Toronto has become a refuge for LGBT people fleeing persecution in their home countries. On the eve of WorldPride 2014, The Grid invited local asylum-seekers to share their stories.
At the end of March, 30,000 Ugandans gathered at a stadium in Kampala for a celebration in honour of President Yoweri Museveni. The leader had just passed harsh new laws that require citizens to report gay people to authorities and mandate that “repeat homosexuals” be jailed for life. (The original bill included a death-penalty clause, which was ultimately dropped.) The crowd laughed and sang, waving placards that read “Thank you for saving the future of Uganda” and “Homosexuality = AIDS = 100%.”
The nation is one of the most dangerous in the world for LGBT people, its homophobia fuelled in part by U.S.–funded evangelical churches. In 2011, David Kato, a prominent gay activist, was bludgeoned to death at his home after a newspaper ran photos, names, and addresses of LGBT people in Uganda along with a banner that read “Hang Them.”
Uganda is among about 80 countries that criminalize homosexuality. In Brunei, one can be stoned to death; in Saudi Arabia, penalties include lashings, chemical castration, torture, and execution. LGBT people in Jamaica, Pakistan, Morocco, and Belize face long prison sentences. Last year, Russia enacted legislation outlawing pro-gay “propaganda,” which can encompass everything from Pride parades to writing a gay-positive newspaper article.
Canada, with its anti-discrimination protections, its recognition of same-sex marriage, and widespread societal acceptance, has become a haven for LGBT refugees seeking a new home. “We are one of a small number of countries that accept SOGI—that’s sexual orientation and gender identity—claims,” says Rohan Sajnani, lead researcher for the Canadian Asylum Working Group, which is part of the civil-rights organization Envisioning Global LGBT Human Rights. “And Canada does have a good history of being a welcoming place.”
Toronto has a number of support networks for LGBT refugees, like a weekly drop-in meeting at The 519 Community Centre and a sponsorship project and advocacy program at the Metropolitan Community Church. These organizations help newcomers navigate their way through asylum-claims procedures, which culminate with an Immigration and Refugee Board hearing.
However, despite these initiatives, many struggles exist for those seeking asylum. Sajnani says the current system poses specific challenges for LGBT people. “This is a population who’ve spent their entire lives hiding who they are,” he says. “Now they’re being asked to prove they are gay. They are often reluctant to trust authority figures and are grappling with internalized homophobia and shame.”
It can also be difficult to connect with other members of their ethnic and religious groups in Toronto to find help. “Many diaspora communities here are homophobic, or else refugees worry that gossip about them will make it back home and put their families at risk.”
As of December 2012, the process got tougher still. That’s when new federal immigration and refugee laws came into effect. Refugees now have far less time to prepare and file a claim, and claimants from countries considered “safe” (that is, relatively democratic, stable, and peaceful) by the Canadian government face far more stringent requirements and restrictions.
For LGBT asylum seekers, it can be hard to establish local ties that quickly—adjudicators want evidence of involvement in the LGBT community—when they may have never felt comfortable going to a gay bar or joining a political group. Meanwhile, many of the nations deemed “safe,” like Mexico, for instance, aren’t safe for LGBT citizens. It’s estimated that there are at least three murders every month in that country because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Sajnani says that’s why the new “safe” country designation is especially troubling. “There is no country on earth where sexual minorities enjoy the same rights as non-SOGI individuals.”
The courageous individuals featured here are LGBT refugees who have faced threats and punishments for who they are and for who they love. Some even feared for their lives. As Toronto prepares to host WorldPride 2014—a global celebration of LGBT politics, education, and culture—we spoke to some of the city’s newest residents about their past struggles and their hopes for the future. And their stories also provide us with an opportunity to think about whether Canada is doing enough.
ST. KITTS AND NEVIS
Growing up on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, Xavier kept his head down and tried to pass as straight until he made it through school, becoming a supervisor at a Marriott hotel. Eventually, harassment at home and at work became unbearable. He reached out to a friend who had filed a successful refugee claim and emigrated to Canada. That initial email, he says, was “the first stage of becoming free from my homophobic island.” Thanks to that contact, Xavier was able to collect many of the documents he would need to make his claim before he headed to Canada.
“Basically, being gay in the Caribbean is illegal. Apart from the stigma and everything that goes with it, there’s a law that you can’t be a homosexual. From the moment people realize you’re a homosexual, just by word of mouth or from the way you act or dress, you’re tormented on a day-to-day basis. I lived in my shell for so long, trying to fit a masculine stereotype, but I reached my breaking point. People were still hitting me and I was getting these bruises on my beautiful brown skin that I don’t need. I feel like my mom always knew, because obviously, I was playing dress-up. But [after I came out to her], she would say simple stuff like, ‘Oh, why do you have to wear that shirt?’ Or, ‘I hope that guy’s not fucking you.’
“I didn’t go out much because the dancehall music they play at the clubs every single day is homophobic. One time I did go, and that song ‘Battyman Fi Dead’ [a Buju Banton song with a title equivalent to ‘All Gays Must Be Killed’] was playing, and there was this group of guys making gun hand gestures and pointing them towards me. I was like, ‘This is not a place for me to be.’”
Xavier arrived in Canada on March 26, 2013 and immediately got sick; the abrupt shift in climate left him with a fever and chills. He crashed with his friend from back home—until it became clear that he was expected to repay the favour sexually. Luckily, Xavier had connected with BlackCAP (the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention), and a staffer helped him find a place to stay. His refugee claim was accepted, and he now works in a bottle-service club on King Street and shares an apartment with a roommate. He also works at the FCJ Refugee Centre, where he helps other LGBT folks navigate the challenging and often confusing system.
“When I finally arrived here, it was cold as hell. I just had on a long-sleeved dress shirt. I got lost here every single day. For five months, I got lost! I went to the AGO. You know how it takes up three blocks? I was on the other side [of the street and couldn’t find it]. I just have to thank my lawyer so much. If it wasn’t for my lawyer who sat with me and did my paperwork and everything, I would’ve been so lost. And organizations like BlackCAP, the 519, FCJ Refugee Centre, and SOY [Supporting Our Youth] at Sherbourne Health Centre. If resources like that weren’t around, newcomers would be lost when they come here. There is no newcomer handbook!
“I’d never said, ‘I am gay’ or ‘I am a homosexual’ in my life until I got to Canada. It’s not that I was in denial; I just had to deny it. I’d never dressed the way I dress now back home. Never. Even though I was a thin person, I had on a medium-large shirt. That’s the dress code back home: bulky, thuggish. [Now] I get to put on what I wanted to put on; I get to go to gay clubs and dance to my Rihanna songs that I love. I get to dance against a man in a nightclub with nobody judging me because everybody is doing it.”
Sarah left home at the age of 19, eager to escape the hawkish gaze and strict rules of her high-school principal father. She had feelings for other women from the time she was in high school, she says, but felt paralyzed to act on them because of the intolerance in Kenyan society. Sarah enrolled in a private college and, eventually, went to study at Nairobi University. That’s where Joe, a friend, forced himself on her in July 2002. The rape led to a pregnancy; Sarah gave birth to triplets prematurely. After some conflict, she moved in with Joe in Mombasa that spring, insisting that he help care for his children. Their relationship was difficult and abusive, and Sarah tried to leave on more than one occasion. While she was in Mombasa, she reconnected with Jacky, an acquaintance from university.
“Jacky was an engineering student; I was doing information science. That’s how we met. I knew she was a lesbian, but I was so scared of ever doing anything because of my dad. But when I was living [with the father of my children], she was doing her internship in Mombasa, and I had a relationship with her for several years [from 2004]. She was very supportive of me. She helped me decide I needed to leave.
“My relationship was done in secret because of my children, because of their father. He’s a magistrate right now—he sits in the court and judges cases. So I’d never dare expose myself. Because of that, and because of my kids, and because of being attacked. You know, Kenya is watched a lot by the UN, by foreign countries. But gay people, lesbians are attacked every day. If you’re known to be a lesbian, men will be out there to teach you a lesson. They do horrible things to women. Even the police will rape you and say they’re teaching you how a woman should want to be. You’re supposed to want to get married and be a wife, not misbehave. Homosexuality is considered devilish, it’s considered a white person’s disease. It’s not [part of] African culture.”
In October 2013, Sarah travelled to Toronto, hoping to make contacts for her expanding fashion business. Before she left Kenya, she filed a lawsuit against Joe, intending to sue him for child support. Shortly after she arrived in Canada, Sarah received a message from Joe. He told her Jacky had been attacked and arrested after attending a gay party, that she was in police custody, and that he had access to photographic evidence documenting her secret relationship with Sarah. Joe said he had a warrant for Sarah’s arrest, which would be waiting for her at the airport upon her return to Kenya. She made her way to a shelter and decided to file a refugee claim.
“When I went to the shelter, I was so scared. Even in the shelter, the other Africans…. You come to live in Canada, but there’s still discrimination. There was this girl who was a lesbian, they didn’t allow her to use this bathroom, because lesbians are supposed to be dirty. Even at the shelter, I kept it kind of hidden.
“But then I met this lady and she was a lesbian. We just hit it off. I hung out a lot in her room, but I was still scared to let go. Then we had a relationship in the shelter. People would gossip about it, but they weren’t really sure because I still knew how to hide it, to do it in secret. She really wanted us to be open about it. We had a relationship for some time, but we’re not together anymore. It ended badly. I was guilty, still. I was guilty about this whole lesbian relationship. Am I doing the right thing to god?”
Slight and pale, with the carriage of a dancer, Alexander was attracted to guys from the time he was a kid. But as a young man coming of age in early-aughts Russia, where it only became legal to be gay in 1993 (with the advent of a new constitution), he suppressed his sexuality. In 2008, at age 18, he travelled to Dallas as part of a student work-exchange program, and the immersion in Western culture was liberating. When he returned home to Volgograd, he signed up for a gay-dating website, and in 2010, he began seeing a guy from Moscow. At first, the two met every couple of months; before long, they started travelling together. Eventually, on a trip to New York City, they got hitched.
“In my hometown, Volgograd, in May 2013, there was the murder of a gay. It was all over the news, in The New York Times. It’s not a single tragedy—it’s happening all the time. Very few cases get to mass media because LGBT people are very scared to go to the police. Usually when [the police] hear, ‘I’m lesbian and I got raped’ or ‘I’m gay and I got bashed,’ they do not react. The information [about last year’s killing] got to mass media because one of the people who committed the murder declared that they killed the guy because he was gay. Otherwise, we wouldn’t even know about it.
“When you grow up in such a homophobic environment, it’s difficult for you to accept yourself as gay, to accept your sexuality. That was quite a challenge for me when I was growing up. I finally dared to register myself on a dating website only when I was 19. And it was [before the anti-gay legislation was introduced]. But even back then, very few guys were posting their actual pictures and actual names. Even I never posted my own picture, and [I used] some kind of fake name, like Dmitri.”
Alexander arrived in Toronto on August 28, 2012 on a student visa—he was enrolled in Humber College’s HR management postgraduate program. The plan was for his husband to join Alex in Canada as his spouse, but in the fall of 2012, that petition was denied. Alex says neither he nor his then-partner were given a clear explanation for the decision. The two tried to maintain their relationship for several months, but after Alex’s husband got a job in Kazakhstan—as a visual manager for a Saks Fifth Avenue outpost there—the distance proved too difficult, and they broke up. Alex, who completed his studies in 2013, has remained in Toronto on a work permit. After Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay legislation was introduced last year, he decided to apply for refugee protection. On May 27, his application was accepted. He’s anxiously awaiting his official hearing on July 24.
“I think I was pretty open here from the very beginning. Now I live with my boyfriend. We started dating each other in March of 2013. We met at Crews and Tangos on Church Street. From the very beginning of our relationship, his family knew about us—he introduced me to his parents. And now we finally live together.”
Anthony and his partner, Tobe, were barely teenagers when they met in secondary school in 1993. They were inseparable, and one day, Anthony recalls, in the classroom, after hours, they “got together, just like that.” The encounter marked the beginning of their secret life: In Nigeria, where the two lived, same-sex relations are strictly forbidden—states under Shari’a law have punished such offences with death by stoning. Anthony and Tobe continued their relationship in private for two decades. On February 28, 2014, the two met at Tobe’s house—only to discover, several days later, that they had been caught on tape. Tobe’s father, rattled by suspicions over his son’s unwillingness to wed, had installed a secret camera on the premises.
“On the second of March, my partner was tortured [by] his father, with some youths from the community. I received a call from a friend, telling me that what we did had been revealed, and that my partner’s father was coming after me with a group of boys and if I loved myself, I should make my way. I ran away from my house. I ran to a friend’s place.
“I’ve never travelled before. I don’t know anything about travel. In Nigeria, if they have strong evidence against you that you are gay or lesbian, the only option for you is to leave the country because there’s no way you can stay alive or not go to jail. Even your own family will expose you. A good friend of mine, one of his friends gave him the contact of an agent who processed all of my travel documents to flee to Canada.”
On March 31 of this year, a month after his final night with Tobe, Anthony arrived in Canada. He flew to Montreal via the U.S., and, after the plane landed, boarded a bus to Toronto with an address in his hand. Once he got here, a cabbie took him to Seaton House, a shelter on George Street. “I could not believe that there was a place where you would come and they would just let you stay,” he says. Anthony connected with the LGBT-friendly congregation at Metropolitan Community Church, where he was baptized last month. His hearing is on June 25.
“Since March, I’m just like a newborn baby trying to learn from experience. It has not been easy. Several times, I’ve tried calling my siblings and nobody wants to talk to me. My kid sister, she’s the only one who swears not to leave me. My father, my other siblings, my uncles, no one wants to hear from me. They say I have brought big shame upon the family. In Africa, what matters a lot is name.
“I’m [starting to hear] rumours that [Tobe] is no more in the country. He was hospitalized. He’s not called me. The email I was using back in Africa, I tried opening it here, and it doesn’t work. So I opened a fresh one. I have left my new email address with my sister. I said, ‘If he calls, let him write me so that I know he’s okay.’ For months now, we can’t talk to each other, we can’t see each other. For the first time since I started being a man, I celebrated my birthday without him last month. I have never celebrated my birthday without Tobe.”
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