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LGBTQ Africans struggle to navigate US asylum process

Ricky ‘Rikki’ Nathanson fled Zimbabwe, now lives in Md.

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Ricky "Rikki" Nathanson (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

 

It is no secret that many LGBTQ individuals around the world live in fear of the negative implications that result from identifying outside the limits of cisgenderism and heteronormativity. For Africans living in Africa, this panic is even more pronounced as many are abused, jailed, or even murdered for simply existing as queer.

According to Global Citizen, homosexuality is still punishable by death in four countries on the African continent: Somalia, South Sudan, Mauritania, and Nigeria (in states where Sharia law applies). Only 22 out of the 54 countries on the African continent have legalized homosexuality, and South Africa is currently the only country where same-sex marriage is legally recognized by the government.

Although there has been some human rights progress for LGBTQ Africans, most recently with Angola decriminalizing same-sex sexual relationships, ill-sentiment toward queerness still runs rampant across the continent. So, many individuals are forced to leave their home countries and apply for asylum in Western countries like the U.S. and U.K., countries which, despite their queer-phobic cultures, are more accepting and safe to live in.

From Zimbabwe to Md.

Ricky “Rikki” Nathanson is a transgender activist from Zimbabwe who received asylum from the U.S. in February 2019. Before filing for asylum in the U.S., police officers had arrested her in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, after she had used a women’s restroom in a hotel. While in custody, the police officers physically tortured her and forced her to undergo invasive medical and physical examinations.

After her release from police custody, she filed a lawsuit against Zimbabwe’s Home Affairs minister, the commissioner of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the assistant commissioner of the Bulawayo Central Police Station and the leader of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party’s Youth League, and later won this lawsuit. However, because of the mounting threats to her life in Bulawayo, she sought safety through the U.S.’s asylum process and relocated to the East Coast.

“When I compare myself to other people and friends who have been in similar situations to mine, my asylum process was extremely quick,” Nathanson mentions when speaking of her journey toward winning asylum. “I think that the most strenuous thing for me was the actual interview; it was nerve-wracking.”

Nathanson applied for asylum in 2018 after she attended OutRight Action International’s annual summit in New York, the organization of which she is a board member. She won her case and received asylum approximately six weeks after — a fairly quick result compared to numerous other cases that can take years before a final decision is reached.

Nathanson’s involvement with OutRight Action International proved to be a tremendous advantage as it provided her with an extensive network of friends in the U.S. who were able to support her asylum-seeking process and alleviate the stresses associated with it. This is usually not the case for many queer Africans who seek asylum in the U.S.

“The people at OutRight Action International were good to me, and they helped me with a bit of financial support. So, I was able to pay for my legal fees,” says Nathanson.

In addition, Nathanson’s lawyer, Elinor Tesfamariam, who is of Ethiopian descent and specializes in asylum cases, “knew what she was doing.” Therefore, her expertise coupled with Nathanson’s compelling story, provided for an airtight case that couldn’t be contested.

In Nathanson’s words, “My story spoke for itself.”

Casa Ruby hired Nathanson shortly after she won her asylum case. She is currently the D.C. group’s director of housing services.

What does applying for asylum involve?

The asylum process is demanding. Not only does one need legal representation, but they need financial resources to pay for said legal representation and also for their upkeep and wellbeing while in the U.S. This poses a challenge as one cannot apply for employment authorization until a year after they have completed the asylum application. So, this alienates many asylum seekers from severely needed employment and leaves them financially insecure as they navigate the torrent of preventing the possibility of having to return to their home country.

For those without strong connections in the U.S., a common way of finding help, whether financial or material, is through word of mouth. Because of their popularity, organizations like AsylumWorks have become safe havens and places of provision, fulfilling many asylum seekers’ basic needs such as buying groceries, paying for rent, and purchasing gender-affirming clothes and cosmetics.

“When applying for asylum, it’s really important to have efficient knowledge of the system; knowing what to do, who to contact, how to contact them, and how the system works,” Nathanson mentions, regarding the legal aspect.

“For the process to work as smoothly as possible, you need assistance,” she adds. “You need to be able to access a lawyer who will be able to file for you because the process is very particular, and any small mistake will result in your documents being returned to you. I have a friend of mine who forgot to sign a page and after he resubmitted his documents, he has been waiting 18 months for a response.”

Because of how inconvenient the process can be, Nathanson’s hope is that the current administration will revise the asylum process, especially the time it takes to win asylum.

How asylum seekers’ needs are met

AsylumWorks is what Executive Director Joan Hodges-Wu calls “a holistic suite of wraparound services and support to help asylum seekers address unmet needs that can interfere with their ability to participate in the immigration legal process.” The organization “empowers asylum-seekers to rebuild their lives with dignity and purpose,” and provides much-needed community that helps them to feel seen and heard.

“When people think of asylum, they think of attorneys … but people forget that it is incredibly difficult to work with an immigration attorney and fully participate in the process if there are barriers impeding your ability to connect,” says Hodges-Wu.

Through Prism, an LGBTQ support group, AsylumWorks is able to help queer asylum seekers meet their basic needs so that they can adequately focus their energy into the legal immigration process.

Prism provides community for LGBTQ asylum seekers by giving them the opportunity to meet with other queer asylum seekers and forge friendships that lighten the burden of acclimating to the U.S.

“One of the problems our LGBTQ clients face is that many of them are highly distrustful, naturally, of disclosing intimate parts of their history, and their true gender, or sexual orientation,” Geoffrey Louden, Prism’s facilitator, mentions. “Or even if they’re not sure of that, coming to terms with, going into an immigration attorney and recounting their history.”

Given this, Prism hosts weekly Zoom hangouts where individuals talk about any topics that interest them. Topics can range from introspective conversations about identity to light-hearted anecdotes about love prospects.

Prism offers a safe community for LGBTQ asylum seekers to be themselves, feel affirmed, and relate to others amid queer phobia, which can be prevalent in immigrant communities. So, regardless of how tough resettling in the U.S. may become, LGBTQ asylum seekers are guaranteed some sense of warmth and comfort in this organization.

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Texas

Texas governor signs bill banning transgender youth healthcare

Senate Bill 14 to take effect on Sept. 1

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Landon Richie, a 21-year-old political science major and a leading transgender activist, protesting at the Texas Capitol in May. (Photo courtesy of Landon Richie)

By Alex Nguyen and William Melhado | Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Friday a bill that bars transgender kids from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapies, though the new law could face legal challenges before it takes effect on Sept. 1.

Senate Bill 14’s passage brings to the finish line a legislative priority for the Republican Party of Texas, which opposes any efforts to validate transgender identities. Trans kids, their parents and LGBTQ advocacy groups fiercely oppose the law, and some have vowed to stop it from going into effect.

Texas — home to one of the largest trans communities in the U.S. — is now one of over a dozen states that restrict transition-related care for trans minors.

“Cruelty has always been the point,” said Emmett Schelling, executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas. “It’s not shocking that this governor would sign SB14 right at the beginning of Pride [month]; however this will not stop trans people from continuing to exist with authenticity — as we always have.”

Authored by New Braunfels Republican state Sen. Donna Campbell, the law bars trans kids from getting puberty blockers and hormone therapies, treatments many medical groups support. Children already receiving these treatments will have to be “weaned off” in a “medically appropriate” manner. The law also bans transition-related surgeries for kids, though those are rarely performed on minors.

Those who support the law claim that health care providers have capitalized on a “social contagion” to misguide parents and push life-altering treatments on kids who may later regret their decisions. SB 14’s supporters have also disputed the science and research behind transition-related care.

But trans kids, their parents and major medical groups say these medical treatments are important to protecting the mental health of an already vulnerable population, which faces a higher risk of depression and suicide than their cisgender peers. At the same time, doctors say cutting off these treatments — gradually or abruptly — could bring both physical discomfort and psychological distress to trans youth, some of whom have called it forced detransitioning.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, Lambda Legal and the Transgender Law Center pledged on May 18 to fight SB 14 in court. They have yet to file a lawsuit.

“Transgender people have always been here and will always be here,” Ash Hall, policy and advocacy strategist at the ACLU of Texas, said Friday. “Our trans youth deserve a world where they can shine alongside their peers, and we will keep advocating for that world in and out of the courts.”

This legal threat is not new; some of these groups have sued several other states over their restrictions. Earlier this year, the Department of Justice also joined the legal fight against Tennessee’s ban.

While the lawsuits are tailored to each state, Sasha Buchert, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal and the director of its Nonbinary and Transgender Rights Project, told the Texas Tribune last month that a major common challenge to the laws hinges on the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the argument that these laws are stopping trans kids from accessing the same medical treatments that are still available to their cisgender peers.

Buchert added that the lawsuits’ immediate goal is generally to get a preliminary injunction to stop these laws from taking effect, a tactic that has seen some success.

“It’s one thing to see some of the things that state legislators do, but it’s a completely different thing when you’re under the white-hot spotlight of judicial scrutiny,” she said.

And prior to SB 14, the ACLU and Lambda Legal successfully sued Texas last year to halt state-ordered child abuse investigations of parents who provide their trans kids with access to transition-related care. Impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton later appealed the decision in March, but the 3rd Court of Appeals has yet to issue a ruling on it.

“It’s a privilege to be able to fight,” Buchert said about the ongoing court challenges that Lambda Legal is involved in.

Editor’s note:

In a late Friday evening phone call, Landon Richie, with the Transgender Education Network of Texas, told the Washington Blade:

“Today Governor Abbott signed cruelty into law. Legislation that purports to ‘protect youth’ while stripping them of the life-saving, life-giving care that they receive will cost lives, and that’s not an exaggeration. Trans kids deserve not only to exist, but to thrive as their authentic selves in every facet of their lives, and we will never stop fighting to to actualize a world where that is undisputed. Despite efforts by our state, trans people will always exist in Texas, as we always have, and we will continue to exist brilliantly and boldly, and with endless care for one another.”

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The preceding article was previously published by The Texas Tribune and is republished by permission.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. 

Disclosure: The ACLU of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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U.S. Federal Courts

Federal judge rules Tenn. drag ban is unconstitutional

Law was to have taken effect April 1

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(Bigstock photo)

U. S. District Court Judge Thomas L. Parker of the U. S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee declared Tennessee’s anti-drag Adult Entertainment Act to be unconstitutional.

Parker’s ruling comes after a two-day trial last month. A Shelby County-based LGBTQ theatre company, Friends of George’s, had sued the state of Tennessee, claiming the law unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Parker ordered a temporary injunction halting the just enacted Tennessee law that criminalizes some drag performances, hours before it was set to take effect April 1. In his 15 page ruling ordering the temporary injunction Parker wrote:

“If Tennessee wishes to exercise its police power in restricting speech it considers obscene, it must do so within the constraints and framework of the United States Constitution. […] The court finds that, as it stands, the record here suggests that when the legislature passed this statute, it missed the mark.”

Attorneys for the theatre company had argued that drag performances were an artform and protected speech under the first amendment.

In his 70 page ruling Friday, Parker wrote:

“After considering the briefs and evidence presented at trial, the court finds that — despite
Tennessee’s compelling interest in protecting the psychological and physical wellbeing of
children — the Adult Entertainment Act (“AEA”) is an UNCONSTITUTIONAL restriction on
the freedom of speech.”

“The court concludes that the AEA is both unconstitutionally vague and substantially
overbroad. The AEA’s ‘harmful to minors’ standard applies to minors of all ages, so it fails to
provide fair notice of what is prohibited, and it encourages discriminatory enforcement. The
AEA is substantially overbroad because it applies to public property or ‘anywhere’ a minor
could be present.”

Read the entire ruling:

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National

LGBTQ literature advocacy org to host celebrity panel

Discussion to be moderated by writer Sa’iyda Shabazz, ‘Glee’ actor Chris Colfer

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‘Glee’ actor Chris Colfer will be one of four panelists at a virtual event hosted by Pride and Less Prejudice on Saturday, June 3. (Photo by Kathclick/Bigstock)

Affectionately known by fans of the show as the “fashionable soprano,” Chris Colfer’s character in “Glee” came out as gay to his father in the fourth episode of the Golden Globe-winning musical drama series. Colfer paused in between fragments of sentences to catch his breath as his pupils, set atop his recognizable rosy cheeks, dilated.

“Being a part of…the glee club and football has really shown me that I can be anything,” he said. “And what I am is…I’m gay.”

Colfer, who is also author of young adult fiction series “The Land of Stories,” will be one of four panelists at a virtual event hosted by LGBTQ organization Pride and Less Prejudice (PLP) on Saturday, June 3. At the event, panelists will discuss queer visibility in authorship and the importance of queer people telling queer stories. 

“We selected [them] because we’re trying to look at the intersection between TV, film, podcasts, [and] books because it’s all media and it’s all really great avenues for queer people telling their own story,” said Rebecca Damante, co-founder and outreach coordinator of the organization.

PLP began in 2019 when Damante had conversations with her mother about her experiences as a queer person and how she came to terms with her sexuality in high school. Although she watched shows such as “Glee” and “Pretty Little Liars” that had great queer representation, she knew that “it would’ve made a huge difference” if she had seen this as a kid.

“I was a huge reader as a kid and my mom had a lot of great books in our library about interfaith families and adoption,” said Damante. “I come from an interfaith family and have family members who are adopted, so she had diverse books in that way but never really had LGBTQ inclusive books.”

This motivated the mother-daughter duo to start an organization that donates LGBTQ-inclusive books to classrooms from pre-K to third grade.

They posted a Google form to social media that was reposted by GLAAD, where Damante had interned, and amplified by LGBTQ activist Kristin Russo. Teachers would put in requests for books and this allowed PLP to start an email chain that they could also use to solicit donations. 

It wasn’t until Damante posted to Pantsuit Nation, a Facebook group that rallied Hillary Clinton supporters during her 2016 presidential run, that PLP garnered interest from hundreds of teachers. This led to a celebrity campaign video where actors Nicole Maines, Theo Germaine, and Darryl Stephens, among others, emphasized the importance of LGBTQ literature in classrooms. 

Since 2019, the organization has raised more than $140,000 in grants and donations and donated over 8,000 books. 

Dylan Moss, a kindergarten teacher in Albany, N.Y., is among those who have benefitted from PLP’s efforts. 

During a quest for more diverse and inclusive books for his classroom, he stumbled upon PLP’s website between 2020 and 2021 and reached out to the organization. Since then, he has been actively involved in PLP’s efforts and is now a member of the advisory committee that helps to create lesson plans that accompany the books.

“Biases start to get formed [in kindergarten], so I like to help [my students] create better narratives,” said Moss in a Zoom interview. “It’s easier to learn it now than to take away all the negative biases they have from everyday society, family, and just being around other humans.”

Moss also added, over email, that when discussing diverse topics in the classroom, conversations are aligned with social studies standards. 

“I’d rather [my students] understand that people are different and that there’s a reason we’re different and that we should love that we’re different,” he said on Zoom. “You don’t have to go deep into the ideas necessarily. You can just give them the basis of what you’re saying and kind of let them take it from there.” 

For Lisa Forman, Damante’s mom and co-founder and executive director of PLP, approaching education this way is not only a form of allyship and advocacy, it’s “standing up for what’s right.”

The first half of the 2022-2023 school year saw 1,477 attempts to ban 874 individual book titles, 26% of which had LGBTQ characters or themes, according to data from Pen America, an organization that advances human rights and literature causes in the United States and worldwide. 

In 2022, the Washington Blade reported that a Loudoun County, Va., school board voted to remove “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” an illustrated autobiography by non-binary author Maia Kobabe that contains descriptions and comic book style drawings of sexual acts that Kobabe uses to tell the story of the journey and struggle in discovering the author’s gender identity.

“As much as these books are for the queer kids in the classroom, they’re for every kid,” said Forman. “We’re doing this not just for the queer kids…we want to normalize the idea of being queer in the classroom.”

Looking to the upcoming celebrity panel, Damante wants to leave attendees feeling inspired enough to own their narratives, whether they identify as queer or not. 

“If teachers are able to see the impact of these queer stories then they’ll understand why it’s important for them to share the books,” she said. 

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