By Greg Varner
Some people have better luck than others, as many LGBTQ+ individuals know all too well. Unlucky members of that community come from places or nations where their sexuality or gender puts them at risk of harm or worse, compelling them to flee to another country or region.
To better understand and document the struggles of LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers in the United States, Mina Attia, assistant professor of counseling and human development, conducted a qualitative study in which eight asylees from a geographic range of countries were asked about their experiences pre- and post-migration. All eight subjects—four female, three male and one nonbinary—identified as homosexual.
As the study’s principal investigator, Attia conducted most of the interviews. After the subjects described their experiences, the data was analyzed and then presented in a paper by Attia and his co-authors, Bagmi Das, also an assistant professor of counseling and human development, and GW doctoral students Shiyu Tang, Hanyun Li and Yuqing Qiu.
“In some countries,” Attia said, “same-sex activity is punishable by death, same-sex relationships are criminalized and transgender individuals are brutally murdered. This is just the norm in some countries.”
The United States grants asylum based on LGBTQ+ identity as well as HIV status, but the process of applying for asylee status is difficult and lengthy.
“Refugees come with a legal status,” Attia said, “but asylum-seekers come with no status at all, and they apply for asylum after arriving in the United States. It can happen at the border, or once you enter the country, or at an airport. Some of the asylum-seekers in my study came to school in the United States. Education was their golden ticket out, and then once they got here they were able to apply for asylum.”
The traumatic experiences faced by asylum-seekers don’t end when they arrive in the United States. There are many hurdles to be cleared before applicants are granted status. Money and a legal team are necessary, but asylum-seekers are typically not well supplied with either and are often cut off from sources of support in their country of origin.
“Unlike their non-LGBTQ+ asylum-seeker counterparts, who still have the support of family, friends and other members of their specific persecuted community, LGBTQ+ asylum-seekers are completely alone,” Attia said. “They’re running away from home, and they’re typically cut off from their family because of their identity. They’re coming to a new country where they don’t have a community yet, so it’s complete isolation. That makes the process even more difficult. And because of their identity, queer asylum-seekers are exploited during the fleeing process. Recent literature shows that LGBTQ+ individuals are 97 times more likely to experience sexual victimization during detainment, and they’re typically detained two times as long as their counterparts.”
Asylum-seekers sometimes think their lives will be easy when they arrive, but the process of seeking asylum can be retraumatizing for LGBTQ+ applicants, who are required to “prove” that they’re queer in order to be granted asylum.
“These folks are not used to talking about their queerness,” Attia said. “They’re coming from backgrounds where they’ve hidden that part of themselves because if people back home found out they were queer, they would be sentenced to death or tortured or, at best, ostracized.”
Other hurdles to overcome include loneliness and the lack of ability to work or even find housing without legal status or a Social Security number. Some of the participants in Attia’s study said it took them 10 years to be granted asylum.
Five themes: A framework
A quintet of themes emerged from the data as analyzed by Attia and the co-authors of the study. First, there is pre-migration trauma, with almost all participants speaking about having physical, sexual or verbal violence inflicted upon them. Being disowned by family members was common, and so was feeling trapped and unable to leave their homes to seek friends or potential connections.
Second, study subjects spoke of post-migration trauma caused by multiple barriers to adjustment. They lacked friends and family when they arrived and often had to overcome language difficulties. Fear of being unsuccessful in their legal quest for asylum and being deported weighed on them, and they were hurt by xenophobic rhetoric or racism expressed in the media or by people around them.
“I had a queer asylum-seeker who’s Black who said his experiences are not the same as those of white asylum-seekers,” Attia said. “In Africa, he didn’t experience racism. He said he came to the United States and all of a sudden, he wasn’t just queer—he was queer and a Black man. That was a whole different layer of trauma.”
The third theme to surface involved the impacts of trauma on mental and behavioral health of asylum-seekers. Subjects described feelings of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and PTSD, often leading to self-medicating or self-harming behavior. Several spoke about having gone through a period of misusing alcohol.
The fourth theme had to do with isolation and fear. Contending with homelessness, joblessness and isolation led many to consider going back in the closet and returning home to face their fate.
Instead, they persevered, which leads to the final theme of survival and resilience. Subjects were able to tap into the hidden reservoirs of courage that allowed them to flee home for a distant country in the first place. They sought support to help them adjust, for example, or reframed the experience of living in a homeless shelter as something to be grateful for.
“The majority of these folks are from backgrounds where seeking counseling is taboo,” Attia said, “and they sought professional help even though they were told their whole lives that only ‘crazy people’ go to counseling. Many participants reported having positive experiences in counseling. Some said that nothing here could compare to the trauma they experienced back home.”
All of the subjects in the study were able to connect to organizations and resources that helped support them as they made their way through the unpredictable legal process. Some used the website Inreach.org, a platform that facilitates such connections.
“It’s easy to focus on the trauma,” Attia said, “but I look at these as stories of courageousness, resilience and empowerment. These are people who overcame so much to finally be free to be themselves. They went through very dangerous things and very violent experiences, and all of these things point to their resilience. They’re healthy and thriving.”