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U.S. Asylum Laws Must Improve In The Face Of Homophobia Abroad

Our guest blogger is Irene Morse, intern with LGBT Progress.

Uganda’s “Kill the Gays” Bill has been making headlines recently and has prompted a conversation about anti-gay laws and attitudes abroad. There are 78 countries that criminalize homosexuality, and five of these use the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality. For many LGBT individuals in repressive countries such as Uganda, leaving is the only viable option, and many turn to the U.S. for asylum.

Since 1994, refugees have been able to gain legal residence based on persecution for their sexual orientation. A year ago today (December 6th) President Obama issued a memorandum that required greater awareness of LGBT individuals seeking asylum and training for immigration officials. This memo was a step in the right direction, but there is still much that could be done to improve the lives of those sexual minorities who seek asylum in the US. The federal government must begin to:

Collect data on applications based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In 2011 the US received 56,384 applications for asylum and granted 24,988 (44%) of them, but has no data on how many of these cases related to sexual orientation or gender identity. Collecting this data would make the international community more aware of the pervasive persecution of LGBT individuals and would help assess whether persecution of LGBT people is increasing or decreasing globally.

Create clear and inclusive legal standards for what it means to be LGBT.

Many asylum applicants run into problems if they fail to sufficiently prove that they are LGBT. Applicants from countries like India that still define homosexuality in terms of specific criminal sex acts are less likely to gain asylum. It is also nearly impossible for closeted individuals to gain asylum, because they are unlikely to join LGBT groups or activities out of fear of government reprisal.

Train civil servants on issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity.

LGBT asylum applicants often have trouble completing the process when immigration officials rely on stereotypes of LGBT people or are homophobic. For example, an immigration officer denied a gay Iranian man’s asylum application on the basis that he was “not feminine in any way.” As a result, applicants are often encouraged to “flaunt” their sexuality, a standard which is obviously problematic.

Pass the Restoring Protection for Victims of Persecution Act (H.R. 2981).

Currently individuals who have lived in the US for longer than a year are barred from receiving asylum, a rule which has impeded the process for 21,000 refugees. This is especially problematic for LGBT individuals who may have recently come out, undergone gender transition, or struggled with severe psychological trauma. H.R. 2981 would eliminate the one-year application deadline, allowing more LGBT refugees to successfully gain asylum.

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The US receives more requests for asylum than any other country. President Obama took a positive step a year ago when he acknowledged the difficulties faced by these individuals, but more action must be taken before the US can truly be a refuge for LGBT individuals who have been denied a life in their home countries.