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Beyond the Margins: An LGBTQA+ Refugee Experience

When people think of refugees and asylum seekers, they often think of widely publicized news stories where countries are engrossed in civil and political unrest that results in a large-scale refugee crisis. The unique challenges faced by the LGBTQA+ community in countries where they are persecuted often go unnoticed. In an effort to shed light on the mistreatment, victimization, and criminalization the LGBTQA+ community still faces all around the world, the City of Houston Office of New Americans, ACLU of Texas, The Alliance, Human Rights First, Refugee Council USA, and YMCA International Services held a symposium at Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church where refugees, asylum seekers, and experts shared their stories. 
The evening began with opening statements made by Resurrection Reverend Vickey Gibbs and Terence O’Neil from the City of Houston Office of New Americans. Reverend Gibbs and Mr. O’Neil welcomed the audience and described how Houston is a welcoming city for all people regardless of who you love, where you come from, or what religion you practice. They reminded us that refugees and asylum seekers should not be afraid in Houston – they are welcome here and they are safe here. As Pride month comes to an close, they wanted to make sure that the LGBTQA+ community is included in the current refugee and immigrant conversation that has taken hold of the United States.
While the United States has made great strides with the rights of the LGBTQA+ community, we are reminded that all over the world, LGBTQA+ individuals are often the targets of persecution. A short film was screened during the symposium illustrating the extent of the institutionalized violence and discrimination the LGBTQA+ community faces in countries all across the world. Homosexuality is currently illegal in approximately 76 countries. Additionally, many countries do not have hate crime laws that protect the LGBTQA+ community. Homophobic and transphobic violence often goes ignored by police and government officials in these countries, which causes LGBTQA+ individuals to seek refuge or asylum in the United States. In the film Tyler Oakley, a popular YouTuber and member of the LGBTQA+ community, interviewed several refugees who fled to the United States due to persecution based on their sexuality. After interviewing these refugees, Oakley noted that they are some of the most patriotic individuals he has ever met.
Following the short film screening, a panel moderated by Melanie Toarmina Pang, social worker and founding co-chair of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s LGBTQ Advisory Board, was conducted. The panel featured Christian Longue Dessug from Cameroon, Mary N. from Iran, Franklin Lucien Tatpa from Cameroon, Adonnay Antonio Aguilar Marmol from El Salvador, Anandrea Molina from Mexico, and Laura Nally, managing attorney of the Houston office of Human Rights First. Pang began the panel with an expression of love and gratitude for the individuals who are brave enough to share their personal stories with the public and kind enough to inform the community of the challenges faced by LGBTQA+ refugees and asylum seekers. While each panelist had a unique story to tell, there was one theme they all had in common: each panelist lived in constant fear for their lives as a direct result of their sexuality. The panelists shared their memories of being jailed, beaten, bullied, rejected by their families, and outed by their friends. Despite these conditions, it took incredible strength for the panelists to leave everything they knew and loved behind to seek refuge in a foreign country. After coming to the United States, each panelist took it upon himself or herself to give back to the LGBTQA+ immigrant community by getting involved in volunteer work and community service. 
While it was clear each member of the panel was grateful for the refuge the United States provided, the conversation inevitably turned to the current dismal state of immigrant affairs in the U.S. One panelist noted that “the new administration is a circus [and is] putting the lives of LGBT people at risk” with their zero tolerance policy. Immigration lawyer Laura Nally also noted that there has been a clear increase in the detention of asylum seekers where they are put in unsanitary detention centers that are filled with discrimination and a lack of privacy, which uniquely affects LGBTQA+ individuals. 
As the evening comes to a close, we are left wondering where we, as a community, city, and nation, can go from here. These are my suggestions: Educate yourself. Vote. Hold your government representatives accountable for their words and their actions. Know where your tax dollars are going. Get involved in your community. Above all else, listen to people’s stories, and give the individuals who have personally experienced the effects of hateful policies a platform to speak and to educate. It seems easy to not care about these issues when they do not personally affect you, but it is important to remember that we are stronger together. Empathy is what makes us human. In the face of adversity, it’s important not to forget that. 


By: Chelsea Ogan, Vox Advocacy Ambassador on Refugees

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