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11 Gut-Wrenching Stories From The Lives Of LGBT Refugees

"It’s illegal to be gay in over 70 countries in the world; in these countries LGBTQ people literally fear for their lives."

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This month, the LGBT immigrant rights organization, Immigration Equality, teamed up with photographer Steven Laxton and NYC’s LGBT Community Center to create a powerful collection of portraits and stories that captures the hardships and injustices facing LGBT immigrants today. Despite the incredible strides in civil rights over the last decade, identifying as LGBT is still punishable by death in many parts of the world. This series acts as a poignant reminder of the many hurdles left in achieving equality.

Here, Steven Laxton shares a selection of his portraits, his thoughts behind the work, and the stories of how each person has persevered in the face of discrimination.

The heartbreaking stories of the cruel and brutal treatment these immigrants face in their home countries, not only by fellow citizens but also authorities, seems unthinkable in 2017. Unfortunately, what seems inconceivable in a country like ours is the reality in a very large proportion of the world. It’s illegal to be gay in over 70 countries; in these regions LGBTQ people literally fear for their lives. In so many nations just showing your love for someone or being yourself can land you in prison for life. In some places, homosexuality is punishable by death penalty, and abuse of members in the LGTBQ community is a common occurrence.

I hope viewers connect with the subjects, come to see them as determined, confident, and inspiring people, and also develop empathy for these and other refugees. I hope these stories help people appreciate the importance of the civil rights we have here while providing an awareness of these issues facing the LGBTQ community abroad.

Oliver is from Nigeria, where he worked as an LGBTQ rights activist in the capital city of Abuja. He worked in relative anonymity until his organization was featured on national TV and Oliver began to receive death threats. He decided to pursue asylum in the United States, but the transition has not been easy. He experienced racism firsthand for the first time while living here, and he now fights for both LGBTQ rights and racial justice. Once he becomes a US citizen, Oliver dreams of returning to Nigeria to continue his work there. “Going with a US passport will offer me some protection, so I can get more involved, be louder,” he says. “Hopefully one day Nigeria will become more accepting. But people have to fight for it. That’s why I have to go back.”

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Tamara was born in Trinidad and Tobago and came to the United States when she was 10 years old. Growing up trans and undocumented, she feared being deported to a country where she did not have the “freedom of being who I am.” To her, being an American “means the world to me. I feel that I am home and safe” here. Now that she has won asylum, Tamara is finishing school for makeup and hair in Manhattan and can’t wait to start her new career.

Teah was a notable HIV/AIDS activist in Liberia and was invited to participate in the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC. However, while attending, Teah was outed as a gay man in an article in a prominent US newspaper and he began to receive death threats. After his home was vandalized, Teah’s family advised him not to return to Liberia following the conference. He was granted asylum in the United States and now dreams of going back to school, finding a decent-paying job, and settling down in the South. He hopes to one day buy a house, preferably by a lake.

Ishalaa is an inspiring Mexican transgender woman of color, and a powerful activist. She was the lead spokesperson for her local LGBTQ rights group in Mexico and organized protests against an anti-LGBTQ gubernatorial candidate in her state. After receiving death threats, Ishalaa made the difficult decision to flee for safety in July 2013. After presenting herself at the US border, Ishalaa was locked away in detention for over a month before she was released on bond. Two and a half years later, she was granted asylum. Though she had to leave Mexico in search of safety in the US, Ishalaa remains an activist working with different organizations that advocate for the rights and needs of LGBTQ communities. She works as a case manager at a community health center and says, “I am so fulfilled, so happy. I am also a full-time student majoring in political science … [my] goal is to become a lawyer. I’m a busy girl, but it was something I was fighting for and I finally have it. It feels great to have my life together again.”

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Denise is a transgender woman from Trinidad who came to the United States in 2004 after being “savagely beaten by a gang of men and women. I realized then and there that I had to flee.” For years, she suffered from untreated post-traumatic stress disorder and watched her health deteriorate, suffering four separate heart attacks. She was discriminated against and fired from one job after another for being transgender. At the height of her despair, she was forced to live on a subway platform for a month. When Denise’s asylum application was denied, she almost gave up. But with Immigration Equality’s help, she kept fighting and her appeal was approved in October 2014. Denise’s American dream is “to be able to give back as much as I have received. To be embraced by the love and freedom of what Lady Liberty represents. To walk hand in hand with whomever I choose to love and not be afraid to enjoy that love no matter where I am. … I know that America’s greatness is in its people, and I am a part of that greatness!”

Max was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where being gay is illegal. When he was 25, Max moved to Moscow and “my life began there. I could be myself, at least among friends.” Things most people get to experience as teenagers, “such as dates, first love, [a] personal life became available for me at 25.” That was in 2003, a period of relative openness in Russia. However, the situation for LGBTQ people soon worsened and Max was faced with bigotry, assault, and police who either ignored or participated in his persecution. In 2013, he fled to the United States and settled in New York City. He worries about his friends in Russia, but is happy with his life in the US, where he works as a painter and graphic designer. Max recently got married and is “learning to enjoy every day and trying to forget my past life in fear.”

Valentina is a transgender woman from Colombia. There, she was bullied in school by classmates and teachers because of her perceived sexual orientation and effeminate mannerisms. At one point, she was threatened with death if she did not leave her neighborhood along with other “undesirables.” When Valentina went to the police, they denied her protection and blamed Valentina for her persecution. Now that she has received asylum in the United States, Valentina is a proud advocate for LGBTQ immigrants and recently went to Washington, DC, to share her story with lawmakers.

As a young man in Egypt, Tarek was arrested and imprisoned for kissing another man. After that, no one would hire him because he was marked as a gay man. He eventually started a long-distance relationship with someone in the United States and came on a tourist visa to visit. They soon broke up, but Tarek was able to apply for asylum and stay in the country. Being able to live in the United States, “means a lot. I finally embrace myself. I had a lot of fear and guilt in Egypt, and I was able to heal through the process of living here. I have slowly started to embrace myself and embrace my sexuality. I started to love myself and love who I am. I never in my life thought I’d do this, but I publicly came out two weeks ago on Facebook. I felt a peace of mind when I did it and a feeling of relief, of having a lot of people support me.” Tarek now lives in Brooklyn and does freelance architecture and costume design. He wants to be a famous costume designer and dreams of dressing Britney Spears and Lady Gaga.

Alena is a small-business owner, jewelry designer, and lesbian from Tatarstan, Russia. When she came to the United States in 2009 in search of freedom, openness, and safety, she didn’t have any money, had little education, and did not speak much English; but with Immigration Equality’s help she was granted asylum. After receiving her green card, she started her own jewelry business, which today employs six people and creates jewelry from 100% reclaimed gold. Last summer, Alena became a US citizen. “The day I took my oath, I felt like the heaviest weight was lifted — it felt like freedom.”

Sergey grew up in Kazakhstan where he was taught to believe that being gay was a psychological problem that could be cured. He eventually accepted that he was gay — and that it was okay — but never believed he would be able to come out of the closet. However, when his work as a journalist and PR manager brought him to the United States, Sergey realized it was possible to live openly as a gay person. When he returned to Kazakhstan, he was inspired to write about LGBTQ experiences in his home country but was targeted as a result of this brave decision. He was forced to seek asylum in the United States and now lives in Brooklyn with his husband. He is currently a premed student.

Sandy is a transgender woman from Mexico who fled to the United States in 1995 to escape mistreatment based on her gender identity. When she arrived in the United States, Sandy decided to dedicate herself to ensuring others did not have to face the same horrors she did. She spent more than a decade working at a nonprofit in Staten Island to support other trans women in need of food, clothing, and shelter and is a mentor for young transgender people. Sandy recently became a citizen of the United States and can’t wait to vote in the next election.

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