGBTQ+ refugees and asylum seekers arrive in the United States every year.
Challenges for Queer Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the United States
The exact number of queer migrants in the United States is unknown. A 2015 report for the U.S. Office for Refugee Resettlement estimated that approximately 4,750 LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers arrive in the United States every year. 5 This, however, is widely considered to be a conservative number because the vast majority of refugees choose not to disclose their sexual orientation and/or nonconforming gender identities to US officials when possible; in fact, less than 500 refugees actually cite homophobic persecution as a contributing factor to their displacement each year.6 Asylum seekers who file asylum claims on the basis of persecution in their home countries due to their sexual orientation and/or nonconforming gender identity make up approximately 40,000 of the over 855,000 pending asylum cases.7 In addition to the pool of regulated refugees and asylum seekers, queer migrants make up approximately 267,000 of the nearly 11 million undocumented migrants in the United States.8 Up until recently, most scholars assumed that the experiences of migration were generally the same for different groups of people. And, while there are some similarities, such as queer migrants dealing with feelings of frustration and isolation, it is crucial to recognize that LGBTQ asylum seekers face numerous unique challenges due to their LGBTQ identities. Typically, queer migrants arrive alone, as they are often ostracized by their families and/or communities in their country of origin.9 They also face increased risks and discrimination due to their cultural, ethnic, and/or religious minority statuses paired with their sexual minority status. In the United States, islamophobia, racism, and sexism continue to contribute to the patriarchal oppression of the LGBTQ community in ways that subject them to increased discrimination, violence, and invisibility.10
Discrimination against queer migrants takes many different forms. From the outset, queer individuals often face steeper obstacles to gaining legal entry to potential countries of asylum. For example, it has been documented that lesbians often struggle to obtain asylum status as courts are unsure of how to determine if the individual is definitively a lesbian, fail to gather evidence of dangerous conditions lesbians face in their countries of origin, and do not consider violence, such as corrective-rape, as sufficient evidence for persecution of their social group because rape can happen to all women.11 Queer Muslims too face unique obstacles, as many have cited feeling pressure to renounce their religion in order to most effectively convince the Department of Homeland Security of the legitimacy of their claims, due to perceptions of Islam as incompatible with homosexuality.12 The selectivity of the immigration processes forces queer migrants to relive past traumas in seeking lawful entry and often denies them entry; forcing them to find alternative places to live, to return home to dangerous conditions, or to seek entry to the United States through other means.
Discrimination continues to be prevalent in the lives of queer migrants even after passing through U.S. borders. LGBTQ people in the U.S. continue to face widespread discrimination in health care, shelters and the wider social services sector due to their LGBTQ identity. Without federal employment protections, LGBTQ individuals all over the United States are at heightened risk for unemployment; with a larger share of the risk given to transgender asylum seekers.13 Due to their visible differences which contribute to vulnerabilities, it is common for transgender individuals in urban areas to resort to sex work; with some estimates suggesting that 50 to 90 percent of transgender refugees work in the sex industry at some point during displacement.14 Additionally, in a recent survey of the US transgender population, one third of participants reported being mistreated by medical professionals on account of their gender identity.15
Physical violence against queer migrants is also a major concern. Violence against transgender individuals, especially women of color, is pronounced in the United States and contributes to high rates of murder, sexual abuse, and exclusion from public spaces.16 Similarly, concerns of corrective rape are significant for transmen, lesbians, and asexual individuals.17One particularly salient example of the increased violence queer migrants encounter is the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando Florida.18 In one of the largest mass shootings in US history, the shooter specifically targeted a gay nightclub full of Latinos to demonstrate contempt towards immigrant and ethnic minorities as well as sexual and gender minority populations. Other prominent forms of violence against queer migrants include aspects of incarceration in immigration detention centers where LGBTQ individuals are subject to heightened abuse, to increased rates of solitary confinement, and to the denial of medical assistance which does not conform with heteronormative expectations and where transgender individuals are placed in prisons according to their sex at birth, denied necessary hormones, and are reported to be 13 times more likely to be assaulted than cisgender males.19
Lastly, the invisibility with which queer migrants face is of grave concern. While queer migrants may feel unsafe around people from their countries of origin, due to the factors which led to their displacement, they also often feel overlooked by LGBTQ organizations within the United States.20 As gender is a social construction, gendered expectations, expressions, and identities vary greatly between different locales. The cultural differences of the United States and of the countries of origin paired with forms of trauma often mean that the unique experiences and needs of queer refugees and asylum seekers, such as cultural understanding and targeted services, are not prioritized, or generally even considered.21
Considering these challenges, existing literature consistently points to three necessary shifts to better assist queer refugees and asylum seekers. Firstly, queer refugees and asylum seekers need to have access to queer-friendly cities and towns. When provided with the option, queer migrants overwhelming choose to relocate to places with larger concentrations of LGBTQ individuals, or “communities of support;” such as San Francisco or New York.22 In contrast to asylum seekers, refugees are not able to choose where they will be relocated, as this decision is made for them by resettlement agencies, and therefore they do not always end up queer-friendly places. Secondly, queer refugees and asylum seekers should be connected to services which are tailored towards their unique needs. For example, recognition of the high rate of sexual violence directed towards transgender migrants should spur health service providers to increasingly offer alternative employment services and sexual health screenings. Thirdly, LGBTQ support and activist groups must become more inclusive of queer migrant voices and/or should create groups specifically for queer asylum seekers and refugees so that they can find support for their specific situations and do not feel isolated in their experiences. These groups can be general, such as the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP) or more specific, such as Proud Ukraine, depending on the felt and expressed needs of the populations.
Where AsylumConnect (and others) come in
In response to personal experiences and published research, Sy and Katie Sgarro created AsylumConnect in 2014 to connect queer migrants with services more responsive to their unique needs.23 The organization currently runs a resource catalog which seeks to connect LGBTQ migrants with potentially life-saving services that are already existing and that are friendly and accessible to them. AsylumConnect will also soon be adding AsylumConnect Community to its resource website and app; in an effort to connect LGBTQ asylum seekers together to support each other via private moderated online forums.
There are four major contributions that AsylumConnect is making in the field of queer migration. Firstly, the value of the simple act of locating queer migrant friendly services in cities with large queer populations cannot be overstated; while these services may exist already, little accessible information exists to help determine which organizations are filling which service gaps. Secondly, explicitly making the connection between service providers and queer migrants is helping to save lives. This is especially true when considering the reluctance of LGBTQ asylum seekers, refugees, and undocumented migrants to discuss their identities publicly. But because AsylumConnect’s catalog is all available online for free, individuals have the ability to seek out assistance while maintaining complete anonymity; thus affording those who are afraid the ability to seek out help while retaining their privacy. A third major contribution of AsylumConnect is the queer spaces it is creating by reaching out to communities and service providers. Many of the organizations listed in the catalog have much broader target groups than just queer refugees; instead focusing on work with LGBTQ youth, homeless populations, or larger immigrant groups. By contacting these organizations to see if they are willing and able to work with queer migrants, AsylumConnect actively invites organizations to improve their service provision to better address intersectional needs. In line with this and, according to a 2018 report by The Center for American Progress, many organizations want to serve LGBTQ immigrants but do not know how to inform the community of their services. AsylumConnect, by facilitating this conversation, is able to help connect these dots. 24 Along a similar vein, the fourth major contribution of AsylumConnect is the intersectional discourse it generates by publicizing how queer asylum seekers and refugees have unique needs that have yet to be adequately addressed. By bringing this concern to the public’s attention, AsylumConnect fills a vital role in calling attention to this issue which has for so long been overlooked.
1 Saastamoinen, Antti. “Iranian Queer Refugees’ Thoughts about Home: Five Queer/ Gay Men Interviewed about Their Sense of Belonging After Emigration.” Master’s thesis, University of Eastern Finland, 2017. Accessed October 13, 2017. http://epublications.uef.fi/pub/urn_nbn_fi_uef-20170568/urn_nbn_fi_uef-20170568.pdf.
“Mean Streets: Identifying and Responding to Urban Refugees’ Risks of Gender-Based Violence.” Women’s Refugee Commission. February 2016. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.womensrefugeecommission.org/gbv/resources/1272-mean-streets.
2 Lewis, Rachel. “Deportable Subjects: Lesbians and Political Asylum.” Feminist Formations 25, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 174-94.
3 “Working to Prevent and Address Violence Against Women Migrant Workers.” IOM. 2009. Accessed October 13, 2017. https://publications.iom.int/books/working-prevent-and-address-violence-against-women-migrant-workers.
4 Murray, David A.B,. “Real Queer: “Authentic” LGBT Refugee Claimants and Homonationalism in the Canadian Refugee System.” Anthropologica 56, no. 1 (2014): 21-32.
Carman, Tara. “Canada’s Acceptance Rate of Asylum Seekers Is the Highest in 27 Years – Here’s Why.” CBCnews. February 07, 2018. Accessed June 04, 2019. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/asylum-seekers-overview-data-1.4503825.
5 Larrainzar, Jacque. “IRUO Project Report.” May 2015. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/52dda974e4b0e9abea4eb170/t/570d609d60b5e9c23c5a02c8/1460494495991/IRUO Project Report.pdf.
6 Portman , Scott, and Daniel Weyl. “LGBT refugee resettlement in the US: emerging best practices.” Forced Migration Review, no. 42 (April 2013): 44-47. Accessed March 19, 2018. http://www.fmreview.org/sogi/portman-weyl.html.
7 Sgarro, Katie. “AsylumConnect Media Kit.” Accessed May 27, 2019. https://asylumconnect.org/in-the-news
“Newly Arriving Families Not Main Source for Immigration Court’s Growing Backlog.” Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, March 19, 2019. Accessed March 19, 2019. https://trac.syr.edu/whatsnew/email.190318.html.
8 Nayak, Meghana. Who is Worthy of Protection ?: Gender-Based Asylum and US Immigration Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
9 Portman , Scott, and Daniel Weyl. “LGBT refugee resettlement in the US: emerging best practices.”
10 Mavelli, Luca. The Refugee Crisis and Religion: Secularism, Security and Hospitality in Question. London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
11 Lewis, Rachel. “Deportable Subjects: Lesbians and Political Asylum.”
12 Mavelli, Luca. The Refugee Crisis and Religion: Secularism, Security and Hospitality in Question.
13 Faderman, Lillian. The Gay Revolution the Story of the Struggle. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016.
14 “Mean Streets: Identifying and Responding to Urban Refugees’ Risks of Gender-Based Violence.” Women’s Refugee Commission.
James, S. E., J. L. Herman, S. Rankin, M. Keisling, L. Mottet, and M. Anafi. “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.” National Center for Transgender Equality. 2016. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.transequality.org/sites/default/files/docs/usts/USTS%20Full%20Report%20-%20FINAL%201.6.17.pdf .
15 James, S. E., J. L. Herman, S. Rankin, M. Keisling, L. Mottet, and M. Anafi. “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.”
16 “Violence Against the Transgender Community in 2017.” Human Rights Campaign. 2018. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.hrc.org/resources/violence-against-the-transgender-community-in-2017.
James, S. E., J. L. Herman, S. Rankin, M. Keisling, L. Mottet, and M. Anafi. “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.”
17 Mosbergen, Dominique. “Battling Asexual Discrimination, Sexual Violence And ‘Corrective’ Rape.” The Huffington Post. June 20, 2013. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/20/asexual-discrimination_n_3380551.html.
Mieses, Alexa. “Gender inequality and corrective rape of women who have sex with women.” Gay Men’s Health Crisis. December 2009. Accessed March 19, 2018. http://www.gmhc.org/files/editor/file/ti-1209.pdf
18 Capó, Julio, Jr. “Orlando Shooting and a History of Violence for Queer Latinos.” Time. June 17, 2016. Accessed October 13, 2017. http://time.com/4372479/queer-latino-violence-history/.
19 Stauffer, Brian. “”Do You See How Much I’m Suffering Here?” | Abuse against Transgender Women in US Immigration Detention.” Human Rights Watch. June 06, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/03/23/do-you-see-howmuch-im-suffering-here/abuse-against-transgender-women-us.
James, S. E., J. L. Herman, S. Rankin, M. Keisling, L. Mottet, and M. Anafi. “The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey.”
Tabak, Shana, and Rachel Levitan. “LGBTI Migrants in Immigration Detention: A Global Perspective.” Harvard Journal of Law and Gender 37, no. 1 (2014). Accessed March 19, 2018. http://digitalcommons.wcl.american.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1266&context=facsch_lawrev.
20 “Mean Streets: Identifying and Responding to Urban Refugees’ Risks of Gender-Based Violence.” Women’s Refugee Commission.
Portman , Scott, and Daniel Weyl. “LGBT refugee resettlement in the US: emerging best practices.”
Majumdar, Shahirah. “Resettlement Is Twice as Complicated for LGBTQ Refugees.” Vice News. September 07, 2017. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/j55wqd/resettlement-is-twice-as-complicated-for-lgbtq-refugees.
Larrainzar, Jacque. “IRUO Project Report.”
21 Larrainzar, Jacque. “IRUO Project Report.”
22 Portman , Scott, and Daniel Weyl. “LGBT refugee resettlement in the US: emerging best practices.”
“Mean Streets: Identifying and Responding to Urban Refugees’ Risks of Gender-Based Violence.” Women’s Refugee Commission.
23 AsylumConnect. Accessed March 19, 2018. https://asylumconnect.org/.
24 Gruberg, Sharita, Caitlin Rooney, Ashe McGovern, Shabab Ahmed Mirza, and Laura E. Durso. “Serving LGBTQ Immigrants and Building Welcoming Communities.” Center for American Progress, January 28, 2018. Accessed June 4, 2019. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/lgbt/reports/2018/01/24/445308/serving-lgbtq-immigrants-building-welcomingcommunities/.