LGBTQ people are no strangers to the search for a new home. We understand and feel the depth and relief behind a word like “sanctuary.” Sanctuary is what a home is supposed to be, but for many, it is not. Many LGBTQ people are kicked out of our homes while they’re still young. Sometimes, after learning to love ourselves, we leave on our own. We find new families, “found family,” “chosen family.” We make new homes. And for thousands upon thousands of us, we even have to find brand new lands. When it is your life, it isn’t a choice. It is a must.
Immigration Equality, the nation’s leading LGBTQ immigrant rights organization, states that at this time it is either a crime or fundamentally unsafe to be LGBTQ in more than 80 countries. In many ways, conditions for LGBTQ people are deteriorating around the world.
Gay men in the Russian republic of Chechnya have been abducted and sent to camps where they are being tortured and killed. And according to the Williams Institute, there are approximately 267,000 undocumented immigrants in the United States who identify as LGBTQ. While the sanctuary they seek may include many things living without fear is paramount. Their fears are real, and they’re complicated by the United Nations treaties that protect human rights regarding torture, but don’t necessarily extend to persecution or other bodily violations. Dr. Debanuj DasGupta, Assistant Professor in the department of Geography and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Connecticut, said this can disproportionately impact the lives of women and LGBTQ people. These treaties, although well-intentioned, can limit their protections and their basic human rights.
This can make immigration an even thornier issue. LGBTQ immigrants deported from the United States may be returned to imprisonment, physical and sexual hate violence, and execution. That’s why sanctuary cities can be so important. Dr. DasGupta said that local level sanctuary cities have a large impact on human rights to be able to “live life freely.” To live openly, as a queer person around the world remains a radical and courageous act.
But we cannot forget that a population that is vulnerable due to stigma and ignorance is vulnerable everywhere those biases exist. While queer immigrants and refugees may be safer in a nation like ours, LGBTQ people are still less safe overall. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and sexism pile on top of each other — regardless of borders — and the weight of these heavy intersections can be crushing when you are already sore from your fight.
Dr. DasGupta stresses that immigration bans are nothing new. In fact, in 1991 the U.S. had a national ban on HIV positive immigrants — negatively and disproportionately affecting the gay community. He also explained the “double bind” of queer migrants, stating that they often face homophobia and sexism in their community of origin and then also face discrimination in U.S. queer spaces. “They are neither here, nor there,” he said.
Detention centers can create unique risks for queer people. Dr. DasGupta’s particular area of research is on transgender detention.“There are layers of vulnerability for queer detainees,” Dr. DasGupta said. “Transgender detainees are often put in the wrong gender detention and face a lot of sexual harassment in detention centers.” And while being detained is traumatic for everyone, there is a specific retraumatization for LGBTQ people because they often have to “relive their persecution in order to argue their asylum. When they are sent back to their country of origin, they can face persecution, harassment, even death. Many trans detainees would rather live in detention indefinitely than go back.”
So what’s the solution? Dr. DasGupta points to sanctuary cities: “A sanctuary city is the ultimate way of making America great again, of making the world beautiful again. We will become human in sharing our joys and pains rather than building walls against each other.” He also recommends continuing to fight for gender equality. People in the U.S. can take a stand and argue to recognize persecution as a form of torture in order to expand UN protections, especially for queer people. We have a role to play in protecting queer immigrants.
When asked if there was anything else he wanted to add, Dr. DasGupta said, “As a queer immigrant of color who has lived in detention, I want people to know that I am a fashionable, colorful, amazing person who comes from a long line of amazing, resilient people. I want us to fall in love with each other again.”