The recent, tragic death of Chriton Atuhwera, a gay refugee who was the victim of an arson attack in Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, has caught international attention.
Chritron was one of two gay men who suffered second-degree burns after a petrol bomb was thrown near the pair while they slept on a mattress in the open air, during the attack on March 15 in Kakuma.
This unspeakable and avoidable tragedy is just one piece of the puzzle. LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees in Kakuma have faced ongoing violence and discrimination and face elevated rates of economic and social exclusion including barriers to accessing employment and social services and challenges to effective organizing and advocacy for their human rights.
This tragic death and the ongoing threats that the community faces have precipitated the need for a more complete and long-overdue understanding of the situation on the ground for the LGBTIQ refugee community which in turn can lead to more comprehensive and durable solutions to benefit the broader community.
Today, Kakuma refugee camp is home to nearly 200,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. Many have fled overland from Uganda, South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The majority of the world’s refugees remain for years, often decades in refugee camps or informal settlements.
In total, there are approximately 300 LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers — perhaps more — currently living in Kakuma, which remains the only country in the region to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. The situation they face in Kakuma refugee camp is complex and multilayered.
While the goal of most LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers is to ultimately be resettled to a safe third country, resettlement slots have drastically fallen and are only available to less than 0.6 percent of refugees, a fraction of the world’s refugees. U.S. resettlement numbers dropped to historic lows during the Trump administration, and the Biden administration recently flip-flopped on its pledge to increase refugee resettlement slots. We urge the administration to honor its original commitment, recognizing that it will still only benefit a tiny fraction of refugees globally.
At the same time, LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma face immediate challenges including poverty, isolation and lack of access to health and social services.
There are a number of groups of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees scattered in different parts of the camp, and while these communities face many of the same daily struggles of life in a refugee camp, with individuals hailing from a variety of different countries of origin and cultural settings, not all LGBTIQ refugee communities in the camp have the same lived experiences nor do all LGBTIQ groups agree on one basic need and approach to better their lives and safety.
With the increased numbers of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Kakuma in recent years, the need has grown for a true and complete understanding of the challenges facing LGBTIQ refugees in Kakuma, uncovering root causes and identifying sustainable solutions. It is vital that this is done.
Especially in light of recent incidents, there is a clear need for further action and support, based on facts, taking into account the current situation on the ground and raising the voices of those groups whose needs are not always in the forefront. The lack of clear, detailed and well-rounded information regarding the situation experienced by LGBTIQ refugees in the camp also creates challenges for those interested in helping to ensure the rights and well-being of this community.
That is why, ORAM together with Rainbow Railroad have announced a joint Kakuma research project. The research project, endorsed by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, will provide accurate information on LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees living in the camp — a critical piece in more effective advocacy on behalf of the community.
In keeping with the organizations’ focus on local leadership, the research will be Kenyan-led. The researcher will conduct first-hand interviews with LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers, as well as community leaders in the camp and lead stakeholders. Based on the information gathered, the report will identify overarching issues facing the community, identify service and resource gaps, pinpoint solutions and make recommendations to address systemic challenges facing the community.
Kakuma refugee camp is a complex and challenging environment for LGBTIQ refugees and asylum seekers. This report aims to provide a deeper understanding that can lead to a number of multifaceted solutions to meet the urgent and critical needs of LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees in the camp, from improved living conditions to expedited resettlement.
We all having a duty to look out for the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. We need to prioritize the safety and protection on LGBTIQ asylum seekers and refugees and address the challenges they face on their journey to safety, Kakuma refugee camp, in Kenya in general and beyond. We must promote policies and practices that treat the forcibly displaced as fully human and with all the dignity and humanity that they deserve.
Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages
Iconic work explored sadness, rage, irony, and love of humanity
“The only regret I have in life is giving you birth,” his mother wrote in a letter to Stephen Sondheim.
The only regret so many of us feel now is that Sondheim, the iconic composer and lyricist, died on Nov. 26 at his Roxbury, Conn. home at age 91.
He is survived by Jeffrey Romley, whom he married in 2017, and Walter Sondheim, a half-brother.
F. Richard Pappas, his lawyer and friend, told the New York Times that the cause of death was unknown, and that Sondheim had died suddenly. The day before he passed away, Sondheim celebrated Thanksgiving with friends, Pappas told the Times.
“Every day a little death,” Sondheim wrote in “A Little Night Music.”
This isn’t the case with the passing of Sondheim. Whether you’re a Broadway star or a tone-deaf aficionado like me, you’ll sorely miss Sondheim, who the Times aptly called “one of Broadway history’s songwriting titans.”
Like multitudes of his fans, I don’t remember a time in my life when a song from a Sondheim musical hasn’t been in my head.
When I was a child, my parents repeatedly played the cast album of “Gypsy,” the 1959 musical with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents. My folks loved the story of the show, which was loosely based on the life of the burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Ethel Merman belt out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses!” When I need to jumpstart my creative juices, I remember that “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”
In college, I felt that “Company,” the 1970 musical with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by George Furth, spoke to my generation.
As was the case with Sondheim’s musicals, “Company” didn’t have a conventional plot, happy ending, or tidy resolution. It takes place during Bobby’s 35th birthday party. Bobby, who is single, is celebrating with his friends (straight, married couples). Bobby likes having friends but doesn’t want to get married.
Sondheim didn’t come out as gay until he was 40. Yet, even in the 1970s, it was hard not to think that Bobby in “Company” wasn’t gay.
Once you’ve heard Elaine Stritch sing “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company,” it becomes indelibly etched in your brain.
Who else but Sondheim could have written, “And here’s to the girls who play/smart-/Aren’t they a gas/Rushing to their classes in optical art,/Wishing it would pass/Another long exhausting day/Another thousand dollars/A matinee, a Pinter play/Perhaps a piece of Mahler’s/I’ll drink to that/And one for Mahler!”
In September, I, along with legions of other theater lovers, were thrilled when Sondheim told Stephen Colbert on “The Late Show,” that he was working with David Ives on a new musical called “Square One.”
In his musicals from “Follies” to “Sweeney Todd” to “Sunday in the Park with George,” Sondheim, through his lyrics and music, revealed the internal depths of his characters and the sadness, tenderness, bitterness, rage, irony, wit, and love of humanity. Sondheim’s wordplay was so brilliant that he did crossword puzzles for New York magazine.
Over his decades-long career, Sondheim won every award imaginable from the Pulitzer Prize for “Sunday in the Park with George” to the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded to him by President Barack Obama in 2015). He received more than a dozen Tony Awards for his Broadway musicals and revivals as well as a Tony Award for lifetime achievement in 2008.
Thankfully, Sondheim’s art will be with us for the ages.
A remake of “West Side Story,” directed by Steven Spielberg with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, premieres this month.
Sondheim is a character in the Netflix film “tick, tick BOOM!,” directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The movie is based on an autobiographical posthumous Jonathan Larson (the composer of “Rent”) musical. Sondheim is supportive of Larson’s work.
Thank you Stephen, for your art! R.I.P.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.
It doesn’t take a miracle
Hanukkah a time for LGBTQ Jews to celebrate full identity
For Jews around the world, Sunday night marked the beginning of Hanukkah. The story of Hanukkah celebrates the liberation of Jerusalem by the Maccabees, a small and poorly armed group of Jews who took on, and defeated, one of the world’s most powerful armies.
Upon entering Jerusalem, the Maccabees saw that there was only enough oil to light the Temple’s eternal flame for one night. But the oil lasted eight nights — enough time for new oil to be prepared. The eternal flame remained lit, and light triumphed over darkness.
The story of Hanukkah was a miracle. While we celebrate and commemorate that miracle, we should also remember that it doesn’t take a miracle for one person to make a difference.
The entire world is shaking beneath our feet. The climate is in crisis and our planet is in danger. A viral contagion has claimed the lives of millions, and there’s no clear end in sight. Creeping authoritarianism threatens the entire world, including here at home.
Sometimes it seems like it will take a miracle to solve even one of these problems. The reason these problems seem so overwhelming is because they are — no one person can fix it themselves.
Here in the LGBTQ community, we have made enormous strides, and we ought to be proud of them. But there is so much more work to be done.
Not everyone in our community is treated equally, and not everyone has the same access to opportunity. Black, brown and trans LGBTQ people face systemic and structural disadvantages and discrimination and are at increased risk of violence and suicide. It must stop.
These are big problems too, and the LGBTQ people as a collective can help make the changes we need so that light triumphs over darkness. But it doesn’t take a miracle for individuals to light the spark.
Our movement is being held back by the creeping and dangerous narrative that insists that we choose between our identities instead of embracing all of them.
The presentation of this false choice has fallen especially hard on LGBTQ Jews, many of whom feel a genuine connection to and support for Israel. They feel marginalized when asked to sideline their identity by being told that the world’s only Jewish state shouldn’t even have a place on the map. And they feel attacked when asked about the Israeli government’s policies during a conflict, as if they have some obligation to condemn them and take a stand simply because of their faith.
One of the ways we can shine our light is to fight for an LGBTQ community that is truly inclusive.
This holiday season, pledge to celebrate all aspects of your identity and the rights of LGBTQ people to define their own identities and choose their own paths. If you feel the pressure to keep any part of your identity in the closet, stand up to it and refuse to choose.
In the face of enormous challenges that require collective action, we must not give up on our power as individuals to do what’s right. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.
The tradition of lighting the menorah each night represents ensuring the continuity of that eternal flame. One of the reasons the Hanukkah menorah is displayed prominently in the windows of homes and in public squares is because the light isn’t meant to be confined to the Jewish home. The light is for everyone — and a reminder that we can share it with the world every day to try to make it better.
As long as we keep fighting for justice, we don’t need to perform miracles. But we do need to do our part so that light triumphs over darkness.
It is up to each of us to map out what we can contribute to create a truly inclusive LGBTQ community. This holiday season, be the light. If you can, donate to a group that helps lift LGBTQ youth in crisis. Volunteer your time to fight for the rights and the lives of trans people. And be kind to one another.
Whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or of no faith at all, take this opportunity to share your light with the world. It doesn’t take a miracle to do that.
Ethan Felson is the executive director of A Wider Bridge.
Fighting for equality for decades, trans elders still face endless hardships
Lisa Oakley rejected by 60 long-term care facilities in Colo.
November 20 will mark the 22nd International Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international event honoring and commemorating the many transgender people murdered in transphobic hate crimes every year.
Since 2013, at least 200 transgender people have been murdered in the United States alone, 80 percent being Black and Latinx women. This number is undoubtedly an underestimate, as many murders go unreported and trans victims often are misgendered by law enforcement.
These murders are not isolated crime statistics. They grow out of a culture of violence against transgender and non-binary (TGNB) people that encompasses stigma, exclusion, discrimination, poverty, and lack of access to essential resources, including health care, employment and housing.
These challenges result in early death. In Latin America, for example, it has been reported that the average life expectancy of a transgender person is only 35 years.
This climate of stigma and transphobia is particularly challenging for TGNB older people, who face extraordinary hardships due both to the cumulative impact of lifetimes of discrimination and regular mistreatment in their elder years. Due to isolation from family and greater medical and financial needs, trans older people are more likely to require professionalized elder services and care.
Unfortunately, these services and the facilities that provide them are often either unavailable to TGNB elders, or hostile to them. A national survey of LGBTQ+ older people by AARP found that more than 60 percent of those surveyed were concerned about how they would be treated in a long-term care setting. This includes the fear of being refused or receiving limited care, in danger of neglect or abuse, facing verbal or physical harassment, or being forced to hide or deny their identity once again.
This is a sobering reality. In October, GLBTQ Legal Advocates and Defenders filed a claim against Sunrise Assisted Living in Maine, which openly denied admission to an older transgender woman because of her gender identity.
In Colorado, Lisa Oakley was, astonishingly, rejected by 60 long-term care facilities, which her caseworker ascribes to Lisa’s gender identity. One facility that agreed to admit Lisa would only house her with a male roommate.
After waiting far too long for welcoming care, Lisa eventually got help from SAGE and other community supporters and found a home in Eagle Ridge of Grand Valley. Fortunately, Eagle Ridge has participated in specialized training to be LGBTQ+-welcoming. While Lisa feels welcomed at Eagle Ridge and has made friends, she has been forced to live far from a community she loves.
These cases in Maine and Colorado are just the tip of the iceberg regarding the discrimination faced by TGNB elders. That’s why it’s so important that Congress pass the Equality Act, which would once and for all prohibit discrimination based on gender identity in key areas like employment, housing, and care and services.
And while legal progress is important, it’s not enough. TGNB elders need more equity in their day to day lives. Older transgender people are more likely to experience financial barriers than non-transgender elders, regardless of age, income and education.
They’re also at a higher risk of disability, general poor mental and physical health, and loneliness, compared to their cisgender counterparts.
These experiences have been part of everyday life for trans elders for far too long. We continue to see them struggle with the long-term effects of transphobia and violence every day. That’s why organizations like SAGE are stepping up our support for TGNB elders by investing $1 million to support TGNB-focused services and advocacy both in New York and nationwide.
And we are continually amazed by the resilience of TGNB elders, creating communities built on their strength and courage.
Their resilience is nothing new. It dates back generations and was evident during the Stonewall Uprising. Over the years, trans luminaries like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Victoria Cruz—leaders of the modern LGBTQ+ civil rights movement—and countless others have repeatedly proved that they will not be invisible.
We see this determination in so many programs and activities led by trans elders at SAGE.
For example, the TransGenerational Theater Project brings together transgender people of all ages to create theater from their experiences and perspectives. These types of elder-driven programs serve as powerful reminders that transgender older people are leading their lives with resilience, creativity, and perseverance, despite the dangers they face.
Transgender and non-binary elders have survived and fought for equality for decades. They are brave. They are strong. They are leaders. Here at SAGE, we will continue to walk side-by-side with them as we continue the fight to ensure TGNB elders get the respect, change, and acceptance they deserve.
Michael Adams is the CEO of SAGE, the world’s largest and oldest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ elders.
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