Here’s What It’s Like To Be An LGBTQ Immigrant & How You Can Help

Here’s what you should know about LGBTQ people and immigration—and what you can do to help.

Portrait of a smiling Mexican woman. She is looking at the camera.

Imagine that you’re a queer woman living in a country where it’s legal to kill someone for being gay. You live life in fear, then finally manage to escape to the United States, the supposedly progressive “land of the free,” for protection, only to be thrown into a detention center and subjected to further abuse for months or years. 

Sadly, that’s the situation for a scary number of LGBTQ+ immigrants to the United States right now. The situation is only worsening over time. Over the past year, ICE detained an unprecedented number of trans people, Rewire.News reports. Many LGBTQ+ detainees report deplorable conditions in U.S. detention centers, including medical neglect, sexual harassment, and assault.

Having been forced out of their homes, then neglected and punished by the U.S. immigration system, LGBTQ+ immigrants often feel like they have nowhere to turn for help. It’s important that we as LGBTQ+ citizens stand in solidarity with our family from other countries.

Here’s what you should know about LGBTQ+ people and immigration and what you can do to help.

Many LGBTQ+ immigrants are fleeing homophobic conditions in their home countries.

In many cases, LGBTQ+ immigrants come to the U.S. as asylum seekers. They’re seeking refuge from homophobic conditions in their home countries, which can be violent and dangerous. At least 70 countries still have laws that punish homosexuality, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association. For LGBTQ+ folks from these countries, the decision to immigrate has not been made lightly. 

“It’s life or death for a lot of us,” Jennicet Gutiérrez, a trans organizer with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, told Rewire.News.

Kilian Colin, a queer Muslim refugee and activist, explained the situation in his home country of Iraq to Teen Vogue. “If someone reported you being gay [in Iraq], even if you don’t do anything publicly, you will still be persecuted,” Colin said. “Also, honor killing laws protect murderers who kill gay people.”

Yet, they are forced to face similar abuse in the U.S. immigration system.

LGBTQ+ asylum seekers may be forced into detention centers while they await court hearings for their cases, which can take months or years. This is likely unnecessary, because most LGBTQ+ asylum seekers show up for their court hearings regardless of whether they’ve been detained or not. LGBTQ+ immigrants haven’t committed any crime, so why should they be locked up like prisoners?

“We are talking about asylum seekers who have experienced horrible violence and trauma,” Nekessa Opoti, communications strategist with the grassroots UndocuBlack Network, told Rewire.News. “They are fleeing persecution and harm. They should not be detained.”

ICE has created some detention centers specifically for LGBTQ+ people, but a “safe” detention center is still a detention center. U.S. detention centers are, by all accounts, horrifying places to be, and LGBTQ+ folks are impacted in unique ways. LGBTQ detainees have reported being sexually assaulted and physically abused by guards and other detainees, being denied medical care for chronic conditions, placed in solitary confinement, and other disturbing treatment. 

Moreover, trans women detainees are often forced to live in detention centers with cis men, while trans men are forced to live with cis women. This experience is humiliating, dangerous, and deeply traumatizing. Trans immigrants are often placed in solitary confinement for weeks or months at a time as an alleged way to “protect” them.

“I don’t need to talk about how horrible … those concentration camps [are], so imagine being a transgender women in a men’s detention [facility] for one year!” Colin said.

LGBTQ+ immigrants face multiple oppressions at the same time.

To make the situation even more complicated, black and brown LGBTQ+ immigrants also face racial discrimination in the U.S. on top of everything else. Trying to cross our southern border as a brown Spanish-speaking person, for example, comes with a ton of challenges and stigma on its own. Black LGBTQ+ asylum seekers, too, face anti-Blackness at the border, while LGBTQ+ Muslims face both Islamophobia and homophobia/transphobia. For these folks, community and advocacy are even more important.

Often, they have no one to turn to for help but each other.

The asylum-seeking process is complicated and difficult. Having a U.S. sponsor makes everything easier and quicker, but finding a sponsor can be tough for LGBTQ+ immigrants.

“Most LGBT asylum seekers are rejected by their families so it’s so hard for them to find a sponsor,” Colin explained.

Organizations that focus solely on immigration issues or on LGBTQ+ issues may not be equipped to address the unique sets of obstacles that LGBTQ+ immigrants face. The specific plight of LGBTQ+ immigrants is often lost in nationwide conversations around immigration. 

Unable to rely solely on outside support, many queer and trans immigrants have organized to support their own communities. They’re on the front lines of the fight for human rights for LGBTQ+ immigrants with queer and trans-led organizations like Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement and Trans Queer Pueblo.

“We centralize our people [in our advocacy work] because we have to. We want our people free and we want our people safe,” Gutiérrez said. 

Other LGBTQ immigration organizations and resources include AsylumConnect, Casa Mariposa, Casa Ruby, Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, and the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project.

What You Can Do

LGBTQ immigrants have a few consistent needs: housing, funds, U.S. sponsorship, and supportive services. 

The first and most obvious way that you can help is to donate money to any of the organizations listed above. If you don’t have money, you may have other skills that are useful. Get in contact and see how you can help out.

“Folks can always give money, but we always need more attorneys. We need folks to undergo training to open their homes and help support people getting on their feet,” explained Ola Osaze, the founder of the Black LGBTQIA+ Migrant Project, to Rewire.News. 

Housing is the most critical need of all, according to activists. Immigrants need a place to stay after they are released from detention. Donate to a shelter for homeless LGBTQ+ immigrants such as the trans-led Organizacion Latina de Trans en Texas, Casa Mariposa, or Casa Ruby

If you have the resources to sponsor an LGBTQ+ immigrant in your own home, reach out to a local immigration organization such as the Santa Fe Dreamers Project to see if you can get trained to do so. Sponsoring an immigrant is not as simple as just offering a spare bedroom. LGBTQ+ people also need more comprehensive support, including help with finding legal counsel and access to health care.

More than anything, LGBTQ+ immigrants on the frontlines need you to care.

“Even in this moment, it feels like pulling teeth to get people to understand that queer and trans migrants are under attack and we need resources poured into these communities. Frankly, we need folks to give a damn,” Osaze said.

Lastly, trust the people who have been doing this work for years.

“We don’t get millions of dollars in funding,” Gutiérrez said. “But our people have been on the ground doing this work before Trump, and we will be here after Trump. [I just ask that people] listen to us: Trust our work and trust our strategy.”

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