LGBTQ Asylum Seekers Deserve More in the U.S.

I don’t know what I expected to happen. I knew my fear was irrational. I had one of my best friends by my side and we were going to an event where everyone was almost guaranteed to be accepting. But logic was no match for decades worth of anxiety and anticipation.

Entering the NYC LGBT Community Center that crisp winter morning marked one of the most terrifying moments of my life. I winced as my nails, adorned with pink polish, dug unpleasantly into the soft folds of my sweaty palms. Despite my best efforts, the professional portfolio perched on my lap continued to shake. My calm façade was fading fast.

The valor of our speakers saved me. I found myself face-to-face with former LGBTQ asylum seekers, who spoke of their tremendous resilience — all the hate and brutality they were forced to overcome to simply sit before me. Their words provided me with almost instantaneous clarity, snapping my own reality into perspective.

I could do this. I could be myself.

That realization shattered my entire life plan — resurrecting a new one in its place. Today, as the Co-founder and Co-director of AsylumConnect, I’m fighting to promote global LGBTQ rights and to make it easier for LGBTQ asylum seekers to access lifesaving resources upon their arrival to the U.S.

2.79 billion people still live in countries where being gay can lead to imprisonment or even death. LGBTQ people in these countries are subjected to “corrective” action, including rape by government officials, public humiliation, and the death penalty. As a result, the persecuted often flee, leaving everything familiar behind — their home, family, friends, profession — in pursuit of the basic human right to live authentically. Many of these courageous individuals seek refuge in the U.S.

LGBTQ asylum seekers arrive in the U.S. hopeful and under the impression that persecution is behind them. Yet, this optimism quickly fades as these marginalized individuals are swiftly locked in immigration detention centers. They are unprepared for the horrific reality that awaits them. Some are so shocked that they choose to give up on their cases and face deportation to their home countries.

If they are not detained, many still have nowhere to go, no social support, and end up homeless. LGBTQ asylum seekers cannot legally work in the U.S. nor are they entitled to a free government attorney without a work permit, which typically takes at least one-year to obtain. A leading refugee service agency, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), reports that 44 percent of LGBTQ refugees suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Even though there are services for asylees (those who have already received asylum), such as legal assistance and support groups, there remains a lack of resources for people in the process of seeking asylum. Currently, only 3 percent of funding for LGBTQ immigrants and asylum seekers is used for direct services.

Existing organizations remain severely crippled by lack of public sector funding and lack of awareness.

We created the AsylumConnect initiative because we discovered that despite access to technology during the asylum seeking process, LGBTQ asylum seekers still lack adequate information to meet their basic human needs in the U.S. We interacted directly with beneficiaries who consistently identified their main need to be a user-friendly, centralized database of resources.

To address this problem, AsylumConnect is building the first catalog of LGBTQ-friendly resources (organized by city) for asylum seekers. The AsylumConnect catalog will help to fill the existing gap by connecting this marginalized population with basic human needs service providers in real time (medical, social, counseling, etc.)

In addition to aiding LGBTQ asylum seekers, AsylumConnect aims to scale its centralized database to succinctly organize basic human needs resources into one space for additional vulnerable populations in the U.S, such as homeless LGBTQ youth. Homelessness among LGBTQ youth remains a huge problem in the U.S. Miley Cyrus’s Happy Hippie Foundation reports that currently in the U.S.: 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBTQ and family rejection is the most common reason LGBTQ youth experience homelessness.

All human beings deserve access to the resources necessary to meet their basic needs. LGBTQ people are certainly no exception.

BIO: Katie Sgarro graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a BA in Health and Societies. She is currently a graduate student at Penn’s Fels Institute of Government and the Co-founder/Co-director of AsylumConnect. Follow her on Twitter (@katiesgarro) and The Huffington Post.