Imagine you had to flee your home country for your own personal safety and well being, because the government or people in your own community are actively persecuting and discriminating against you for being LGBT. Now imagine you’ve managed to get to the United States, yet you don’t know anyone. Nor have you ever visited before. Where would you stay? How would you survive on your own?
This is the lived experience for many LGBT asylum seekers who have fled their home countries of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and the former Soviet Union and Russia. Since 2012, Center Global, a program of the DC Center for the LGBT Community, has helped some 157 LGBT asylum seekers and refugees who have come to the Washington metropolitan area seeking safety and a better life. They are vulnerable as they go through the long and cumbersome asylum process with the U.S. government, usually without the support of their own families and their own immigrant communities. This process includes a wait of nine months to a year before they are legally allowed to work. All without federal government support for legal assistance, housing, healthcare or education.
Finding safe, stable housing, especially with the cost of housing in D.C. on the rise in recent years is a major concern for LGBT immigrants. Many asylum seekers don’t know anyone they can stay with, and without the ability to work when they first arrive, they face the prospect of staying in homeless shelters or on the streets. This only adds to the anxiety and grief they’ve already experienced in their homelands.
Since 2013, I’ve hosted gay asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean in my home as these men await their asylum decision or at least authorization to legally work. I have found it an extremely rewarding experience. While there have been some costs and some loss of privacy, which is probably a good thing as it keeps me from becoming a middle-aged curmudgeon; some uptick in my utility bills, and some dings in kitchenware and stains on carpets, the benefits have far outweighed the costs.
First, I am reminded every day of the decades of LGBT activism it took thousands of Americans to bring about real, tangible progress here in America. This contrasts sharply with the torture and imprisonment of the young African gay activist who lived in my home. And the imprisonment, torture, mob violence and capital punishment that many LGBT people experience in nearly 80 countries around the world where being LGBT is criminalized.
Second, living with and offering my assistance to these younger gay men grounds me. I now find myself thinking, do I really need to buy these new clothes or treat myself to meals out or lattes, when I have a flatmate from the Caribbean who has no winter coat or thermal underwear? Or easy access to food and transportation, beyond the modest support that Center Global provides?
Third, I’ve learned so much from these individuals about our common humanity. While they may come from another culture, when we share a home, we learn about our common aspirations, anxieties and fears. And we’ve shared our own cross-cultural humor.
Given my experience and the great need many asylum seekers face when they first arrive here, I hope more people in the D.C. area will consider opening up their homes, just as many others in the United States and around the world have made room in their communities and their homes for refugees and immigrants fleeing violence and persecution. Please consider hosting an LGBT asylum seeker in your home as they seek to find a safe foothold in America.